High school football has been a tradition in the Delaware Valley for decades. But recent safety concerns for players, coaches, and fans have cast a shadow over football enthusiasm.
On the opening night of the 2022 season on August 26, the game between neighbors Upper Darby and host Bonner Prendergast was terminated with 10:51 remaining in the fourth quarter following an incident in the stands.
Spectators rushed onto the field after a rumor spread through the crowd that a weapon had been displayed or discharged in the stands. But no weapon was found and no shots were fired.
Upper Darby School District Superintendent Dr. Daniel McGarry issued a statement the following afternoon that read in part: “We know that last evening was very traumatic for all involved. The district will be providing resources and support for the students who need to speak with someone at each of our schools on Monday. Our focus right now is on making sure that we provide our students and staff with the support(s) they need.”
He thanked the members of the football, team, coaching staff, cheerleaders, and administrators for their efforts to get spectators to safety.
McGarry told WTAF-TV, “Even though we know that there wasn’t actually a shooting that happened, it was still a pretty scary moment for students and family members.”
“We’re blessed here in Upper Darby Township,” he said. “We have a great police chief in Tim Bernhardt who stayed in contact (through the weekend following the game). They’re still doing an investigation. They don’t know everything that occurred at this point in time. There was speculation that there was a fight that occurred somewhere in the crowd. We don’t know all the details.”
In hopes of preventing similar incidents, Upper Darby’s home football games are now kicking off at 5 p.m. rather than the customary 7 p.m.
The Upper Darby-Bonner Prendergast game was not the only one to be interrupted by a disturbance. The game between host Cheltenham and traditional rival Abington was halted late in the 4th quarter (Abington won 26-8) following a series of altercations in the stands that required the intercession of the Cheltenham Township Police Department.
Those events happened a year after an incident at another football game in Delaware County led to the death of an 8-year-old girl. Fanta Bility of Sharon Hill was fatally shot outside Academy Park High School football stadium on August 27, 2021, following a game between Academy Park and Pennsbury.
Bility died from shots fired by Sharon Hill police officers while three other people were wounded. The borough terminated the three officers involved in the shooting, Devon Smith, Sean Dolan, and Brian Devaney, who all face 12 counts each of voluntary manslaughter, involuntary manslaughter, and reckless endangerment.
Chris Shelly has been football coach at Springfield Township in Montgomery County for 16 seasons. A graduate of the school who played both football and baseball, he has close ties to the community.
“It seems like this world has gone haywire and upside down the last three or four years,” he said “I can’t explain it.”
Shelly said he appreciated the support he receives from the administration at Springfield and from the community at large. “When (incidents) happen anywhere I just feel very fortunate I think to be in our community,” he said. “The stuff that happens, I’m really not smart enough to explain why that stuff goes down. I really don’t know why.
“It’s really sad all around, but I think you have enough good people who love football in the community that they’re going to the right things to get the right kind of environment.”
Chas Cathers is athletic director at Hatboro-Horsham High School. Asked if the atmosphere surrounding high school football has changed throughout his career, he said the fears are generally overblown.
“I think like everything you see ups and downs,” Cathers said. “I wouldn’t say that it’s changed much. I think the 24 schools in Suburban One [sports league], the administrators, the principals the superintendents, they all do a fantastic job of making sure they’re prepared when they host big events so I really am fortunate enough that I haven’t experienced much of a change.”
Cathers says one key is for game staff at an event to be visible and interact with those attending that event.
“They’re visible, they’re interacting with our community and our spectators,” he said. “Everybody knows that we may see different events that happen at a game, but we’re all on the same page with what the protocol is in the event that we have an incident and how we’re going to handle it.
“It takes a long time but again everybody has been really great and on board with making sure we’re on the same page. So that we can run events safely and everybody feels welcome and safe when they come to sporting events.”