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Get Your Head In The Game, Not The Grave

By JOHN FELTMAN

You’re playing football for your high school team. It’s Friday night lights, and you’re about to receive the opening kickoff. The football is kicked right into your arms, and you think you have a chance to return it to the house. Running as hard as you can, you make several jukes and find a hole to make it to the end zone.

All you see in front of you is the end zone and your heart begins to pound. Thousands of fans are cheering you on, screaming and shouting your name because they think you’re about to score.

Then, it happens.

A player on the other team blindsides you right before you enter the end zone. You fall to the ground, and everything starts spinning. The hit to your head was so hard you barely remember it occurring. A concussion, the dictionary tells us, is known as “a stunning, shattering effect from a hard blow, injuring the brain and causing disturbance of cerebral function.”

Concussions have caused parents of youth football players to be concerned about their children’s long-term health. USA Football took a survey on football participants from ages 6-14. Since 2010, there has been a 27 percent decrease in participation, according to vocativ.com. Jack Moore in the article quoted it as a “massive drop of about 3 million participants.”

Ryan Widd is a UT sophomore and musical theatre major.  Widd played football in high school,  and he said he too had experienced concussions during his playing days. But, that didn’t stop him from playing the game that he loved. “The bond you get between the guys you play with, it’s like going to war with [them],” Widd said. “It’s really special, you would do anything for your teammates.”

Widd talked to me about a rough experience involving a concussion that he had obtained during his high school playing days.

“So I sat in my spot at right tackle, I was prepping for a low hit,” Widd said.  “I left with concussion, and memory loss. I regained almost all of my memory after a week, however initially I couldn’t even remember who my family was, what school I went to, or what sport I played.”

Even though Widd was a victim to this injury, he doesn’t believe concussions are an issue in the NFL.

“Players know what they are getting into now,” Widd said. “You’re paid millions of dollars to do what you do, men go to war for way less. You should know it’s hard on your body and head.”

Ever since the release of the hit movie Concussion, starring Will Smith, parents, football players of all levels and the people involved in Pop Warner, are starting to take a more serious approach when it comes to concussions. The decline of youth football participation is a major result of individuals taking concussions a lot more seriously.

Rick Shears is the head football coach for the middle school team at Cambridge Christian school district here in Tampa, Florida. His experience in football ranges from his playing days and coaching for many years,  as he’s been involved with football for practically his entire life.

“Prior to the [concussion] epidemic we normally had upwards of 40-45 players,” Shears said. “Today we are in the area of 28-32 players, and enrollment has been the same or increased.”

Shears also talked about how concussions should not scare youth football players from playing football. Throughout his entire coaching career, he hasn’t seen any major negative impacts from them.

“I experienced one concussion that I know of and I remember a state of confusion with severe headaches,” Shears said, “Not sure of the long term effect, but I am 56 years old and seemed to be in fine health mentally and physically.”

For years, the National Football League Player Association has been investigating how to make the NFL safer for players. Their research has been very minimal when it comes to the concussion issue.

Recently, the Pop Warner youth football association was sued for lack of safety in their football participants. The lawsuit was labeled as a class-action lawsuit which was demanded to face a jury. The association is being blamed for allowing children to play a “warrior-type game” causing Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a disease found later in life. CTE is a brain disease linked to many blows to the head over a period of time, according to WebMD. Because of this incurable disease, many former NFL players have suffered from serious depression, and they’ve also committed suicide because they could not take the pain of constant headaches, serious migraines, or blurred vision any longer. Mike Webster, Kenny Stabler, and Junior Seau are just a few of the former NFL greats who committed suicide due to CTE.

Jon Butler, executive director of the Pop Warner Little Scholars, declined to be interviewed due to the ongoing litigation against Pop Warner. He wrote a column for USA Today, which was published on Aug. 29. In Butler’s story he outlined that rule changes in the NFL will certainly decrease the amount of concussions, but there is no possible way for any athlete playing football to avoid them, as they could occur on any play during a game.

“[23 percent] of concussions are caused because of the kick-off,” Butler wrote, “We need to make football safer’. “So beginning this fall, Pop Warner will be the first national program to eliminate kickoffs.”

So why are lawsuits being filed now? Football has been played for over a century, and it seems odd that concern is growing now, when many rule changes have been made to accommodate for players safety in recent years. And if youth football starts to decline, what does this mean for the future of the NFL?

“We try to limit the number of times we run live drills over the course of the season, not only for the purpose of concussions, but injury management in general,”  said Mike Gregory, head coach of the Tampa Catholic high school’s football team. “We are still full speed in most of our drills, but with an early whistle and ‘thud’ tempo. It is a delicate balance, however, while trying to toughen a football team up.”

Gregory was also a former football player as well, experiencing numerous concussions, he said, “including a few I’m sure that were undiagnosed,” Gregory said. “I was diagnosed with five concussions throughout my playing career.”

Times have definitely changed. Gregory did make it clear that the state of Florida is very strict in the protocol a player must go through while experiencing concussion-like symptoms. He referred to it as a “5-step protocol,” in which the player must pass each step without any setbacks before returning to game action. Gregory also hopes that the rise of this concussion awareness will increase youth football participation.

“My hope is that parents don’t believe that concussions are more common now – if anything, that is perceived to be the case because of the heightened awareness,” Gregory said.  “Football is still a great game, and with the right coaches and training staff, injury management is of the utmost importance to keep kids safe. The fact that there is better awareness and prevention mechanisms in place for concussions, heat-related illness, and other injuries should encourage parents to allow their kids to participate.”

However, there are still those who believe youth football participation should be banned or even limited to due concussions. Some say they shouldn’t allow children to play tackle football until a certain age; others say that they should put heavy restrictions on the rules. For example, some football enthusiasts believe that children should only be allowed to play flag football until they reach middle school. 

Widd said that if ever has children of his own one day, he wants them to know to risks involved if they decided to play football.

“If they wanted to, yes. I wouldn’t tell them no,” Widd said. “But, they would have to wait for the right time, and they would have to know the full extent of the risk.”

Gregory seemed very pleased that medical physicians are taking concussions more seriously than before. “We [the entire football community] are no longer sweeping ‘bell rings’ and heat illness to the side,” he said. “It’s an issue that is being addressed head-on and that will hopefully encourage parents.”

John Feltman can be reached at john.feltman@theminaretonline.com

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