ELLICOTT CITY, Md. (AP) — On a cool and rainy afternoon during the first week of classes at Centennial High School in this well-to-do Baltimore suburb, about 50 members of the boys' cross-country team sauntered across the parking lot for their after-school run.
Meanwhile, about 30 kids in helmets and pads were going through drills on the pristine artificial turf field at the school's hillside football stadium.
"It used to be the other way around," said Al Dodds, Centennial's cross-country coach, who has 64 boys on his team this year. "Now, there's a small turnout in football and cross-country is huge."
Across the athletic complex, a practice football field sat empty, even though it was recently mown and painted with yardage lines and hash marks. In years past, the junior-varsity team would have been relegated to that grass field. But on this day they had the stadium to themselves, as they will for every practice this fall. Centennial isn't fielding a varsity football team because not enough kids signed up to play.
The situation at Centennial — where a long history of losing has dampened students' enthusiasm for football — is unique to this part of central Maryland, but there are plenty of similar examples around the U.S. Participation in high school football is down 3.5 percent over the past five years, according to the annual survey by the National Association of State High School Federations, or NFHS.
The decline would be much steeper if not for a handful of states in the South and the West. Throughout the Northeast, the Midwest and the West Coast, in communities urban and rural, wealthy and working-class, fewer kids are playing football.
"I've never been interested in football," said 16-year-old Zach Deming, a cross-country runner at Centennial with the solid build of a defensive back. "I'm afraid of getting hurt badly, like getting a serious concussion ."
The risks of football have never been more apparent. This summer, researchers at Boston University said they'd found evidence of a brain disease linked to repeated head blows in nearly all of the 202 former football players they studied. The athletes whose brains were donated to the study had played football in the National Football League, college and even high school.
The report doesn't confirm chronic traumatic encephalopathy, known as CTE, is common in all football players, because many donors or their families participated in the study because of the players' troubling symptoms.
After years of denials, the NFL acknowledged a link between head blows and brain disease and agreed in 2015 to a $1 billion settlement to compensate former players who had accused the league of hiding the risks.
"There's no question about it. The amount of publicity, beginning with the NFL and what you see on national news, has caused concern among parents," said Bob Gardner, the NFHS executive director. "Probably some who would have been more inclined to let their young men play, maybe are making different decisions now."
A study published last month in the medical journal Translational Psychiatry showed that kids who played football before age 12 were more than twice as likely to have mood and behavior problems.
The news hasn't escaped the parents at Centennial, one of the top-rated public high schools in Maryland, where 97 percent of students go on to college after they graduate. Just 10 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price meals, an indicator of poverty.