Out of the Park: Opportunities to play football are too good to overlook today

The future of football has been in question for some time now.

In April, the National Federation of High School Associations reported that participation in the sport has declined by 6.5% in the eight years since its peak in 2009-10, largely due to the increased awareness of football-related concussions.

Despite all of this, I urge you to consider that there has never been a better time to get into the game if you have what it takes.

I’m not saying that head injuries aren’t a valid concern for parents and players alike. The choice of whether to start playing football — and whether to stick with it — is completely personal. However, the opportunities presented to those who want to play at the highest level have never been better.

Let’s start with the most recent development in the professional world: the XFL. This league allows former and future NFL players to demonstrate their talent on a major stage. Players who may not have the ability to make a roster at the highest level can still get experience competing professionally and playing in front of a large crowd.

An average player in the XFL earns between $43,890 and $66,110, with quarterbacks reportedly earning above the NFL rookie minimum of $495,000. That’s pretty decent compensation for 10 weeks of living out one’s dream on the football field.

Former Ohio State quarterback Cardale Jones made just one appearance in four years with the NFL but is now the starting signal-caller for the D.C. Defenders.

“It’s giving me an opportunity to be a leader of a team, the opportunity to start and try to do something special [with D.C.] and win a championship,” Jones said in a press release.

L.A. Wildcats wide receiver Nelson Spruce suffered a season-ending injury during his rookie preseason in the NFL and never managed to return to a regular-season roster. In the XFL, Spruce has quickly become a fan favorite, already garnering chants of “Spruuuuuce” from the home crowd after his catches. His 256 yards and two touchdowns through just three games this season are already making a case for a possible return to the NFL.

“My family is involved with nutrition and fitness, so I’ve helped out a lot with that and will eventually transition into that,” Spruce said in a press release. “But right now, I’m trying to play football for as long as I can.”

I’ll acknowledge that this season, most of the names we’re seeing in the NFL are like Cardale and Spruce — players who have already created a reputation through established playing careers.

However, XFL commissioner Oliver Luck said on the “Dan Patrick Show” that the league may further depart from NFL tradition by recruiting college freshmen and sophomores in the future. The NFL currently requires players to be three years removed from high school before entering the draft. 

If the XFL goes in this direction, it could change the lives of student-athletes who want that professional competition under their belt or need to make money playing football before their third year of college. It could change the lives of student-athletes before beginning a potential NFL career.

Even within the NFL, though, football has become more inclusive as the league seeks talent from across vast geographical areas and walks of life. The NFL Combine in Indianapolis, Ind. — which began Sunday and runs through March 2 — features the typical high profile stars from big football programs, including Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts and Ohio State running back J.K. Dobbins.

However, few casual fans realize that the NFL’s Combine “series” is more complex than the well-known Indianapolis event. It features five regional combines, the Historically Black Colleges and Universities Combine and an international combine.

The first two offerings allow the NFL to evaluate athletes who were not invited to show off their talents in Lucas Oil Stadium but are draft-eligible and can no longer play college ball. At the end of the 2016 season, there were 96 players from regional combines on NFL rosters, making this part of the series a viable opportunity for lesser-known players to get their big break.

The NFL put on its first international combine in 2018 in Australia for players 21-25 years old interested in playing in the league, and the second iteration of the program was held in Germany last year. Eligible athletes are invited to train in the United States before hopefully making it to Indianapolis.

There are currently eight players on NFL rosters who were discovered in these international combines, including three former rugby players who translated their skills to the American game. So if you’re an NFL-caliber talent honing your craft abroad, there’s no better time to get involved than now.

Ultimately, whether you’re a young kid just getting started in the game or an ex-NFL player looking for what’s next, there’s no time like the present to make the leap toward a future in football.

Amanda Sturges is a sophomore writing about the impact of sports. She is also a features editor for the Daily Trojan. Her column, “Out of the Park,” runs every other Tuesday.