Football Is Dying in Ohio. A Coach in This County Made It Thrive.

MARIA STEIN, Ohio — About a mile past St. John the Baptist Church and across the street from a grain elevator stands the heart and soul of this small, western Ohio community: Marion Local High School.

The sons and daughters of farmers, tradesmen, engineers and small-business owners inhabit its hallways and spill onto its playing fields. On Friday nights in autumn they come together, sporting the Blue and Gold to cheer their football team, the Flyers.

What makes Marion Local an outlier here is that the football team has players — lots of them.

Nationally, high school participation in 11-man football has fallen by more than 10 percent since 2009. In Ohio, it has plummeted by 27 percent. Nationally, children who are white now account for 56 percent of high school football players, compared with 76 percent in 2006. Marion Local’s players are overwhelmingly white.

And they don’t need to play football. Nearly all of them will go to college, their football careers in the rearview mirror. The median income for a family in Mercer County is $60,251. Unemployment and crime are below national averages.

In this part of Ohio, however, football remains vital. Its coaches and educators have found a way to use the sport to amplify its values: hard work, accountability, community, God.

The high school’s principal, Tim Goodwin, has a theory. In fact, he has quite a few, and all of them, he says, “are usually wrong.”

“The health of your football program is a reflection on the health of your community,” said Goodwin, who is also the football coach. “Because what is football? It’s hard work and requires sacrifice and mental toughness.”

He is wrong, of course. There are plenty of healthy communities with terrible football teams, and great football teams in struggling communities.

But Goodwin’s theory of football and life is right enough; it is a promise for the denizens of Mercer County. On Saturday, the Flyers will play in the state championship game for the ninth consecutive year and are seeking their 11th state title.

In Goodwin’s two decades as head coach, Marion Local has suited up anywhere from 60 to 80 players each year — or roughly half the boys in the 260 or so student body.

The usual culprits for football’s decline — sport specialization, video games, concern about brain injuries — have not skipped over the western edge of central Ohio. But Goodwin and his staff have built a culture of embracing both old and new approaches to the game. Players work on conditioning year-round, they don’t hit in practice, and seniors are paired with freshmen and serve as their mentors.

“We coach our kids hard,” Goodwin said. “We yell at them. We have high expectations. The community knows it. But they also trust that we are here to take care of them.”

Maria Stein isn’t the only part of western Ohio where football is thriving. Five members of Marion Local’s conference — the Midwest Athletic Conference, or MAC — made the state playoffs. Anna High School is in the title game on Friday in a larger school division. The two schools are trying to become the 31st and 32nd MAC teams to win state titles in the last 25 years.

Don Kemper, the MAC commissioner, said the conference’s communities fully believe football teaches life lessons that will serve the players forever.

“Kids grow up wanting to play on Friday nights and have that success,” Kemper said. “No place is perfect, but we live in the middle of cornfields, and there are a lot of things that go on in the big cities that we don’t see.”

With the wind skipping over surrounding soybean fields and the light fading, the Flyers ran through agility drills to fight off nearly freezing temperatures one day last month. Cody Kunkler scissored between traffic cones like the sure-footed senior he is. He knew his football career might end that weekend, in an elimination game against Mississinawa Valley in the opening round of the Ohio High School Athletic Association tournament.

The Blackhawks (7-3) were an unlikely success story this fall, making the playoffs for only the second time in school history. The team was also an example of what’s ailing Ohio high school football. It had only 23 players.

Two years ago, with participation dwindling, there was talk of dumping football altogether, an unthinkable notion from a school that produced Curtis Enis, who was Ohio’s Mr. Football in 1993 and an all-American at Penn State.

Instead, Mississinawa Valley named a young assistant, Steve Trobridge, as head coach. Only nine players came out for football in his first year. He rustled up seven more by convincing parents that he would put their sons’ health first.

Somehow the Blackhawks won four games.

“The parents were afraid of concussions and brain injuries, and I don’t blame them,” he said. “It didn’t help that we weren’t winning games and that I was the fourth varsity coach in six years. We didn’t give them anything to believe in.”

Trobridge, 31, played at Fort Recovery High School, another Marion Local rival. Now, he is trying to develop players who know how hard winning football is and how pursuing it can help them off the field.

