High school football athletes, families face tough questions when it comes to participation

High school football athletes, families face tough questions when it comes to participation

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High school football athletes, families face tough questions when it comes to participation

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Can I play football?

It’s the question some fathers cannot wait to hear, and also the question some mothers dread.

That was how at least one Northwest Reno mom felt, as she worried her sons would get hurt playing the country’s most popular sport.

But for a growing number of parents nationwide, getting hurt — breaking a finger or even an arm — now is tame compared to lifelong head trauma and other long-term physical ailments.

This mom, whose family asked not to be named in this story, watched her youngest son take a violent hit to the head one Friday night nearly a half-decade ago. It left him momentarily unconscious and with a concussion, his fourth since the seventh grade.

“Football has done so much for this family. We’re huge fans of the game. But that was the worst night of my life as a parent,” mom said. “When he woke up, his brain flashed back to waking up from his first concussion. He didn’t know where he was, how he got there or who the coaches talking to him were. He lost short-term memory for two weeks and was goofed up for about six months. He lost a really expensive pair of shoes because he couldn’t remember where they were.”

Her son did not return to the field that year, nor did he for his senior season at the behest of two neurologists.

Whether kids should play football given the growing awareness of concussions and their long-term damage is a discussion occurring here and across the country.

That some are hesitant to discuss the matter speaks to how unusual it is to consider opting out of the sport. That others in more prominent roles already made their stances known speaks to how important they believe it is to have the conversation.

* Kurt Warner, the former Rams, Giants and Cardinals quarterback, earlier this year questioned whether the game has become too dangerous for his kids.

“I love that the (NFL) commissioner is doing a lot of things to try to clean up the game from that standpoint and improve player safety, which helps, in my mind, a lot. But it’s a scary thing for me.”

* New York Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora sided with Warner, saying he believes there is a “strong chance” he’ll end up in a wheelchair thanks to football, and he doesn’t want his son to end up there, too. Umenyiora said he wouldn’t stop his young son from playing football someday, but added, “If I can avoid that for my son, I will.”

* Tom Brady Sr., who held his son out of football until he was 14, told Yahoo Sports he would be “very hesitant” these days in deciding if his son would play.

“This head thing is frightening for little kids,” Brady Sr. said. “I think Kurt Warner is 100 percent correct. He’s there to protect his children, and these other people who are weighing in are not addressing the issue of whether it’s safe or not for kids.”

* Offensive lineman Jacob Bell in May walked away from a nearly $900,000 deal he signed with the Bengals a month before. The suicide of Junior Seau was “the cherry on top,” Bell told the St. Louis Post Dispatch.

“The reality is that for me it came down to risk and reward,” Bell, who started 100 of 109 games from 2004-11 for the Titans and Rams, told the paper. “I think you’ve always got to weigh that out. At some point, you’ve got to kind of figure out what you’re in the game for. One of my biggest concerns when it comes to the game in general is my personal health. One thing that’s obviously on the minds of a lot of people lately is brain research and all the stuff that’s going on with that. One of the big things that I thought about when I was considering this is how much do I love the game? How much can they pay me to take away my health and my future and being able to be with my family and just have a healthy lifestyle?”

Youngest players

Teresa Estabrook, president of Reno Pop Warner, heard rumblings that participation in the youth association might be down this year. Registration dropped from a year ago, but Estabrook said she has not heard explicitly safety was the reason.

“Some parents are nervous about football because of the concussion stories that have come out,” said Estabrook, who has two sons who play football and a third who will when old enough. “But I haven’t heard that safety is the sole reason for not signing up. The No. 1 reason we hear is financial. We had a huge return ratio from last year and a great turnout for the little ones, the first-year players.”

Messages left for the Sierra Youth Football League were not returned.

Chris Nowinski, CEO of the Boston-based Sports Legacy Institute, campaigns for a “hit count” for youths in football and other contact sports. Like a pitch count in baseball, it would limit how many hits a child can take per season.

Technique and gear

There were 1,095,993 participants in high school football last year, a decrease of 12,448 (1.1 percent) from 2010, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations’ annual survey. No reason was given for the drop.

The Centers for Disease Control analyzed data of sports-related brain injuries that resulted in emergency room visits for players 19 and younger, from 2001 to 2009. Football-related causes ranked second; bicycling topped the list.

Area coaches say parents’ safety concerns have not led to a declining player pool. But there are more questions every year. Most pertain to the equipment, specifically the helmet.

“Helmet technology has improved so much,” Spanish Springs coach Scott Hare said. “These are the safest helmets out there but they might be too comfortable. Back when I played, the helmets were so uncomfortable you didn’t want anything touching your head. Now, kids don’t think about that.”

Kevin Guskiewicz, a researcher at the University of North Carolina and a member of the NFL’s Head, Neck and Spine Committee, is testing whether sensors in helmets or mouth guards can reliably measure head impacts and help improve helmets and rules.

While parents focus on the equipment, coaches worry about technique and identifying early when a player might be injured.

“With all the information out there now, the focus of coaches on head injuries and possible concussions is 20 times what it was just five years ago, when there was a much greater focus than 10 years before that,” Reno High coach Dan Avansino said.

“Every coach around here focuses on proper technique, tackling with the shoulder and the arms. Not leading with the head. But the game is so fast now. Whether you’re the tackler or the guy getting tackled, there are going to be times your body is contorted for one reason or another at the time of impact. Not every tackle is going to be textbook. Those are the times, as a coach, as a parent, as a fan, you just hope for the best.”

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