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Wed October 9, 2013
Youth Radio

High Schools Struggle To Tackle Safety On The Football Field

Originally published on Wed October 9, 2013 6:41 pm

The NFL adopted a new rule this season that makes it illegal for players to hit with the crown of their helmet. In other words, ramming your head into someone.

In high school football, it's been illegal to hit this way for years. But unlike in the pros, I've hardly ever seen it called in a game. Still, Nic McMaster, coach at Castro Valley High School in the San Francisco Bay area — where I'm a defensive end — tries to teach us better.

At a recent practice, McMaster scolded a linebacker for leading with his head. "Alfaro, that was horrible technique. That's why you can't lean and put your head down when you block," he called out.

Football is the most popular sport among high school boys, with more than 1 million playing the game during the 2012-13 school year. But the sport has taken a hit in recent years over allegations that the game is unsafe.

Young athletes across all sports suffer 300,000 concussions each year, according to researchers from Nationwide Children's Hospital. My team's varsity tight end, Mack Woodfox, is one of them.

"I was hit helmet-to-helmet from the side of my face and I kind of stumbled over, and after that my ears started ringing and my eyes kind of blacked out a little bit," Mack says. He missed a week of school and a few weeks of practice.

Almost 90 percent of concussions in high school football happen from player-to-player contact. That's one reason the NFL Players Association negotiated limits on tackling during practices. But very few high school leagues have caught up with that NFL standard.

Improvements In Texas

Texas has. The state that brought you Friday Night Lights and, more recently, a $60 million high school football stadium in the city of Allen has adopted one of the strictest limits on high school contact and tackling at practices.

The University Interscholastic League, the association that sets rules for high school sports in Texas, limited full contact during practice to 90 minutes a week.

Just south of Dallas, DeSoto High School is home to one of the top football teams in the state. Lauren Silverman, a reporter for NPR member station KERA, recently visited a DeSoto High football practice and says she saw no head-to-head action or players falling to the ground after a tackle.

"This is a tackling circuit," explains DeSoto coach Paul Beattie. "The way we modified it is we're not going to take them to the ground. We don't want to hurt our own players."

In this type of tackling circuit drill, players run past, instead of into, each other. The team's head coach, Claude Mathis, welcomes the rule. "I saw a big improvement in our kids, in our kids' legs, in their body language. They weren't as tired as they were before," he says.

But players like DeSoto varsity linebacker Derion Woods are conflicted. "I mean, they do it to keep us healthy, but as a linebacker you do like hitting," he says.

Texas and Arizona both have rules limiting contact during high school football practice. But most states have no regulations.

No Set Standards For Medical Testing

If you get a concussion in the San Francisco Bay area, you might end up at the University Of California San Francisco Medical Center with Dr. Carlin Senter, a primary care sports physician.

She had me take the test that she uses to check for concussions. She read me a list of random words — elbow, apple, carpet, saddle, bubble — and asked me to repeat them back in any order.

I didn't get them all.

It's difficult to know what that might mean in my case, Senter says, "because we don't have a baseline. Who knows? You might not be so good at remembering things."

So how can we figure out who just forgets "bubble" and who has a concussion?

In the NFL, all players are required to take a medical exam at the beginning of each year. This gives their doctors a baseline assessment of players' regular mental and physical state.

But at high schools, there's no standard medical testing for football players. Nor is there a standard requirement for medical personnel to be employed by the team.

That can contribute to situations like that of 16-year-old Jackson Wegner. He plays special teams for Novato High School's football team, the Hornets, about 30 miles north of San Francisco.

"I went up over here by the end zone to catch a ball, and I jumped up and landed on my back and my head just whipped back and slammed against the turf and that was it," he says.

He got a concussion during practice last season, but it was not diagnosed — so he played in the next game. As kicker, he hit three field goals before a coach came to tell Jackson's mom, Christine Wegner, that something was wrong.

"[The coach] said, 'Jackson has a concussion. He doesn't know where he is or what field goal he's supposed to be kicking at,' " she recalls. "And this is after he already scored all these points."

Wegner wants the team to be able to identify concussions sooner. But there's some debate about how to do that.

What's A Parent To Do?

She supported her son's team getting a baseline concussion test at the beginning of the new season. It's an extra expense, but Russell White, commissioner for the Oakland Athletic League, which governs all high school sports in Oakland, says it's worth it.

"When you see the NFL doing things, high schools [and] colleges are not too far behind. I think it needs to happen," White says.

White loves football. He's played all his life and even made it to the NFL. But when it comes to his own children getting into football, he's torn.

"I often see my oldest son playing pickup games, and they're out there just doing what we did, out there tackling each other," White says. "And you start seeing the moves, you start seeing the speed. ... How long can you keep him away from it? And you see him smiling. How do you say, 'No?' "

Joining a team is a decision that parents and teenagers have to make together. Check out the safety standards at your school — and understand football is a dangerous game.

But dang, it is fun.

KERA's Lauren Silverman provided additional reporting for this story. Audio was produced for NPR by Youth Radio.

