Seventeen-year-old Dustin Johnson assesses football as "pretty important" in his life.

"This is probably the only chance I'll get to play," said the Hunter High School tailback.But the high school junior doesn't fit the stereotype of the dumb high school jock who goes to school just to play football.

"School comes before football," said Johnson, who maintains a 3.5 grade-point average with classes such as geometry, French and English. "The coach says the first thing should be your family, then religion, if you believe in a religion, then school and then football. That's how I see it."

His coach, Mike Fraser, whose Hunter Wolverines struggled to a 0-9 record in their first year of play, believes that prowess on the athletic field is only one aspect of football, the mighty king of high school athletics.

He, like other coaches, principals, superintendents and parents interviewed by the Deseret News, thinks athletics and other extracurricular activities add important dimensions to the lives of those on the threshold of adulthood. The critics who seek change may overlook the value of athletics and other extracurricular activities, they say.

Proponents say athletics and other activities:

- Teach valuable lessons about winning and losing that will carry students through life.

Fraser, who is also head of the Utah Football Coaches Association, came to the first-year Hunter after numerous winning seasons at Granger High. Heformed a varsity football team with no seniors to play against the Hunter's seasoned opponents.

Although the final 0-9 tally doesn't show it, the year was successful - at least in the eyes of the coach and players like Johnson.

Fraser called the year "a learning experience" for his team. "These high school kids have to deal with disappointment and sometimes with embarrassment. But they learn that you do the best you can and then you get up and try again," he said.

Johnson admitted it was tough for the 16- and 17-year-old youths, especially those who came from a winning football program, to face defeat after defeat. "Yeah, we had a losing season, but it's not like we gave up or anything. We kept trying. We practiced every week. We're coming back next year."

Added David Richards, principal of state football champion Skyline: "I've never found anything more indicative of real life than football. It requires discipline, hard work, sacrifice for the program, dependence on others, accountability. Those kids who are more successful learn about those things. You don't succeed if all you do is show up."

- Build self-esteem, confidence and character.

Winning boosts self-confidence in one way while losing can help players develop a stronger sense of self-worth as they meet obstacles. "It gives the players confidence, a sense of pride and accomplishment. It really does a lot for their self-image that hopefully carries over into their school work," said Don Chamberlain, Timpview High coach.

Their self-esteem is tested, perhaps becoming stronger, Fraser said. "Their self-esteem is exposed to the real world. If a player drops the ball in the end zone and a parent or legislator gets upset, they learn to deal with the consequences. This life isn't a bowl of cherries."

- Motivate students to perform - and even stay - in school.

Al Marshal, principal at North Summit, who is also the former coach at Beaver High, found the majority of his students, with the self-discipline required for athletics, received better grades while participating in their sports.

The high school athlete is required to maintain a 2.0 GPA to participate, but most far surpass that "C" average.

The lowest GPA on North Summit's girls basketball team is 3.7, while Timpview's Chamberlain said a player with less than a 3.0 is the exception rather the rule at his school.

Parent Wil Grey credits athletics with turning around the lackluster grades of a son, Zachary, a defense back at Clearfield, who squeaked by in junior high school with a 2.0 GPA. Now, as a high school junior, Zac is on the honor roll with a schedule that includes pre-calculus and Advanced Placement chemistry.

"I can honestly say that he wouldn't be at the level where he is if he hadn't developed a sudden interest in sports," Grey said.

Zac's coach has stressed academics, and the high school junior has "disciplined his mind and become more goal-oriented," his father said.

Hunter's Johnson told the story of a teammate who hates school but stays so he can play.

Such examples don't surprise Tooele Superintendent Michael Jacobsen. "There is no question that athletics has kept students in school or helped them with their grades."

Some students don't achieve success in the classroom, and extracurricular activities offer another avenue that can help students develop such traits as character and self-esteem - attributes that the Tooele Board of Education has decreed should be developed, he said.

"Their (students') strengths aren't in academic areas. We provide them with drama, debate, band, vocal music, vocational education, agriculture as well as sports to help them achieve."

- Give a sense of pride and belonging for the team members, the student body and the community.

Fraser told of students who, although they aren't on the teams, approach him regularly to ask about Friday's game. They develop a sense of belonging and loyalty to the school that was built, in part, by athletics.

Tooele's Jacobsen said that when students develop a sense of ownership and pride in the school, something that athletics can bring, "there is less vandalism, sluffing and less negative behavior."

Even though Tooele's Buffaloes aren't state athletic champions, the community is very supportive of athletics and other activities.

"You drive down Main Street and many of the stores will have `Way to Go, Buffs' and `Good luck, Buffs' signs instead of sale signs in their windows. There will be purple ribbons tied around poles. It unites the community," Jacobsen said.

Marshal agreed. "In a small community like this one," he said of Coalville, "it (activities) brings us together. People will contact the coaches or principal before planning a wedding reception to find out the game schedule. They don't want to risk holding it on the night of a game. In a small town, people live for the (high school) activities."

Skyline's community stood behind the winning football team a couple of years ago and financed lights for the football field. The principal reports this loyalty reaped a benefit for all students. The profits from the football receipts, largely due to increased attendance after installation of the lights, has paid for other student activities.