William Warren, a local youth sports coach and father of four, will not allow his athletic son, Jacob to play football. He says, “With so many alternatives to tackle football for children, I can't see the value of letting them line up and crash into each other for an hour every week (not even including practices). Putting concussions aside (which alone is a qualified reason), the amount of broken bones and knee and ankle injuries is simply too much to ignore. I can see letting young men play after reaching puberty, when they are building muscle mass, but anything before can be substituted with many other sports.”
Michelle Mott, mother of three football kids, allows her sons to play the game, saying, “Football is dangerous but so are other sports. Getting the right coaching staff is one of the most important parts of youth football. My son Mason is going to play for the same coaches he had a couple years ago. They know him very well, and we trust them. They teach safety and sportsmanship.” Warren and Mott symbolize a community that is now torn between a game that offers so much but can also take so much away.
High stakes, high rewards: Nothing better describes America’s favorite sport, which is currently taking a severe hit, as high school football players’ families face prepare for another action-packed season, during the season dozens of families will have to improvise for life-altering injuries — including funerals.
Armed with more injury awareness, youth football has plummeted in the last five years, especially compared to its growth in the decades past. According to a University of Pittsburgh Medical Center survey, one in three parents lives in fear that his child will get a concussion playing football, and 25% of parents do not let their kids play some contact sports for fear of concussions. These numbers line up almost exactly with the drop in youth football participation from 2010 to 2015.
Football collisions are often likened to car crashes, and the results are often similar. Whether it’s broken limbs or concussions — which have become the biggest injury focus — human bodies continue to show they are not fit for weekly, or play-by-play collisions.
In 2003, A Virginia Tech study recorded 3,312 hits during 35 practices and 10 games in a season, when they rotated eight specially fitted helmets among 38 players. Offensive linemen endured the most hits, followed by defensive linemen, running backs, linebackers, wide receivers and defensive backs. Quarterbacks recorded the fewest hits.
In the last decade, Dr. Bennet Omalu discovered and developed his research on chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a progressive degenerative disease found in people who have had a severe blow or repeated blows to the head. In most cases of football players who died, they were later diagnosed with CTE.
Some CTE symptoms include memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, impulse control problems, aggression, depression, anxiety, suicidality, Parkinsonism, and, eventually, progressive dementia. CTE has been found in players’ brains who were as young as 17 years old.
Making the game safer
Thanks to new research and regulations, efforts have been made to put a safer game on the field. Many rough forms of tackling have been banned, and certain parts of the body — especially the head — can no longer be targeted.
A few months ago, Flagler County coaches became pioneers in purchasing helmets made with sensors to record the level of blows received. While the sensors don’t prevent players from injuries, they do communicate data about hard hits, so that coaches can know when to keep players out of games due to a risk of injury.
Getting an education through football
Also, according to scholarshipstats.com, 27,636 high school football players received sports scholarships in 2015. Scholarships provide many student-athletes the opportunity to get an education they otherwise couldn’t afford.
But football also teaches players skills they will use for the rest of their lives off the field. Throughout a season, a player will learn to depend on his teammate for every play or practice session. He will fail, succeed, cry, laugh, learn leadership, discipline, responsibility and perseverance. Players will also be mentored by older men on a consistent basis. More times than not, a player will praise one of his coaches for steering him in the right direction.
Along with their relationships with their coaches, players will find lifetime friends on the field and in the locker room. With so many teammates over the course of 10-12 playing years, the athletes will continue life-long relationships with the men who lined up next to them to achieve that common goal.
And, when it comes to the physicality of the game, not all is bad. Athletes regularly work out and are in the best shape of their lives during their career.
David Mustin, a former Seabreeze player who suffered a life-altering injury on the field that paralyzed him, still enjoys the game, and this is his perspective on the controversial game: “There’s always potential for something to happen, no matter what you’re doing. I personally have no problem with it. If an injury is going to happen, then it’s going to happen. But, whether you learn the right way or not, accidents can happen.” His nephew Jordan Lilley, who currently plays for Seabreeze, suffered a concussion his freshman year.
So, whether the bad outweighs the good or vice-versa, that is the decision each household has to make, when it comes to the game of football.
The coaches’ perspective
Troy Coke, Seabreeze head coach: I have a little less sympathy for a grown man who makes 10 million dollars a year and knows the risks.
There is a lot of new technology with helmets that’s coming out, but to me most of it is old talking techniques. Coaches have always taught to get your head across. I think you end up with kids with a lot of bad habits, putting their head and neck in vulnerable positions.
I have a best friend who is a coach, and he still struggles with the effects of a bad concussion he had in high school. He has to highlight things to make them stand out, so he can read them. He functions well, but it still bothers him.
It’s an interesting time because the game is under a lot of scrutiny, and it’s always going to be a bit of a dangerous game. You’re running into each other, and it’s very physical. But, I think we have to educate the kids and the coaches. We go by “if in doubt, sit ‘em out.” A coach that suspects a kid might have a concussion and puts him back in the game shouldn’t be coaching kids.
There are so many things kids can learn from playing football, I hate for fear of injury to keep them out. It’s a tough game to play. You spend so much time practicing versus playing, compared to other sports. I think football teaches kids about preparation and putting in time for the long run. For a lot of kids today, everything is so instantaneous, and I think they need to go through an offseason just to play 10-15 games. Perseverance and work to see it pay off. My best thing to see is the kid who has worked his butt off for three or four years. It’s also the ultimate team game; there’s got to be some selflessness there, and that’s not necessarily natural in Modern American society. I think the good far outweighs the bad, but the bad is bad. We’re talking about a brain, not a pinky toe.
Players are bigger, stronger and faster than they were 40 years ago, and I think, especially at the high levels, we are getting to the limits of the human body, as far as how much impact it can take. If players keep getting bigger, stronger and faster, I don’t think knees and skulls are going to be able to keep up with it.
I think coaches have gotten more knowledge on injuries, and I think it’s moving in the right direction. But will we ever remove that aspect of the game? No.
Robert Ripley, Matanzas head coach: Football is the ultimate team game. You need every piece to be successful. It’s also the best sport for adversity. How do you handle not being the best and or the biggest? Do you have technique and quickness? What do you do when you get knocked down? It's hard. It's not easy. People like easy. People enjoy the things that come natural. This game test all fibers of that.
And yes, you get physical in this game. A lot of parents think the sport is too rough. Football is dangerous, because you put on plastic with the intent on hitting other people. So, you will always have that fear of injuries, broken bones and knee injuries. But when played correctly, when played at a speed of no fear, you see a great game. Injuries are never going to go away.
With more rule changes and coaches being more attentive to technique and playing the game correctly, we can keep the injuries to a minimum.
DID YOU KNOW? People.com published an article about 13 high school football players that died during the 2015 season. While it is clear that some of those deaths may not have been football related, many were due to on-field incidents.
Pull quote: “I think the good far outweighs the bad, but the bad is bad. We’re talking about a brain, not a pinky toe.”
TROY COKE, Seabreeze head football coach.