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High school football began in the late 19th century, concurrent with the start of many college football programs. In the late 19th and early 20th century, many college and high school teams played against one another. Other traditions of high school football such as pep rallies, marching bands, mascots, and homecomings are mirrored in college football. No minor league farm organizations exist in American football. Therefore, high school football is generally considered to be the third tier of American football in the United States, behind college and professional competition. It is the first level of play in which a player will accumulate statistics, which will determine his chances of competing at the college level, and ultimately the professional level if he is talented enough.
The National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) establishes the rules of high school football in the United States.
With their common ancestry, the NFHS rules of high school football are largely similar to the college game, though with some important differences:
At least one unique high school rule has been adopted by college football. In 1996, the overtime rules originally utilized by Kansas high school teams were adopted by the NCAA, although the NCAA has made two major modifications: (a) starting each possession from the 25-yard line, and (b) starting with the third overtime period, requiring teams to attempt a two-point conversion following a touchdown.
Thirty-four states have a mercy rule that comes into play during one-sided games after a prescribed scoring margin is surpassed at halftime or any point thereafter. The type of mercy rule varies from state to state, with many using a "continuous clock" after the scoring margin is reached (wherein, except for specific situations, the clock keeps running on plays where the clock would normally stop), while other states end the game once the margin is reached or passed. Most Canadian schools use Canadian football rules adapted for the high school game. The exception is British Columbia, which uses NFHS rules as used in the United States.
Each state has at least one sanctioning organization for public schools. In many states a separate organization governs interscholastic athletics at most private schools. Each sanctioning body divides its member schools up into anywhere from two to eight size classifications based on the number of students enrolled at a school (so that schools are assured to compete against other schools of comparable size) and then each classification is further divided into geographic regions; the nomenclature and number of divisions vary from state to state. A school's size classification can change if its enrollment rises or declines over the years. At the smallest schools, particularly in rural communities or smaller private schools, variations on the game using six, eight, or nine players per side instead of the traditional eleven (or twelve in Canada) are encountered.
Homeschooled students may also participate in high school football through independent or freelance teams, which compete against small private (or in a few cases, public) schools. In some states, such as Florida, state law allows homeschooled students to compete in interscholastic athletics for their local school district. Thus, homeschooled Tim Tebow, who was one of the top quarterback prospects in the nation, was able to play for the nationally ranked public Nease High School after he and his mother rented an apartment in that school district. The legislature in the state of Alabama, where Tebow played in a nationally-televised loss against Hoover High School, is considering a bill, dubbed the Tim Tebow Bill that would grant similar rights to Alabama's home schooled students.
Training for the upcoming season usually starts with weightlifting and other conditioning activities, such as specialized speed and agility training. In some states, this begins a few weeks after the end of the previous season, and in others as late as August. Some states allow seven on seven scrimmages, while others prohibit formal practices during most of the summer. Near the end of the summer in mid-August, double sessions tend to begin and usually last for one week or until school starts. After double sessions end, regular season practices begin with daily sessions each week day afternoon except on game day. Practices are often held on Saturday as well, but almost never on Sunday.
The regular season typically consists of ten games in most states; Kansas is one of the few states which limits teams to nine. Teams in New York typically schedule only seven. The first game of the season is usually in early September, or late August, and the final regular season game is usually in mid to late October, with the end of the season varying by state and climate. Teams may have one or more bye weeks during the regular season. Larger schools (especially those with successful programs) can often draw attendances in the thousands, even for regular season games, and in some cases may play the game at a college or professional stadium to accommodate the expected large crowds.
The vast majority of high school football games are scheduled for Friday nights, with Thursday evenings and Saturdays being less heavily used. Alternate days are most common in larger school districts where the facilities are used by multiple schools, or where the playing field is not illuminated for nighttime use due to financial limitations, local regulations or neighborhood opposition against night games.
Prior to the 1970s, many states crowned state champions through polls, but playoff systems have become nearly universal since then and most states have steadily increased the number of teams eligible to participate and total number of classifications. Though the playoff scheme and number of teams eligible varies, regional champions will compete in elimination playoff rounds – in a tradition borrowed from pro football rather than college – to determine a state champion for each size classification.
Only two states do not have one state champion (New Jersey and Massachusetts) and only crown regional state champions; however, New Jersey does crown state champions for non-public schools, and Massachusetts will establish a state championship in 2014. New York's championships are nominally statewide, but only include upstate New York because the divisions representing New York City and Long Island (which cover the majority of the state's population) abstain from the state tournaments. In many large cities, including Pittsburgh, New York City, and Los Angeles, as well as some very small districts in places such as Western New York, public high schools compete in their own "city leagues" and may or may not ever play opponents outside of them. At the other extreme are states such as Illinois, Louisiana and West Virginia, in which regional championships do not exist; the state's playoffs are seeded on a statewide basis.
