Football is a great teacher of life lessons, as well as a community rallying point and a lifeblood to athletic programs.

As it adapts to its latest challenges, we all know it must become safer.

But to keep it on the field in some places, it needs to become smaller as well.

The by the National Federation of High School Associations showed the number of athletes playing any form of high school football went down about 1.9 percent.

The most alarming number, pointed out by Nick Stevens earlier this week, was that the number of North Carolina high school football athletes has dropped 19.7 percent since 2013.

Let‘s focus on the “why” high school football numbers are down for a different day.

There are plenty of those stories, though too few seem to try to offer more than one reason at a time (to me, it‘s always seemed like a perfect storm of concussion fears, changing demographics, and rampant specialization luring athletes away from the football field to “focus” on other team sports).

Let‘s instead look at a different number – one that shows 8-man football going up just a hair, less than 1 percent – and offer a solution that can help North Carolina‘s schools here and now.

The N.C. High School Athletic Association hasn‘t offered 8-man football since the 1960s, but the N.C. Independent Schools Athletic Association has actually been adding 8-man programs in recent years, showing its usefulness to smaller schools who want in on the mystique of Friday night lights.

We are at a point where NCHSAA schools should start to outline the reintroduction of the sport.

This is simply a practical way to still offer the sport at schools that are struggling to meet the demands of 11-man football.

In 11-man, a school with 30 players on the varsity roster is tiny.

In 8-man, “tiny” is 15 or less and a team with 30 players has more depth than they know what to do with. Having to find 15-20 fewer athletes makes a world of difference.

That would be good news for tiny 1A schools, including the many charter schools that don‘t have the numbers to take the 11-man plunge.

It would also work for larger schools located in what are becoming “football deserts.”

A school with borderline numbers – large enough to do varsity or JV, but not both – might even conceivably play an 11-man varsity schedule and an 8-man JV schedule, though it will add some pages to the playbook for coaches.

Having an 8-man option that NCHSAA schools could opt into years in advance would eliminate the cancellation of full seasons that have cost athletic programs – and their opponents – much-needed gate money.

It would allow , which struggled to keep its 11-man program afloat over the years, to keep their Friday night lights on and an added revenue stream open.

I would imagine that the statewide participation stat, when updated next year with 2018-19 numbers, will look worse when it includes at least four schools – , , Mattamuskeet and Central Academy in Monroe – that elected not to play the sport.

For these and other schools like them that are barely getting by to put out a team each fall, wouldn‘t it be better if a school had the option to either play 11-man or 8-man, than have to choose between 11-man or none at all?