Like other Maine schools with shrinking enrollments and strained athletic budgets, Monmouth Academy mortgaged its football program 30 autumns ago.

The Mustangs sold their helmets, pads and practice jerseys and buried the pylons and first-down markers in a storage closet. They purchased a bag of soccer balls and the made the world’s most popular spectator sport a point of emphasis in physical education classes and Saturday morning recreational programs.

But this is a smaller corner of the world. It’s America, home of the NFL Network, Madden ’07 and fantasy football. In the prevailing mass media climate, telling kids not to play football was a little bit like imploring them not to experiment with alcohol or sex. There was an obvious mixed message.

“Our kids are kind of caught,” said Monmouth athletic director Steve Ouellette. “We offer soccer as a fall sport, but soccer isn’t what kids are watching on Saturday and Sunday afternoon. They’re watching college and pro football.”

Athletic directors and school boards are caught, too.

Widely considered more dangerous, more expensive and more logistically nightmarish than soccer, high school football is in the midst of a huge revival in Maine.

It’s a growth spurt that defies every nationwide trend, and one that threatens to squeeze the life out of staggering soccer programs at some smaller Class B and C schools.

Poland has joined Falmouth, Greely, Gray-New Gloucester, Bonny Eagle, Gorham and Cape Elizabeth in adding football to its curriculum over the last 10 years. Dirigo, Mt. Ararat and Maranacook revived their programs in the same span.

Three decades after abandoning football, Monmouth and Telstar once again have booster-led junior varsity programs. Buckfield, Lincoln, Camden Hills, Nokomis, Yarmouth and Freeport aren’t far from varsity status.

Administrators such as Ouellette and Jeff Turnbull of Dirigo have little choice but to roll with the changes and do the often-frightening math.

“It probably costs $300 per kid for a helmet and pads,” Turnbull said, “as opposed to maybe buying two new soccer balls every year.”

But while those daunting digits spelled doom for football in the 1970s, a different numbers game is pushing soccer to the brink of extinction at some schools.

Still a relatively new high school, Poland Regional christened its fourth season of football two weeks ago by welcoming 59 players to camp. Next door at the soccer field, 23 boys showed up.

“That’s low,” said Poland AD Don King. “We can have JV and varsity teams, but we’ll have a lot of kids playing in both games.”

At Monmouth, where there is a much more distinguished soccer tradition, the cause for alarm is even greater.

In 1999 and 2000, the Mustangs won back-to-back Class D championships. They reached the Class C regional semifinals last October. But as recently as Aug. 12, there were no guarantees that Monmouth would even field a team in the Mountain Valley Conference this year.

“I called Kit Canning at 9 o’clock that morning and said, ‘I need help. I need a coach.’ We advertised the job all spring and summer,” Ouellette said, “and nobody showed interest at all.”

Informational meetings and phone calls drummed up 21 prospective soccer players, enough to assemble a varsity squad. School begins on Wednesday, and Ouellette hopes word-of-mouth recruiting will give the Mustangs sufficient bodies to field a JV team.

Ouellette believes there are 24 players out for Monmouth’s club football enterprise. Monmouth Recreation has more than 100 players in its exploding football program, most of them between grades five and eight.

High school enrollment at Monmouth is roughly 270 students, a still-growing number that is comparable to Class C football powers Boothbay, Jay and Livermore Falls.

Dirigo’s student body is closer to 400, giving the Cougars hope that they will be able to support both endeavors over the long haul. Fifty-four boys signed up for football in Dixfield this season, with 28 coming out for soccer.

“We are fortunate to have a lot of kids in our area interested in getting out and playing sports. I think it’s great,” Turnbull said. “You always have those people who say, ‘You know, we could have a heck of a soccer team.’ And I say, ‘You know, we could also have an extra 50 kids walking around the halls at school, doing nothing.’ “

Turnbull sees football’s growth as a natural progression in his community. The powerful Mountain Valley program is next door in Rumford. Many of his students grew up playing in the same Area Youth Sports system as the future Falcons.

And while soccer has a captive audience for the World Cup every four years, football enjoys year-round exposure on cable and satellite TV.

“It is kind of the American game,” Turnbull said.

“I don’t see soccer as having taken off,” Ouellette concurred. “I watched the World Cup, and I admired the skill. But I just didn’t feel that excitement. It doesn’t grab me. It’s the same way that people might be casual baseball fans, but they are more Red Sox fans. If the Red Sox aren’t playing, they’re not watching baseball.”

Ouellette would like to see some of the developmental programs follow the lead of Midwest states and adopt eight-man football as an alternative.

In theory, schools such as Monmouth, Buckfield and Telstar would be more competitive, more quickly, while allowing their soccer programs to survive.

“Those kids are having fun. The game is probably even more wide-open,” Ouellette said. “It might be different if we had 50 more boys in the high school, but right now our coaches are in the position of fighting for kids. Not physically fighting, of course, but more along the lines of, ‘You’d look really good as a fullback.’ “

At least Monmouth has a soccer selling point or two in its trophy case. In Poland, where the Knights’ soccer programs have been fortunate to win two or three games a year in the rugged Western Maine Conference, football is on the verge of pushing its autumn competition over the precipice.

“We’ve struggled in soccer, anyway. If we had any tradition of success early on, it might be different,” King said. “We try to promote it, especially after school starts. I’d love to have it promote itself, but with 23 kids, it’s not really going to do that.”

And the Knights are solidly entrenched in Class B. Poland’s enrollment doubles that of Monmouth.

Ouellette sees the writing on the wall.

“It is a difficult proposition for a Class C school to think that it can logically support both football and soccer for a long period of time,” he said.

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