The championship games are usually held at a neutral site, usually a college or NFL stadium needed to accommodate the larger crowds. College and professional fields are also usually better equipped to handle inclement weather which is common since state championship games are typically held in late November to the middle of December. In the vast majority of states, all championship games are played at one site, such as War Memorial Stadium in Arkansas, Rentschler Field in Connecticut, the Georgia Dome, Houchens Stadium in Kentucky, the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in Louisiana, the Edward Jones Dome in Missouri, Lucas Oil Stadium in Indiana, and AT&T Stadium for all Texas 11-man divisions. Alabama previously played all of its championship games at Legion Field, but at the urging of Alabama Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban, the games now alternate between Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa and Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn.
Some publications and internet sites release nationwide rankings based on polls or mathematical formulas which take into account various factors like average margin of victory and strength of schedule. Schools that finish atop these rankings, particularly the USA Today poll, are sometimes considered to be the national champions.
Outside of the playoff tournaments, high school football on Thanksgiving has also historically been popular; originally the traditional end of the high school football season, Thanksgiving football has become less common because of state tournaments (it is still widely popular in some states, particularly in New England). Because of its overlap with the playoff season, many teams forego their rights to a playoff tournament to participate in exhibition rivalry games that are held over Thanksgiving weekend. Others will play a rivalry game only when they do not qualify for the playoffs. Many of the state championship tournaments are purposely scheduled to conclude on the weekend of Thanksgiving.
In Ontario, high schools play in bowl games similar to college football in the United States. The difference though, is that these bowl games are determined by geographical location as opposed to a team's record. There are five bowl games for five different geographical regions; the Northern Bowl, the Golden Horseshoe Bowl, the National Capital Bowl, the Western Bowl and the Metro Bowl. For instance, the National Capital Bowl champion is determined through contests between teams from the Bay of Quinte, Simcoe County, Kawartha Lakes, Ottawa Valley and East Ontario. East Ontario or EOSSAA (Eastern Ontario Secondary School Athletic Association) champion is determined by the champions from divisions within itself such as KASSAA (Kingston Area Secondary School Athletic Association). The most recent AAA Bowl winners are Sir James Dunn (winner of the Northern Bowl), Notre Dame (winner of the Golden Horseshoe Bowl), St. Peter's (winner of the National Capital Bowl), Mother Theresa (winner of the Western Bowl) and Markham (winner of the Metro Bowl). OFSAA Bowls are divided into two different divisions, A/AA and AAA/AAAA, these are determined by the level of enrollment at a school. A/AA also play Bowl games similar to their AAA/AAAA counterparts, it is therefore possibly for two schools in the same region winning both a A/AA and an AAA/AAAA bowl. Most teams dress both a junior (grades 9 and 10) and senior (grade 11, 12 and returning students) teams. At this time there are no bowl games for junior teams.
Other provinces typically divide schools by size and hold playoffs in a similar manner to those contested in US states.
Many larger high schools also have a separate junior varsity team along with their regular or varsity team. In many cases, these teams – sometimes called the "sophomore team" – are made up of sophomores and some freshmen, although some underclassmen will be called up to play varsity, especially to replace injured varsity players or if the underclassman player is exceptionally talented. At larger schools, there often will be a third team for freshmen (called the freshman team).
Typically, there are no playoffs for junior varsity teams, although many leagues will award a championship title to the team with the best record. Overtime rules are often disregarded, meaning it is possible for games to end in a tie. Junior varsity teams usually have the same schedule as the varsity, with many games played on the same night and at the same site as the varsity game, with the JV game serving as a preliminary contest before the varsity game.
Some schools also field a true junior varsity team, which are simply made up of junior and senior players who typically do not see playing time in the varsity game (except during the final minutes of a one-sided game); some freshmen and sophomores will also play in these games, as will a few juniors who start but either are playing in a different position and/or will be expected to have leadership roles as seniors. In addition to providing opportunities to play in a timed contest, coaches may use these types of contests to see how well underclassmen and juniors play together, since they would replace varsity players lost to graduation; and to assess the talent and actual game-situation abilities of those players who rarely get to play in varsity games. While sometimes these games will be played on the same night as varsity games, true JV teams often play on a different night and may have a separate schedule composed of conference and non-conference teams.
In all states, the HS football season will have ended by late December, but the recruiting process by which colleges offer scholarships to high school seniors often starts in the summer, before the school year and football season begin. Physical assessment is an increasingly important part of the recruiting process. Football camps are held at college campuses where a large number of potential recruits can be evaluated simultaneously in various speed and skills drills. Players are evaluated based on running the 40-yard dash, agility shuttle, vertical jump and the number of repetitions on the bench press that they can perform at a given weight. Recently, the SPARQ rating has become a popular composite metric to evaluate overall athleticism. Based on performance over the course of their careers and at camps, colleges will typically take potential recruits on tours of the campus and athletic facilities, or the college may have its team's coach visit the recruit at home or at school.
While all colleges do much of their recruiting from local and in-state high schools, where they can network with HS coaches and booster clubs, the nation's top college programs can easily recruit athletes from around the country. Some colleges have historically been aided in this regard through their prominence within their religious affiliation, such as Notre Dame or BYU.