One example of such a player is Kunkler, who plays for Marion Local. He takes college-level courses at a Wright State satellite campus and intends to study architectural engineering at the University of Cincinnati. For him, school is far easier than football.

He began his career as a Flyer in the July before his freshman season with a 10-day camp. In August, Marion Local began two-a-day practices at 7:30 a.m. Players started the day in wet grass and often ended sessions in 95-degree heat. Over four years, he rarely missed an off-season weight lifting session. During the season, he and his teammates lifted some mornings before school, at 6:45.

Kunkler is not a natural talent or star. He played sparingly in his three previous seasons and is now a part of the offensive and defensive line rotation.

Win or lose another state title, he said he would have no regrets. He was not oblivious to the risk of injuries — a friend blew out his knee before the season — but unlike so many who have fled the gridiron for the baseball field and the basketball court, he is not worried about future health problems.

“I’m going to leave here knowing what hard work is and what it gets you,” he said.

It is a close call whether churches outnumber grain elevators here. Both stand sentinel over the browns, greens and golds of the soybean fields and cornfields rolled out on the flatlands like a handcrafted rug.

Catholics from Germany settled this part of Ohio in the early 1800s, and generations have stayed here, as businesses like Schwieterman Pharmacy and Leugers Insurance can attest. St. John the Baptist draws a crowd each morning for 7:30 a.m. Mass, especially on football Fridays, when the Flyers fill a dozen rows.

When Mass is over, the boys file into the basement of the rectory, where boxes of doughnuts and the Rev. Eugene Schnipke awaits. It is a ritual that was begun more than 20 years ago by the pastor’s predecessor.

“He asked them why he never saw them in church,” Father Schnipke said. “They asked why they never saw him at any of their games. It is a good way to stay in touch with our young people. Now we do it for volleyball, cross-country — every team from the high school. We know each other are here.”

Becky Bruns, a football mom, likes knowing that her son Connor, a freshman, is in church a couple of times a week. She also likes another Flyers ritual — pairing a freshman with a senior who is responsible for getting him home from practices and games.

Bruns went to Marion Local, as did her husband, John, a pig farmer. John played for the Flyers in the 1990s before Goodwin helped transform them into a dynasty.

The Brunses know football is a rough game and injuries are as close as the next hard tackle. But there is some consolation in knowing the Flyers practice in full pads only twice a week and are not allowed to hit beyond a “controlled thud.” One of Goodwin’s rules is not putting a player in a position where he will hit the ground in practice.

Becky Bruns, who teaches math at the high school, saw how much the team and the game meant to her son this season when Connor got to play in a blowout.

“He couldn’t wait to come home and tell us that he heard his name called by that announcer,” she said. “He said it with a true smile.”

As kickoff against Mississinawa Valley neared, Goodwin stood near midfield, next to his father, Bill, a member of the Ohio High School Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame. In 2001, Bill retired from teaching and coaching. He has been on his son’s staff ever since.

Trobridge, the young Mississinawa Valley coach, looked across the field and saw a grandstand overflowing with the Flyers’ Blue and Gold faithful. It reminded him of what he wanted his program to become.

When Trobridge was named coach, he gave the program a makeover — new decals on the helmets, upgraded equipment and mandatory pregame meals served by parents and supporters. “If you are going to ask a lot of these kids, you better give them a lot,” he said.

After a group of 16 players came up with four Mississinawa Valley victories last season, a team of two dozen took it to the playoffs this year for the first time in decades. The Blackhawks, however, were overmatched by Marion Local in the tournament opener, 56-6.

Trobridge waved thanks to the hundred or so parents, students and townspeople who made the trip to support the Blackhawks.

When they shook hands after the game last month, Goodwin recognized a younger version of himself in Trobridge. Goodwin knew how much his players, their families and the community had to buy in for his Marion Local program to stay on top of the Ohio high school football universe and get back to another state title game on Saturday.

He knew that people rolled their eyes when he said the success of Flyers football is merely a byproduct of a community that values love, patience and labor.

“It’s putting the work in, doing the off-season preparation and competing like crazy when you are out on the field,” Goodwin said. “As long as they live up to that, I’m good.”