High School Football: Would a Pop Warner ban limit concussions?
By Tina Akouris email@example.com August 6, 2012 10:50PM
New York Giants Y.A. Tittle squats on the field after being shaken up during a game against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Pittsburgh, in this Sept. 20, 1964 photo. | AP file photo
Fit to Hit?
We asked some area football coaches about the trends in full-contact allowed during practices. Here’s how the responses tallied:
How would you describe your planned amount of contact (hitting) in practice compared to a year ago?
Significantly less: 0
Slightly less: 11 percent
The same: 89 percent
Slightly more: 0
Significantly more: 0
How would you describe your planned amount of contact in practice compared to five years ago?
Significantly less: 11 percent
Slightly less: 33 percent
The same: 56 percent
Slightly more: 0
Significantly more: 0
How would you describe your planned amount of contact in practice compared to your high school playing days?
Significantly less: 56 percent
Slightly less: 44 percent
The same: 0
Slightly more: 0
Significantly more: 0
Updated: September 8, 2012 6:04AM
When Marv Levy first started playing football, “concussions” was a word he heard about as often as “face mask.”
The South Side native and NFL coaching legend wore a leather helmet and precious little padding. Those were the days when the Chicago Cardinals coexisted with the Bears and there was a youth football program for kids 12 and under called the Junior Bears and the Junior Cardinals.
As Levy matriculated through South Shore High School and Iowa’s Coe College, the equipment and attitudes toward football’s health hazards evolved little.
“You would get dinged up and just shake it off,” said Levy, who coached the Buffalo Bills to four consecutive Super Bowls. “We wore leather helmets with no face guards. You were a sissy if you drank water during practice back then.”
Levy is 86 years old. Pop Warner football, the self-proclaimed “largest youth football, cheerleading and dance program in the world,” is 83.
But, when it comes to full-contact hitting in football practices — official workouts begin Wednesday for the Illinois high school season — they might not be the old-fashioned ones.
In June, Pop Warner instituted rule changes designed to limit players exposure to concussions. The most significant change — limiting full-speed hitting to one-third of total practice time, when in the past there were no restrictions on full-speed hitting — heartily was endorsed by Levy.
“You don’t need to play tackle football until you’re 13 or 14, because you can learn other things about the game,” Levy said. “Part of (more awareness), in my opinion, is how players are more closely monitored and there are more medical people around. They are more cautious. I think in youth football you shouldn’t overdo the contact.”
Yet, a Herald-News poll of area football coaches revealed 89 percent of respondents had no plans to change the amount of hitting they’d allow in practice compared with a year ago, and more than half say the contact allowed is unchanged over the last five years.
Lincoln-Way Central football coach Brett Hefner didn’t necessarily disagree with Levy, but took a more diplomatic approach. Every kid, he said, is different.
“Some are ready to handle it and other kids are not,” Hefner said. “The benefits of playing at a younger age are that they understand the game more as they get older, how to position their bodies better when they tackle.”
But are there risks associated with playing at such a young age?
Certainly, the football world is hyper-aware of head injuries. Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, a condition brought on by repeated blows to the head, has been linked to the suicide deaths of three former NFL players in the past 18 months: ex-Bears safety Dave Duerson in February 2011, ex-Falcons safety Ray Easterling in April and ex-Chargers linebacker Junior Seau on May 2.
That culture of hyper-awareness, Hefner said, has led to significant changes at Lincoln-Way Central, including the presence of an athletic trainer at every practice, coaches lecturing players on concussion signs and baseline testing at the beginning of each season for every player. Hefner said those baseline tests are used later to determine if a player has suffered a concussion.
“I think 15, 20 years ago, no one wanted to say anything,” Hefner said. “We’ve been fortunate. We did have a few players have concussions last year, but everyone recovers differently.
“We have a better understanding of how serious they are.”
Dr. Eric Lee, of Oak Orthopedics in Frankfort, agreed with Hefner that every child is different, and that perhaps limiting contact in practice is the way to go to avoid more concussions.
“It’s a very controversial topic and some will say that if they don’t let their child play football, then they won’t let them ride a skateboard or ride a bike,” said Lee, who is a volunteer physician for Lincoln-Way North, Olivet Nazarene and the U.S. Soccer Youth National teams. “And at the freshman level, you have some kids who haven’t reached their physical maturity going up against those who have.”
Dr. Robert Cantu, co-director of Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, studied Duerson’s brain at his brain bank and wrote a book, “Concussions and Our Kids,” due out Sept. 15. One chapter advocates children not playing football until high school. Cantu fully supports Levy’s opinion.
“We also feel that children shouldn’t play (full-contact) hockey until high school and heading should be taken out of soccer,” Cantu said. “Kids have poorer equipment than varsity athletes and there is less medical supervision — if any — and coaches are not well-schooled in concussion issues.”
Lee said he sees more high school players in the south suburbs suffering head injuries during practice because of the competitive nature of football in this part of the Chicago area. Lee said a lot of players are going all out during practices to win that coveted starting spot.
Thus, Lee said, he believes taking a lot of hits out of practice is one step toward reducing head trauma.
“The happy medium is what Pop Warner did, with limiting the practice of contact,” Lee said. “By doing that, you remove a ton of exposure to head injuries.”
Indeed, Dr. Julian Bailes, the chairman of Pop Warner’s Medical Advisory board and co-director of the NorthShore Neurological Institute, said his organizations recommendations can cut concussions by two-thirds.
“We can reduce 60 to 70 percent of head impact because that’s what occurs at practices,” Bailes told the Sun-Times in July. “This is a first step to make it safer.”
At least one coach may take a step in another direction — perhaps not, for now, with his players, but with his 6-year-old son.
Reavis coach Tim Zasada said it’s important to teach the correct tackling technique at the high school level. Even though most coaches have the right idea in terms of how to teach players to hit, there are those at the youth football level who need to be more educated on tackling techniques.
And when it comes to his son, Zasada has an idea of what type of football future he wants to implement for his child and what other parents strongly should consider for their children.
“My son is 6 and is playing flag football and his friends are asking him if he will play padded football next year,” Zasada said. “I have no idea what I will do with my son, but flag football in my opinion is the way to go. I see kids competing and having fun and that’s what it should be about.”