Two years ago, Jacob Heron was excited to begin his first season of tackle football as a fourth-grader.

But the experience did not go as he envisioned.

“I do not like it,” Heron, now 12, recounted after practicing with his flag football team, the Broncos, at Discovery Park earlier this month. It turns out he was not such a big fan of tackling after all, and he noted that several of his teammates were knocked out by broken bones or other injuries that fall.

But in the Bend Park & Recreation District flag football league, Heron said, kids can concentrate on making plays.

“I like it because it’s not tackling and not hurting each other, bulldozing other people over,” Heron said. “It’s the same rules — you just can’t tackle people.”

Many of Heron’s teammates and peers in Bend have also turned to flag football as an alternative to tackle, although it is not always the kid making the decision.

From 2012 to 2017, the number of children participating in the Bend park district’s tackle football league dropped by more than a third, from 374 to 246, a dramatic example of a nationwide decline often attributed to an increased awareness of the dangers of concussions and long-term brain damage linked to football. (According to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association annual survey, the number of American kids ages 6 to 12 playing football fell from 1.06 million in 2012 to 982,000 in 2016.) Aside from a small bump from 350 players in 2013 to 352 in 2014, registration for the BPRD league, which is open to fourth- through sixth-graders, has decreased every year since 2012, even as many BPRD youth sports programs continue to gain popularity.

During that same time span, the number of first- through sixth-grade kids playing BPRD flag football has jumped from 441 to 520. Although fifth- and sixth-graders — who also have the option of playing tackle football through the park district — have always made up the smallest age division in the BPRD flag football program, the number of enrollees in those grades jumped from an average of 55 to 60 in 2014 and earlier years to 105 in 2015. More than 100 children have signed up each year since.

“We’ve increased the number of teams (in the fifth- and sixth-grade division) from about five to 10 in the past five years,” said Rich Ekman, the BPRD flag football program coordinator. “Tackle football has some physicality to it that some kids or parents may be reluctant to (participate in). But I think more so than that, in flag football they’re only playing five-on-five, and each kid has the opportunity to touch the ball. Everyone wants to be a wide receiver, a running back or a quarterback. I think that attracts kids, they want to touch the ball.”

Jacob Heron’s teammates on the Broncos echoed Ekman’s observations, explaining that they enjoyed the chance to play multiple positions throughout a game. But many of them also made it clear that they want to play tackle football in the future, even if their parents are not sold on the idea.

“I’ve always asked my mom, can I play (tackle football)?” Sebastien Fievet, 11, explained. “And she always says, ‘We’ll see,’ which probably means no.”

Fievet may be onto something. Cindy Tuscano, the mother of Broncos player Evan Tuscano, said parents of young athletes in Bend often discuss their concerns about safety and what sports they should allow their children to play.

“Honestly, it’s a pretty big conversation among soccer (parents), as well,” said Tuscano, whose three sons all play soccer. “But a lot of my friends have said, ‘My kid is not playing tackle.’ A lot of people I know, that’s where they draw the line.”

Even Rick Stilson, who coaches the Broncos and has two sons, Drew, 11, and Hawken, 10, on the team, said the topic of tackle football is still under discussion in his house. His boys are relatively small for their age, which only exacerbates the concern of serious injury. But Stilson admits he loved playing football in high school and would like for his sons to be able to have the same experience.

“Maybe I’m just holding on to that nostalgia,” Stilson, 41, said. “But (my sons) ask me: ‘Dad, can I play tackle football?’ That’s the middle one. The older one says, ‘When I play tackle football …’ — he’s already gone there mentally.”

But the trend away from tackle football does not hold across Central Oregon. For the first time in several years, the Sisters Park & Recreation District fielded a tackle football team for fifth- and sixth-graders, joining a league that includes teams from Madras, La Pine, Culver, Gilchrist and Warm Springs. And in Redmond, the Redmond Youth Football league, an independent organization now in its 13th season that offers flag football for first- and second-graders and tackle football for third- through sixth-graders, is as healthy as ever.

