Is high school football dangerous?
by Staff Writer
by Aaron Burns
Garrett Young doesn’t think about getting hurt during a football game.
East Lincoln High’s quarterback enters his senior season with specific goals: winning games, going to the state playoffs and getting a scholarship.
Concussions and heat-related ailments are an afterthought.
Young has never had a serious injury. However, he’s taken enough hits to know the risk is always there. Young was drilled on a blindside hit in the Mustangs’ preseason scrimmage against Lawndale Burns High last August.
A much heavier defensive lineman threw the 6-foot-2, 180-pound Young to the ground. But Young got up, dusted himself off and got back in the huddle like nothing happened.
Young, like other quarterbacks, is dressed for battle: a girdle, a flak jacket, knee brace and mouthpiece in addition to his pads and helmet.
“It’s a physical game,” Young said. “I know injuries can happen. People always say, ‘the ones who play scared always get hurt.’”
But what about the ones who do the right things and get injured anyway?
Is football in its current form safe enough for high school athletes to take part?
“I think it is,” Davidson Day coach Chad Grier said. “It’s safer than it’s ever been because the awareness level (of possible injuries) is so much higher.”
Mooresville High coach Hal Capps agreed.
“One of the things I focus on when we practice is technique,” Capps said, “so guys know how to tackle and not to lead with the head so they won’t get hurt. Technique is important.”
So is a good relationship between coach, trainer and player.
Mooresville trainer Hannah Pierce, not Capps, decides if players should practice based on possible injuries or heat exhaustion. Pierce judges the temperature and humidity and if it’s too hot, practice is moved indoors or cancelled.
“Coach Capps puts his faith in me to make that call,” Pierce said. “But not every coach trusts the trainers the way they should.”
Capps said prep football’s culture has evolved greatly with regard to safety since he began his coaching career at Western Alamance High.
The popular mind-set among coaches in the 1970s, 80’s and 90’s was that if a player was hit so hard he couldn’t see straight, “give him some water and tell him to take a play or two off,” Capps said.
The approach now is different. Players are taken out of games or practices if there’s a hint of heat exhaustion, dehydration or a head injury.
Pierce uses a small light to check Mooresville players’ pupils after a hard hit. She also asks them questions to get an idea as to whether they may have gotten a concussion. The symptoms could be headaches, dizziness or confusion and if any of those are present, players don’t return to action.
“I tell my coaches, ‘What would you do if it was your son?’” Capps said. “We’re here to make the kids better players but I do my best to make sure we don’t have something awful happen to one of our players.
“I couldn’t handle that. So we work with the training staff to make sure the players are 100 percent, or they don’t play.”
Good coaching can go a long way toward injury prevention, said North Lincoln High coach David Maness.
Maness has coached since 1971, when coaches encouraged defensive players to use their heads to tackle players.
One of Maness’ friends in coaching ran a drill called “kiss the football,” where players were told to aim their facemasks between the ball carrier and the ball. The head-to-arm or head-to-pad contact, while running, that came from such drills was what caused many concussions and broken necks.
It encouraged a generation of macho players and coaches who thought they were invincible, Maness said.
That’s no longer the case.
Gov. Bev Perdue passed the Gfeller-Walker Act in June 2011, which promotes education of injuries, emergency action and post-concussion protocol implementation.
Concussions are more common than many would think. According to a National Athletic Trainers Association study, more than 55,000 high school football players were projected to have sustained a concussion in the 2005-06 school year.
The Colorado Medical Society classifies concussions into three categories: Grade 1, a hit that makes you see stars, Grade 2, including confusion and post-traumatic amnesia, and Grade 3, when the athlete is unconscious.
“Players are taller and heavier now,” Maness said. “I saw an old program from the 60’s where one kid on a team was over 200 pounds. Now there’s kids 275 and up.”
Grier has an offensive lineman, Schuyler Coleman, who is 6-foot-7 and weighs 340 pounds.
The added bulk has led coaches to be more active in informing players of risks.
Capps has his players read the warning labels on their helmets before practice.
Grier made sure his players got the safest helmets – Riddell Revo Speed – on the market.
“We encouraged them to get quality mouthpieces too,” Grier said.
But preparation extends beyond avoiding concussions. Heat stroke is also an obstacle.
The University of North Carolina’s Annual Survey of Football Injury Research reported 40 high school players have died of heat stroke since 1995.
Capps said coaches used to avoid giving players water breaks. After the rash of heat strokes among players, water breaks became common.
Trainers also have a larger presence than in the past. North Carolina mandates that a trainer be present for sporting events, but Maness – who spent most of his career in South Carolina – didn’t have an on-site trainer until he was over 15 years into his career.
A NATA survey showed only 42 percent of high schools nationwide had access to a trainer.
“There’s no (requirement) in South Carolina that says you have to have trainers at every practice or game on a full-time basis,” Maness said. “It’s a good thing that they do here.”
Capps has a message for those who think prep football is too risky to play.
“I say, ‘Do you let your son ride a bike? Does he walk down the street, go swimming and jump off diving boards?’” Capps said. “Kids get hurt from all kinds of things and they’re often unsupervised. This sport is guided by adults. We tell them, ‘Hey, this is how you do it.’”
Grier thinks football safety should continue to evolve, but the regulations and support players have gives them plenty of reasons to take the field this fall and beyond.
“It’s a safer game,” Grier said. “But with bigger, faster, stronger kids.”