Decades after King Coal's demise, Pennsylvania's coal region is littered with similarly depressed communities. And the economy isn't the only victim. As Wednesday's national signing day for college recruits dawns, many here fear that quality high school football, a cherished tradition and a civic balm in difficult times, could soon become the next disappearing resource.
"We're a very depressed area," said Rick Kashner, Shamokin's athletic director and a former player at the school in Coal Township. "We were kind of known for hard-nosed coal region football. But our participation numbers are down significantly."
The decline here is symptomatic of what experts contend is an overall deterioration in Pennsylvania's football reputation. While talent evaluation, especially at the high school level, is a subjective art, many of those experts say the depth and quality of scholastic football in the state, especially in small towns and rural areas, have slipped noticeably. Once consistently ranked among the top two or three states nationally, Pennsylvania now struggles to stay in the top 10.
When it came to 2013 Division I prospects, for example, Rivals.com found only 10 rated four stars or higher (with five stars the highest possible rating) in Pennsylvania, all from major metropolitan areas. That meager total is down one from 2012, up one from 2011. Florida, meanwhile, had 52 such 2013 prospects; Texas, 45; California, 40.
The results were similar in ESPN's listing of the top 150 players. Only six were from Pennsylvania while more than half hailed from just four states - Florida (30), Texas (18), Georgia (16), and California (14).
While no one knows for certain what has caused this shortage in Division I-caliber players, the most commonly cited reason is the state's economic concerns. Many of the industries that sustained the parents of past football stars and seemed to imbue the youngsters themselves with a Pennsylvania-bred toughness - coal, steel, railroads - have disappeared.
With a shrinking job base, the hardest-hit school districts have been cutting athletic budgets and in some instances forcing athletes to pay to play. And many Pennsylvania parents are finding it tough to provide the kind of financial support - for youth leagues, travel, and equipment - athletic prodigies require in 2013.
"It takes a lot more resources than it did just a few years ago for players to really get Division I- ready," said Adam Friedman, Mid-Atlantic recruiting analyst for Rivals.Com. "These other states have more resources to create better players."
But when it comes to why this downturn has been felt most sharply in the coal region, an area rich in anthracite coal that covers Lackawanna, Luzerne, Columbia, Carbon, Schuylkill, and Northumberland Counties and a small portion of Dauphin County, there are many other exacerbating factors. Among them:
Speed, the kind now found most frequently in Sun Belt states, has replaced those assets most often associated with the region's players - size and grit - as the essential football attribute.
Soccer and other sports, cheaper to sustain, have broadened in popularity, especially as football increasingly is seen as too dangerous, expensive, and time-intensive.
The inclusion of Philadelphia Public and Catholic League schools in the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association has greatly reduced the odds that coal region teams can compete for a state championship, and consequently diminished interest.
The consolidation of school districts has restricted opportunities. In many cases, three high schools that supported teams of 50 to 75 players have merged into a single entity.
In places such as Shamokin, Mount Carmel, and Pottsville, educators said, entrenched poverty has sometimes caused a generational disconnect. The values working-class families instilled in today's more financially strapped parents aren't always passed on to children.
"In talking to other [athletic directors] throughout our area, it seems clear that [the lack of a] work ethic is a big problem," Kashner said. "Because of the area's economic problems, there's a lack of home life, a lack of pushing the kids to be the best they can be. Kids don't want to put the time in. They don't have the drive that the kids used to have."
'Our kids were tough'
Pennsylvania has a robust football history, especially in those areas where the steel mills and coal mines were the typical workplace. The hard-nosed sons of the hard-nosed men who worked those jobs in the areas around Pittsburgh and Bethlehem and in the coal region seemed peculiarly adapted to football's physical demands. In-state schools such as Penn State, Pitt, and - when it was playing big-time football - Penn filled their rosters with native Pennsylvanians. And there were plenty left over for outside schools, too.
While Western Pennsylvania and the Philadelphia area produced notable skill players - quarterbacks such as Joe Namath, Joe Montana, and Dan Marino, and running backs such as John Cappelletti, Tony Dorsett, and Eddie George - the coal region was better known for bruising offensive and defensive linemen, players such as Scranton's Mike Munchak, the Penn State offensive line star now coaching the NFL's Tennessee Titans.
"We didn't always have the elite players, the big stars," Kashner said. "But our kids were tough and they knew how to work well as a team."
That's not always the case now in Shamokin, where the populations for the school district (2,600) and high school (1,200) have remained relatively stable, an up-or-down fluctuation of only 3 percent or 4 percent, according to principal Chris Venna. But its athletic participation numbers have dipped significantly. And those who do take up the sport don't always stick with it.
The 2012 Shamokin Area Indians, who went 4-7, began their schedule with 60 players. When the season ended, Kashner said, the total was 38. To fill roster voids, ninth graders had to be prematurely promoted to the junior varsity, which intimidated many and precipitated an exodus among their ranks.
"Our kids who are participating are participating in more than one sport. Our overall numbers are way down," Kashner said. "The other kids don't want to focus on any sport. Football is an intense sport. You have to put the work in, have to make the weight. That dedication just isn't there."
All that contributed to the resignation after the 2012 season of football coach Dan Foor. His replacement, a former Penn State player named Yaacov Yisreal, generated some initial enthusiasm, but even that has quickly waned.
At his first meeting with potential players, 93 students showed up. But when they were asked to return with their parents, the number dwindled to 52.
On top of all that, the district had a $5 million budget deficit last year. The weight room budget was cut, as was money for new uniforms. Several area schools, faced with similar problems, went to a pay-to-play system, with per-student fees ranging from $25 to $40 a sport.
"That causes numbers to decline even more because parents just don't have the money," said Kashner, who said Shamokin had not yet adopted such a fee.
Decrease in motivation
The problem is widespread. Even perennial coal region powerhouses such as Berwick and Mount Carmel "have struggled just to make the playoffs the last few years," said Leroy Boyer, sports editor of the Pottsville Republican-Herald.
Christian Hackenberg, Penn State's prized recruit who is expected to sign a letter of intent to play for the Nittany Lions, is from Tamaqua, in Schuylkill County. He played his prep football, however, at Fork Union (Va.) Military Academy.
One of the few schools in this area that has been able to maintain a level of success is Southern Columbia in Catawissa, where coach Jim Roth's Tigers went 12-1 and averaged more than 43 points a game.
"I don't know if it's specific to Pennsylvania," said Roth, who also is the school's athletic director, when asked about the trend. "But I have noticed a significant dropoff in the attitudes of players. There's a decrease in self-motivation, desire, heart, and work ethic. Some outstanding athletes that are lacking in these areas may not develop their potential and become scholarship players."
Contact staff writer Frank Fitzpatrick at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @philafitz.