Copyright 2013 Youth Radio. To see more, visit http://www.youthradio.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Last night, the PBS program "Frontline" aired the documentary "League of Denial." It alleges the NFL covered up evidence linking football and chronic brain damage. In recent years, pro football has introduced measures to prevent head injuries. Youth Radio now looks at three of those measures and compares them to what's happening at the high school level.

We start at Castro Valley High School in the San Francisco suburbs. Here's Youth Radio reporter, Kendrick Calkins.

KENDRICK CALKINS, BYLINE: The NFL adopted a new rule this season making it illegal to hit with the crown of your helmet. In other words, ramming your head into someone like this...

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTBALL GAME)

CALKINS: It's been illegal to hit with the crown of your helmet in high school football, but unlike in the pros, I've hardly ever seen it called in a game. Still, Coach Nic McMaster tries to teach us better.

NIC MCMASTER: Alfaro, that was horrible technique. That's why you can't lean and put your head down when you block.

CALKINS: According to a survey by the Nationwide Children's hospital, young athletes across all sports suffer 300,000 concussions each year, including my team's varsity tight end, Mack Woodfox.

MACK WOODFOX: I was hit helmet-to-helmet from the side of my face and I kind of stumbled over, and after that my ears started ringing and my eyes kind of blacked out a little bit.

CALKINS: Mack missed a week of school and a few weeks of practice. Almost 90 percent of concussions in football happen from player-to-player contact. That's one reason the NFL players association negotiated limits on tackling during practices. Very few high school leagues have caught up with that NFL standard. Texas has.

PAUL BEATTIE: Ready, go.

CALKINS: The state association that calls the shots for high school sports in Texas limited full contact during practice to 90 minutes a week. KERA reporter Lauren Silverman visited one school about half an hour south of Dallas.

BEATTIE: Ready, go.

LAUREN SILVERMAN, BYLINE: DeSoto High School is home to one of the top football teams in Texas. At practice today, you won't see head to head action or hear the thud of players falling to the ground after a tackle.

BEATTIE: Come on, on your feet. Come on, son. Come on, son. On your feet.

SILVERMAN: The state that brought you "Friday Night Lights" and more recently a $60 million high school football stadium has adopted one of the strictest limits on high school contact and tackling at practices. Desoto coach Paul Beattie.

BEATTIE: This is a tackling circuit. The way we modified it is we're not going to take them to the ground. We don't want to hurt our own players.

SILVERMAN: In this drill, players run past, instead of into, each other. But players like varsity linebacker Derion Woods are conflicted.

DERION WOODS: I mean, they do it to keep us healthy, but as a linebacker you do like hitting, but we do understand they do it to just keep us healthy throughout the season.

SILVERMAN: Texas and Arizona both have rules in effect limiting contact during high school football practice. But most states have no regulations. In Dallas, I'm Lauren Silverman.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: One, two, three, (unintelligible).

CALKINS: Back here, in the Bay Area, if you get a concussion, you might end up at the University Of California San Francisco Hospital with Dr. Carlin Senter, a primary care sports physician.

CARLINE SENTER: I'm going to read you the words and you repeat them back to me in whatever order.

CALKINS: She gave me a concussion assessment, which includes a memory test. I didn't get them all.

SENTER: Elbow, apple, carpet, saddle, bubble.

CALKINS: But you try it. So how do we figure out who just forgets bubble and who has a concussion?

SENTER: So it's very hard to know because we don't have a baseline. Who knows? You might not be so good at remembering things.

CALKINS: The NFL makes all players take a medical exam at the beginning of each year. This gives their doctors a baseline assessment of players' regular mental and physical state. At high schools, there's no standard medical testing for football players. Nor is there a standard requirement for medical personnel to be employed by the team.

This can contribute to situations like 16-year-old Jackson Wegner. He plays for the Novato Hornets, about 30 miles north of San Francisco.

JACKSON WEGNER: I went up over here by the end zone to catch a ball, and I jumped up and landed on my back and my head just whipped back and just slammed against the turf and that was it.

CALKINS: Jackson got a concussion during practice last season, but it wasn't diagnosed so he played in the next game. As kicker, he hit three field goals before a coach came to tell Jackson's mom, Christine Wegner, something was wrong.

CHRISTINE WEGNER: He came to get me and said, Jackson has a concussion. He does not even know where he is or what field goal he's supposed to be kicking at. And this was after he already scored all these points.

CALKINS: Christine Wegner wants the team to be able to identify concussions sooner. But there's some debate about how to do that. She supported her son's team getting a baseline concussion test at the beginning of the new season. It's an extra expense, but to commissioner Russell White, who governs all high school sports in Oakland, it's worth it.

RUSSELL WHITE: You know, when you start seeing the NFL doing things, high schools, colleges are not too far behind. I think it needs to happen.

CALKINS: Commissioner White loves the game. He's played all his life and even made it to the NFL. But when it comes to his own children getting into football...

WHITE: I often see my oldest son playing pickup games, and they're out there just doing what we did, out there tackling each other. And you start seeing the moves, you start seeing the speed and you see him smiling. How do you say, no?

CALKINS: Joining a team is a decision that parents and teenagers have to make together. Check out the safety standards at your school and understand football is a dangerous game. But dang, is it fun. For NPR News, I'm Kendrick Calkins. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.