Students who played for larger high schools, or who competed in nationally televised matches, have a natural advantage towards recruitment, while players who competed at smaller schools – such as most states' 1A and 2A categories – or in states where high school football is not perceived as being of a high caliber will have their skills and achievements judged versus the lower-caliber opposition they faced and, as such, are rarely considered as top prospects. Occasionally, though, a student at a smaller school will receive a full scholarship; an extreme example of this is Jehuu Caulcrick, a fullback who received a full scholarship to Michigan State University despite playing high school in Clymer, New York, one of the smallest school districts in the state (and a state where high school football is not seen as particularly high caliber). Caulcrick went on to have a successful college career and several years as a journeyman professional, ending his football career as a member of his hometown team, the Buffalo Bills.
Though it is an expensive project, high school football players often increase their visibility by sending out video highlights of their playing skills to college recruiters. If a student receives no scholarship offers, they may still attempt to make a college team by becoming a "walk on" and paying their own tuition in the hopes that they can make the team and possibly receive a scholarship. Others will try out for a non-scholarship team, such as a Division III school, or a two-year junior college team. The latter option is also popular with students with academic or behavioral issues that would prevent them from playing at a four-year college.
While the vast majority of high school football players will not even be considered for a scholarship offer, players who receive nationwide attention will invariably receive scholarship offers from more than one school and will often hold a press conference to announce their final selection. "All Star" exhibition games like the U.S. Army All-American Bowl, which is televised nationally by NBC, give the nation's top prospects the opportunity to publicly announce their college selection or to provide one last opportunity to showcase their talents to college recruiters. By National Signing Day, the first Wednesday in February, most top recruits will have already signed non-binding letters of intent or verbally committed with colleges.
As with college and professional football teams, every high school team in every state has a mascot or team name. Many are generic allusions conveying an image sense of strength, speed, and/or bravery. Thus, pluralized team names such as Tigers, Eagles, Wildcats, Trojans, and Warriors are fairly common throughout the country. Other team names, however, have a historical connection to the town or area where the high school or school district is located, such as a locally important industry. For example, Yuma High School in Yuma, Arizona is known as the "Criminals" due to the school's historic connection to the infamous Yuma Territorial Prison. Many new schools, or schools that had merged with other schools, have allowed their students to "vote" on a new school mascot or team nickname.
Because of high school football's mostly limited regional appeal, and because most games take place during prime time (albeit during the Friday night death slot), television exposure of high school football on both a local and national basis tends to be limited to championship games only, or for the regular season to the lower-tier stations in a market such as a MyNetworkTV affiliate or independent television station where no critical programming would be pre-empted. Local public access cable television and local radio stations often air regular season contests, and in some cases, the school's own radio station (or a nearby college) broadcasts the game using student announcers. One such example is San Diego's Prep Pigskin Report. High school football is often an integral part of the modern full service radio format, which centers on local information; radio's prime times are traditionally earlier in the day, and there is far less risk of preemption, since many stations would otherwise be automated or off the air during the times high school football games are played.
There has also been a marked increase in recent years of web-based media covering high school sporting events. Examples include Mid America Broadcasting in Indiana, Champs Sports Network and MSA Sports Network in Western Pennsylvania, MSBN in Minnesota, and BSports.org in Washington. In many television markets, local stations will air 30 or 60-minute 'scoreboard' shows following their late Friday newscast with scores and highlights from games in their coverage area. Many national media outlets have been producing national high school football rankings, including High School Football America, which has been releasing its Top 25 since 2011.
Despite increased national media attention, some states restrict the broadcast of high school games. One example is the University Interscholastic League, which governs public school sports in Texas. The UIL has a long-standing ban on television broadcasting of high school football games on Friday nights, believing that doing so could hurt ticket sales (radio broadcasts are allowed, though). Because of this, several games that have been broadcast on ESPN and Fox Sports Net in recent years have had to be played on either Thursday night or on Saturday to avoid the UIL's ban. In Michigan, live television broadcasts of regular season games are prohibited by the state athletic association.
The Sports Broadcasting Act of 1961 and Public Law 89-800, which govern the antitrust exemptions given to the National Football League, prohibit the broadcasting of NFL games within 75 miles of any high school football game on Friday nights between September and early December. Because most populated areas of the United States have at least one high school football game within a 75-mile radius, and because broadcasting is an integral part of the NFL's business model (roughly half of the league's revenue comes from television contracts), this effectively prohibits the playing of NFL games in competition with high school football. (These rules do not apply during preseason, when Friday night games are common, nor does it apply at the end of the season, though the only time regular season games are played on Friday in the NFL is on Christmas.) Only recently have national sports television channels fully capitalized on this rule; since 2005, the ESPN family of networks (usually the sub-networks ESPN2, ESPNU and online broadcaster ESPN3, although the main channel also shows occasional games) has aired regular season matchups between nationally ranked teams under the High School Showcase banner. Fox Sports 1 also included high school football in its lineup when it launched in 2013.
In October 2013, an NFL-funded study reported that high school athletes were twice as likely to receive concussions as college athletes.