Jay Johnson Stadium in downtown Gold Beach has witnessed generations of Panther high school football games, going back to the middle of the last century.
In years past at Gold Beach High School, every fall Friday night saw the lights snap on at “JJ,” as the locals affectionately call the home of Panther Nation.
So deep runs their loyalty that nearly all of the town either is at each game or listening on Gold Beach radio KGBR, which airs all of the preseason and regular-season games.
Yet today, at the onset of yet another gridiron season, weeds choke the players’ parked blocking sled. The stadium’s grass is brown from the summer sun. The metal bleachers where the “Men in Black” traditionally conduct their pre-game march are quiet.
Will it remain that way all year?
According to long-time varsity head football coach Kevin Swift, absent a miracle, the lights at JJ will probably stay off this year. Why? Because there aren’t enough students who want to play.
“Look, it breaks my coach’s heart,” Swift said. “Here we are, a month away, and I just don’t have enough players to take the field.”
Swift points to a whiteboard where he has methodically scrawled in red erasable pen the numbers of student athletes who have turned out to lift weights in the weight room, or even have shown interest in playing this fall.
The whiteboard tells the story: Too few players to field a team this year.
The Oregon Sports Athletic Association (OSAA) requires a school to have 22 to 24 participating players for an 11-man prep football team.
On May 26, Gold Beach had 15 signed up to play. The numbers dwindled from there to a total of six on July 11.
That’s not even enough for eight-man football, which Swift said was never really an option anyway.
Ben Adams is a long-time Panther football fan. The retired Coos Curry Electric meter reader ran the football field “chain gang” for several years. The news there may be no football this fall hit him hard.
“Whaaat? No football? No way!” Adams said. “I love my football!”
Since Swift took over the football program in 1998, Gold Beach High School has been to a title game five times and won two championships, in 2007 when the Panthers bested Vale for the 3A crown and again in 2011 when they shut out powerhouse Scio 33-0.
With that momentum, how did a proud program find itself without players in just 10 years?
Swift said a number of factors have contributed to the program’s decline. He added that he isn’t interested in “pointing fingers,” there’s plenty of blame to go around.
And shoulders his share of that blame, said Swift.
“People will always automatically blame the players,” he said, but cautions those who go down that path that they should realize the high school’s enrollment is down to begin with.
“We used to have 290 students. Now, we are at 137. And of those, we have a total of 60 boys in school and not everyone wants to play football, as strange as that might seem.” His half-hearted laugh rings hollow.
Has he considered suiting up a few girls to round out the varsity team? “I’m reluctant to do that,” Swift said. “Any time you place a 90-pound individual on the line across from a 240-pound lineman, somebody is going to get hurt.
“I won’t say no, but the girls will be held to the same standard as the boys.”
Add to that, said Swift, the student culture has changed. Priorities have shifted. Some potential players simply aren’t interested in committing the time or doing all that it takes to build a winning team.
“They say, ‘We love what you’re doing, coach, but (football) is not for me,’” Swift said.
Then, there’s the end of the Gold Beach Football Camp. At one time, Gold Beach had schools bringing up to 800 athletes from around the country and Canada to hone their preseason skills here. It was a boon for both the local team’s morale and the town’s economy.
Swift said scrimmaging bigger teams, often beating them, “made my guys feel like they could take on anyone, come fall.”
A decision by the California State Legislature to prohibit contact sports in the off-season contributed to the Oregon camp’s demise, given that many of the participating teams hailed from the Golden State.
Into the void stepped other schools that had better facilities and could offer the remaining participants a better experience, wooing many of them away.
“I’ve always wanted to upgrade and put in an artificial surface here, but the money wasn’t here to do it,” Swift said. “I don’t blame the (other coaches). They would say as they left, ‘You know we love you and Gold Beach Camp, coach, but SOU has this great turf and 24/7 meals available.’
“It’s hard to compete with that.”
Sharing the blame
Swift said he’s to blame in part because he had taken a self-imposed sabbatical after 20 years of balancing teaching, coaching, running the camp and serving as the school’s athletic director. He stepped back for four years before returning to his job.
“I was exhausted and needed to take a break,” Swift said. “Justin Storns took the program and he did a fantastic job, even getting some league titles.
“But from a continuity standpoint, when you take a long-time coach out of the picture, overall the program suffers ... I get that.”
To that, Swift added, was the earthquake retrofit of the high school’s gymnasium. During the re-engineering, it was decided that all of the Gold Beach championship banners and district championship plaques hanging on the walls and from the rafters of Colvin Court would be taken down and stored away.
Swift said those reminders of the school’s successful athletic history had served as powerful motivators for upcoming athletes.
“(The banners) haven’t been put back up due to acoustic reasons,” said Swift. “I can sort of understand.”
For those reasons and more, said Swift, the high school’s football program is back to what it was when he arrived 22 years ago.
“(Gold Beach football) has become isolated,” he said. “Back then, I had a small group of students, parents and coaches who bought into our program and together, we had good success.
“We can do it again, but not without numbers.”
Working against that, Swift said, is the area’s decline in the number of young, working families. “Everything from Florence south on the coast has become a retirement destination,” he said.” Homes are getting too expensive to afford and wages aren’t keeping up.”
The deadline for athletes to sign up to play football this season is looming. “August 19 is the final day,” Swift said. “We have to tell the OSAA then.
“If we don’t have enough out to play (at that point)? Then, yes, Gold Beach won’t have a team this year.”