EAST CHINA – It’s the subject everyone wants to talk about. But also the topic that no one has an answer for.
A tremendous influx of knowledge about sports injuries, especially brain injuries such as concussions, has caused everyone to take a closer look at the game of football. You will find concussions in many other sports, including soccer, basketball and even volleyball. But the focus has remained on football, and for good reason. It is one of the most prevalent sports that have seen a rise in head injuries.
It can be debated that athletes have always sustained these head injuries. But greater understanding on their long-term effects has caused plenty of conversation.
“There is no doubt we have seen a decline in our numbers,” St. Clair Athletic Director Jeff Cook said. “At our league meeting, it was a decline all across the (Macomb Area Conference). I think the issue of concussions is the huge thing.
“What happened at the NFL level really gave parents a reason to pause and consider is it safe to put my kid out there? We try to tell them it is safer than ever before. The quality of the equipment we wear, the rules that have been implemented, are better than they ever have been.”
New technology, new gear
St. Clair High School has added an extra layer of protection for its athletes by using the Guardian Cap on top of its helmets. It is said to decrease impact by 33 percent without affecting the integrity of helmets.
“The Guardian padding that goes over the top of the helmet is a response to the increase number of concussions and the heightened awareness from our community,” Cook said. “We started a couple of years ago. We have kids, that if they have had any type of previous history of concussions or head injury will wear it and we also supply it to any kid that would want to have it for added safety.
“I think it really adds a layer of safety comfort for kids and parents.They run right around $60-80. Not every kid has one but a good number of the kids do. Football helmets overall have become so much better. They are way safer than even they were at 10 years ago.”
But that hasn’t outright stopped the head injuries from occurring. As athletes have become bigger, stronger and faster, the risk of injury has become more pronounced.
“Every kid wears it in practice,” St. Clair coach Bill Nesbitt said. “I believe it makes a difference. The more coverage on the head, the more protection it is. Some of the new technology is the soft coded helmets that dissipate the energy at impact. Those Guardian caps create the soft coating on top.
“We are trying to find ways to take care of these kids. I believe this is the greatest game we have. It’s the greatest sport ever made. And if we can do anything to keep kids involved and playing it and alleviate the concerns and fears of parents, we should do it.”
‘A persistent headache’
Austin Smith entered his senior season at Croswell-Lexington full of hope and expectation. He was taking on a larger role and seemed braced to develop into the player he always imagined he would be.
But during the Pioneers opening game against St. Clair, Smith suffered a concussion that would sideline him the next two weeks.
“I had a couple of hard hits and I had a headache,” Smith recalled. “It didn’t bother me much and I kept playing. But it was difficult to focus on what you were doing. I had to sit out a couple of weeks after that. It was hard to sit out and watch us lose to Richmond. It’s tough to go through this knowing we had a big game coming up. But I’m glad at the same time that I sat out even though I was frustrated with myself. I wanted to play. But I have learned to be patient with a concussion. You don’t want brain damage over time, later in life.”
The experience was an entirely new experience for the Smith family, that has never had to face such an injury before.
“Austin came off the field and didn’t tell us anything,” Smith’s mom Jackie Peterson-Smith said. “He told the coach he had a headache. The following Monday he went back to practice and still had the headache. They took him in for a test and he passed. But three days later he still had a headache and we took him to Dr. Joshua Smith at MED Express in Port Huron. He was outstanding and told us he wanted to follow the Michigan High School Athletic Association Return to Play protocol.
“It wasn’t a mandatory thing but it was a great tool to have. At first the situation put us on our heels. We hadn’t gone through a concussion with him before. But now we understand more of what happens. Coaches are taking it seriously and not just focusing on winning. College does an excellent job with concussions. High schools are hoping to get up to that standard. Everyone wants to win. But there’s more on the line. Their future is important. Most aren’t going to play in the NFL or even in college.”
So Smith progressively came back from the injury. First he waited for the symptoms to subside and eventually he returned to practice. He returned to the field this past Friday with a new perspective on his favorite game.
“It didn’t change the way I play,” Smith said. “I always lay it all out on the line. But I was more cautious on how I hit people. Sometimes I lead with my head and I will try not to do that anymore.
“I would give the other kids advice to get checked out and to sit out as long as they have to. As much as you want to play, later in life matters too. Most kids are like me. They want to play and help their team out. I could have been out for the rest of the season if I didn’t heal. I let it heal and I can play the rest of my senior season.”
The road ahead
Technology is making major advancements but it still hasn’t stopped an increase of traumatic head injuries. But as awareness increases, the hope is that eventually technology will catch up all of the way and begin preventing the injuries outright.
“The way in which the game is managed by officials and coaches makes it much safer than what it was even 10 years ago,” Jeff Cook said. “The old way of if you got your bell rung, you suck it up and get back out there used to be the mentality. Just that awareness has made it a better mindset for coaches and kids when they are playing the game. I think you see a lot less spearing calls and those types of things. They aren’t happening like they used to.
“Hopefully there will be recognition of all the safety measures that have been put in place and hopefully it will make parents more comfortable with letting their kids participate. But there are safety factor issues that have caused some parents to get their kids off the path before they ever get into it by getting them involved in something else.”
St. Clair wide receiver and defensive back Cam Jabiro is one of the players that wears the extra level of protection over his helmet. He said knowing he has it on doesn’t feel different, but does provide an extra level of confidence.
“The coaches say the kids that hit hard or have had a concussion wear it. You have the option. I choose to wear it every practice and every game. I got in a car accident recently and had a concussion. This gives you that extra something.
“I always have that thing on. We hear other teams say sometimes ‘What do you have that on for’ but it is just our thing. If it gives you that extra edge or feeling that we are ready to play I think we should all be wearing it. We have low numbers and we can’t risk concussions.”
Contact Joseph Hayes at (810) 989-6268 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on twitter @Joseph_Hayes11.