Dennis Collins, one of the three members of the Redmond Youth Football board, said the number of players signed up for the two tackle divisions increased from 190 in 2016 to 208 this year. Collins said he bought about $8,000 worth of new helmets before the season to accommodate the influx of new players (new helmets cost about $250 each).

Collins said he and the other league organizers put more effort into promoting the program on Facebook and at community events this summer, which might account for some of the uptick in participation. But he said it is also important to make sure that they provide an environment that kids and parents want to return to each fall.

“There are no crazy formations, we limit that and make it fundamental football,” Collins said. “When one team is annihilating another team, they back off. They’ll move some kids around and let those kids play different positions and even out the teams. And parents like that, they like seeing their kids come out and run the ball. I could see, if the kid was in third grade and never touched the ball, he’d be discouraged from coming back and playing the next year.”

Eric Hobbs, who is also a member of the Redmond Youth Football board and coaches a third- and fourth-grade team with Collins, said their league has also made concessions to try to cut down on the number of injuries.

“For our kids in particular, we’re always in close-quarter tackling,” Eric Hobbs explained. “We don’t let them get out in open field and seek and destroy another kid, which is a practice of the past with older-school coaching.”

Kim Scott, whose younger son Aiden, plays on the Hobbs-Collins team, said signing up for football still feels like a natural decision for many Redmond families.

“I know it’s a football community for sure,” Scott said after a game earlier this month. “I was worried about it to begin with their first year, but they’re so little. They’re more like bobbleheads. And they have padding, so they’re protected.”

Aiden Scott, 9, said that many of his friends also play tackle football. Unlike Jacob Heron, he seems to thrive on the rough-and-tumble aspect of the sport.

“You get to truck people,” Scott said when asked what he liked most about the league.

In fact, Hobbs suggested that kids with Aiden’s sensibilities would still be at risk of injury in pickup games and other sports and activities that would fill the void if there were no organized football league.

“I think a lot of parents have that same mentality — at least this way, (kids are) going to have a helmet on and be as safe as they can be when they’re crazy,” Hobbs said. “That’s where we come in, to make sure they’re doing it right.”

But Collins admitted the Redmond league, which also draws a small number of families from Crook County, Culver and Bend, is not immune to concerns about head trauma.

“I talked to a few parents who weren’t signing their kids up again,” Collins said. “There were some who were worried about concussions. Honestly, I know our numbers, if concussions weren’t such a big deal, would be even bigger. A lot bigger.”

Kirsten Heron, a Bend family practitioner and Jacob’s mother, said it is not just potential concussions that worry her, but the “micro traumas” that come with constant hits in football and other sports. She still agreed to let Jacob play football two years ago, but she said she was relieved when Jacob decided to play flag football instead, at least for the next few years.

“The only problem is he’s a sixth-grader, and flag football ends next year,” Heron said. “This is his last year of being able to do it. Would I love to see Bend Parks & Rec extend it out (beyond sixth grade)? Absolutely.”

Ekman, the flag football program coordinator, said BPRD did open registration for a seventh- and eighth-grade flag division several years ago, but not enough players signed up to actually field a team.

“We had like six kids register,” Ekman said. “It’s something that we put in our evaluation that we had out to coaches and parents at the end of the year: Would your child possibly be interested in continuing if we offered a seventh- and eighth-grade league? It’s something that we always look into and would consider if we think that interest is out there.”

But whether it is next year, in seventh grade, or once he reaches high school, Jacob Heron will eventually have to make a decision. He said he still loves football and does not want to give up the sport entirely. But when his mother asked if he sees himself playing in high school, he said he had not made up his mind.

“That’s when I’m in high school, I’m in middle school right now,” Heron said. “I don’t know. I would say maybe, maybe. Definitely a maybe.”

—Reporter: 541-383-0305, vjacobsen@bendbulletin.com

18529879