Despite a recent report showing that virtually all former NFL players studied had brain damage as a result of head trauma, local coaches say they are not seeing any drop in participation as Indian River County’s three high school football teams prepare for the upcoming season, which begins Aug. 25.
Coaches at St. Ed’s, Vero High and Sebastian River High say they take the welfare of their young athletes very seriously and are confident they are providing the safest environment possible for an often violent contact sport.
New protective gear, altered tackling techniques and more careful medical oversight are all part of the effort to protect students.
The grim Boston University School of Medicine study focusing on the brains of deceased football players aged 23 to 89 was released late last month. It shows a clear cause-effect between repeated strikes to the head and a devastating, degenerative brain disease known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
According to a Sports Illustrated article about the report, “high school players in the study had mild cases while college and professionals had more severe cases.” CTE was found in 177 of the 202 brains studied, including all but one of the 111 NFL players in the study.
It is important to note, the study was not conducted on a random set of former NFL players. Instead, “the brains were donated by families of former NFL players who showed signs of the disease,” according to Sports Illustrated.
Still, the evidence of football-related brain damage was overwhelming enough to give at least some high school players and their parents significant pause.
The study shows that repetitive, seemingly non-violent blows, not necessarily the head-jarring ones, are likely the most common cause of CTE, which presents symptoms such as agitation, impulsive behavior, explosive temper, memory loss and suicide. Because no technology exists to screen for the condition, its presence can only be confirmed after a player’s death.
Vero Beach neurologist Dr. James Shafer agrees that repetitive impact, not a single hard hit, is the key to this brain damage, resulting in irreparable loss of brain cells. This can occur in many sports but, Shafer says, it is most prevalent in football and wrestling.
The Boston study’s senior author, neurologist Dr. Ann McKee, told the New York Times, bluntly, “It is no longer debatable whether or not there is a problem in football – there is a problem.”
So what are local coaches doing to protect high school students playing a sport the Journal of the American Medical Association identifies as one of the leading causes of concussion among adolescents?
St. Edward’s Upper School football coach Bill Motta says that, since 2009, every St. Ed’s athlete has a preseason cognitive baseline brain test.
When a head impact incident occurs on the field, a device on the sideline can immediately reveal any changes from the baseline data, and appropriate action can be taken without delay. Motta explains that the reaction to the initial blow is what can do the most damage, as the whipping of the head causes the impact of brain against skull.
Because the brain stem at the base of the skull is vulnerable in a head impact, Motta’s players do extensive neck strengthening work, part of a year-round strength training program using state-of-the-art machines and St. Vincent Sports Performance techniques.
Contact has been greatly reduced during practice, Motta says, and a player is rarely taken to the ground. Instead of pounding each other, players practice tackling by using tackling rings – a padded “wheel” that allow players to work on their technique, wrapping their arms around the wheel to simulate wrapping up an opposing ball carrier, without risking another player’s health.
Tackling styles are changing too, with the aim of reducing concussions.
“No coach teaches using the head as a battering ram anymore,” emphasizes Motta.
Instead, Motta now teaches a rugby style technique called the “Hawk” that leads with the shoulder, not the head.
State high school football rules have actually prohibited head butting for some time, but the regulations were not consistently enforced until more recently, says one long-time official.
As the dangers of head trauma become better known, coaches and officials are cracking down. Penalties for “targeting” (usually a helmet-to-helmet hit) are heavy: For the first infraction, it’s a 15-yard penalty (personal foul, unsportsmanlike conduct). On the second, it’s an ejection for the player and another 15-yard loss.
Lenny Jankowski, who coaches the Vero Beach High School Fighting Indians, says the newest equipment and training techniques tend to “trickle down” from the NFL to college and high school levels but adds that local high school programs are “ahead of the curve.”
Jankowski also teaches the “Hawk” tackling technique, and his players, too, attack padded wheels instead of each other in practice. They also get start-of-the-season brain baseline tests.
“We practice without collision,” Jankowski says, “but on Friday night, we don’t lack physical contact. We’re just smarter and more educated. First and foremost is safety.”
Sebastian River High School Sharks Coach Chuck Kenyon says his athletes are tested preseason to establish the brain baseline, and he and his staff employ low-contact practice techniques, as well as the rugby tackling method. On the field, he works closely with the team trainer, Hilary Lange, who “spends as much time as the coaches with the kids.”
If a player comes out with an injury, says Kenyon, he’ll come directly to Lange on the sideline, and she’ll make the assessment.
At that point “the coach is out of the loop,” Kenyon stresses, noting that properly dealing with an injury and deciding whether to bench a player should have nothing to do with the impact on the game, only the player’s wellbeing. “No won-lost record will ever be delivered at the expense of putting these kids in harm’s way,” she says.
This attitude is in striking contrast to the attitude of many coaches in years past who pushed players to “get back in there” and play through the pain.
In the literal forefront when it comes to protection from head trauma is the helmet, and Kenyon, Jankowski and Motta spare no expense in providing their young athletes with the best gear available.
St. Edward’s purchases Riddell and Schutt helmets rated 5-star on the Virginia Tech helmet rating list. During practice, they also use the Guardian Cap Impact Reduction System, a padded, soft-shell layer placed over the traditional hard-shell helmet to reduce impact shock. Vero Beach also uses Riddell and Schutt, while Sebastian provides Riddell speed-flex helmets.
Kenyon says helmets are automatically sent to the manufacturer for reconditioning annually. Each is marked with purchase date and reconditioning date. A helmet is retired following trauma and, after 10 years, a helmet can no longer be used. Period.
“Even if a helmet sits on the shelf and is never used,” Kenyon says, it’s gone after 10 years. “As parents, coaches and players, we must just be diligent and vigilant – err on the side of caution when working with kids.”
Lorraine Amaral, whose son Logan plays for the Vero Beach High Fighting Indians, says she has seen firsthand how much concern coaches show “all the time” for the players’ health and safety, and the steps they take to prevent head and other injuries.
Logan, who will be a junior this year, has been the playing football since third grade. His mother says the game has taught him teamwork and leadership and made him more motivated and disciplined.
“Logan is very motivated and goal-oriented. He trains with the team and with a personal trainer. He’s going for a college scholarship, and works to keep his GPA up so he’ll be strong in football and academics as well. He’ll be taking honors classes this year.”
An extra benefit: Added to academic demands, practice and game schedules leave Logan little time for getting into trouble, Amaral says. She also notes that players are subject to random drug tests throughout the year.
With continued parent support, local coaches agree, “football isn’t going anywhere.” But much remains to be learned about traumatic brain injuries, including chronic traumatic encephalopathy: Why do some athletics get it while others don’t; can it be prevented? Is there a genetic factor? Can the repetitive injuries that seem to trigger it be quantified?
Shafer concludes, “Coaches do what they can, but you can’t entirely eliminate the risk. High school football is very popular. It’s a good team sport for kids and parents, but they should understand the risk.”