Game Change

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Game ChangeBefore Monkton resident Heather Crowe even had kids, she told her husband, “If we have sons, they are not playing football.” Today, she has two boys, ages 6 and 8, and she hasn’t budged.

Crowe, a clinical assistant professor at Towson University with a doctorate in physical education, is resistant to football largely because of the potential for injuries, particularly head trauma. In the past few years, an increasing number of studies have reported a connection between concussions sustained by professional football players and the onset of depression, Alzheimer’s and other neurological problems. Indeed, the accumulated effects of head trauma over time represents one of the most pressing— and tragic— issues today in the National Football League, where thousands of former players are suing the league for long-term damage sustained while playing.

Fewer large-scale studies have been conducted on younger players, but one released last February, in which researchers placed sensors in the helmets of second-grade football players, found an average player sustained 100 head impacts during a season.

“Kids as young as ages 5, 6, 7 are very vulnerable to trauma,” says Mark Hyman, a Baltimore-based sports journalist and co-author of the new book, “Concussions and Our Kids: America’s Leading Expert on How to Protect Young Athletes and Keep Sports Safe.” “Their heads are disproportionately large for their bodies, as compared to adults; their necks are weaker; and they have more difficulty than adults keeping their heads steady when hit.”

Hyman’s co-author is Dr. Robert Cantu, a leading expert on athletic brain trauma and the link between concussions and progressive brain disease in athletes. He has a simple mandate: “No tackle football until the age of 14.” He and Hyman would like to see flag football (no contact) make a comeback for young children.

But, at least for the time being, flag football is apparently not what people want. Pop Warner, the nation’s largest youth football organization, with nearly 300,000 players ages 5 to 15, offered flag football for years, but in 2005, after dwindling interest, dropped it and added tackle for the 5- to 6-year-old division. “Parents were asking for tackle. This was a market-driven decision based on demand,” says Hyman. Today, there are more than 16,000 5- and 6-year-olds playing tackle.    

Jack Franks, president of the Reisters- town Mustangs, an independent youth tackle league with players as young as 5, says he’s very aware of the dangers and damage that can come from concussions. The Mustangs are governed under the policy of the Mid-Maryland Youth Football and Cheer League and the USA Football League, the national governing body at the youth and amateur level that offers standardized training, education and certification of youth league coaches. “We take concussion education very seriously,” says Franks. “All of our coaches take concussion training and get certified as a condition of being a coach.”

As a result of the training, coaches know better how to observe a player who has taken a hit, says Jerry Hudson, head coach for the 9- to 11-year-old Mustangs. “We watch how they get up,” he says. “Are they rocky, slow? We look at their eyes.” There are five assistant coaches at each game for this age group, and Hudson says if he misses an impact, one of the other coaches sees it. “We are watching the players as much as we are watching the play,” he says.

Cantu encourages parents to become educated on concussion symptoms, and reminds them that they are in the best position to spot changes in behavior or demeanor or appearance— all signs of injury. But preventing injury is as important as care after a hit. Twelve-year-old Joshua Kreshtool, who plays defensive tackle in the league, says his coach’s mantra is, “Keep your head up. Keep your head up.” USA Football has a new program called Heads Up Football that instills the message that tackling with the head down is dangerous. Still, injuries happen regularly. “Out of two teams playing a game, there’s one kid who gets their bell rung, sometimes minor, sometimes severe,” says Nate Bickerstaff, defensive coordinator for Perry Hall High School’s football program.

Game ChangeBickerstaff began playing football in the first grade and played through college before back injuries ended his career. He can’t count the number of concussions he’s suffered. “I had my first concussion in the fourth grade when I took a knee to the head during a Saturday afternoon game. I was rocked, dizzy, nauseous and out-of-it, but after a few plays off, I was back in the game,” he says. If that happened today, he says, a trainer would evaluate a player before he could return to the field.

Bickerstaff makes his players read the warning labels affixed to each helmet.  “I reiterate that using the helmet as a weapon can result in severe injury and death,” he says. “I drive that point home.”

In an effort to decrease the risk of injury, especially concussion, Pop Warner has changed its rules regarding football practices, which is where studies indicate the majority of head blows occur. The first rule limits time allotted to contact in practice drills to no more than one-third of the total weekly sessions. The second change prohibits full-speed, head-on type drills.

“Training is helpful. Tackle techniques can minimize injuries. But this is not the answer,” says Hyman. “We need to hold kids until age 14 before letting them play tackle, and we must reduce the amount of contact kids are subjected to, especially in practice.”  

Suzanne Schriver disagrees there should be no tackle football before age 14. Instead, she and her husband, who serve as football administrator and commissioner, respectively, for Towson Rec Council’s Spartans Football League, a tackle league governed under the Greater Baltimore Youth Football League, have devoted their efforts to ensuring the safety of players by providing quality equipment, teaching technique, training coaches and instituting the new Pop Warner rules. The Schrivers’ 12-year-old son, Wesley, is a fullback for his rec council team. “My son is the most precious thing to me,” says Schriver. “We do not accept kids being hurt.”

The Schrivers took over leadership of the league in 2006, and under their supervision it has grown to seven teams with 150 players ages 5 to 14. Schriver was recently awarded several large donations that allowed her to buy state-of-the-art Xenith helmets for every player.    

“Football is not going away,” she says. Still, registration for the 5- to 7-year-olds was down this fall, a decline she thinks could be related to concerns about concussions. “We had roughly 18 fewer registrations— enough to drop a team,” she says. “Parents are worried, and I understand that, but we do not accept unsafe play here. We provide an environment where the refs, coaches and team mothers will not accept any of that ‘shake it off’ mentality.”

Timonium native Alex Griswold, 24, played football for 10 years, first during middle and high school at St. Paul’s School and then at Davidson College, a Division I school in North Carolina. A year ago, he happened upon an article reporting that football players receive an average of a thousand sub-concussions per year— and it alarmed him. “Any time you get jolted, your brain sloshes around and causes damage. Any head-to-head impact is a sub-concussion, even if you don’t pass out. And there were lots of head-to-heads,” says Griswold.

Griswold vividly remembers his first concussion, which he sustained in middle school. “I stood up feeling woozy, but continued to play, not realizing I’d been out for a moment,” he says. Griswold’s father, a doctor, saw the play and still made the diagnosis only after the game.

Despite the current changes being made, the question remains: Is tackle football safe for young boys? Sure, young kids don’t participate in the collision aspect seen at the collegiate level, says Griswold. But kids still hit each other. “And those hits are not insignificant,” he says. “My kids will not play in the Pee Wee leagues, I know that.”  

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