A for Athlete


  • Journalist
  • Writer for the Chicago Tribune on High School Sports
  • mhutton@post-trib.com
  • Twitter:@MikeHuttonPT


Article in September 2015 about head injuries in High School Football

High schools coaches fight the perception that football is unsafe.

by Mike Hutton, The truth about head injuries in high school football is hard to know: http://trib.in/1UYIBXu

These are uncertain times for high school football coaches.

The game is under assault because of the risk of head injuries.

"If someone tells you to lower your head to tackle a player, you better run," Portage coach Wally McCormack said. "They will come to take your house. It's,'Lower your shoulder.' The sport of football is being attacked from so many different angles."

There is so much conflicting data about safety, it's hard to know what to believe.

A study by Dr. Thomas Dompier of the Datalys Center for Sports Injury Research and Prevention in Indianapolis over the 2012-2013 seasons indicated one in 14 high school players will suffer a concussion.

In contrast, Dr. Joseph Maroon, a professor of neurological surgery at the University of Pittsburgh with ties to the NFL, said last year on the NFL Network that football has never been safer and that riding a bike or a skateboard was more dangerous for kids.

Ask any football coach about the risk for a head injury in football and they'll often point out soccer has a higher incidence of concussions.

There is one universal point of agreement within the medical profession: Repeated blows to the head can lead to debilitating medical problems.

A story by Frontline last year said 76 of 79 former NFL players who were biopsied after death had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, according to the Department of Veteran Affairs' brain repository. The medical profession generally believes there is a link between CTE and the repeated impact from contact to the head from playing football.

To local high school coaches, the stigma that has trickled down from the NFL about head injuries is unfair.

The truth about head injuries in high school football is hard to know.

"It's media sensation," Munster coach Leroy Marsh said. "The press took over and now people are cashing in. Now, we have concussion clinics and MRI's are $1,500. There is a big fear factor out there. High school football is as safe as it's ever been."

Lake Central coach Brett St. Germain was frank about concussions. He doesn't believe they are accurately identified.

"I know I am going to get in trouble for saying this, but I suspect it's over-diagnosed," he said, "because there is so much heightened awareness of it by trainers and doctors."

North Judson coach Ted White admitted the culture has changed.

"You can't say to a kid who has a headache now to suck it up and get back in there," he said. "You used to maybe say, get some water and go back in. It's a very beneficial way of thinking. If kids saw some of the old drills, where players got hit in the back, (they'd say), 'Wow.' I think the game has progressed."

At Portage, the Indians have held eight players out this season for concussion symptoms.

It's all about erring on the side of caution.

Diagnosing a concussion isn't a simple process. There are symptoms that can mimic a concussion, like a cold, light sensitivity and dehydration.

The ImPACT Test, technology that records normal neurological activity, has made the process of diagnosing concussions clear-cut.

Almost all schools use ImPACT to help screen for a concussion.

Ultimately, a doctor has to make the diagnosis.

"I get it," McCormack said. "Obviously, the No. 1 goal is the safety of our kids."

When McCormack was at Chesterton as an assistant in 1992, the training room consisted of a bag of ice and a medical kit.

"You know how many concussions we had? None. Zero," he said. "Seeing what I see now, did we have concussions then? Sure. We just kept playing."

In Indiana, most coaches follow USA Football guidelines for tackling. That means kids are supposed to tackle shoulder-to-shoulder. At impact, the technique calls for them to turn their head to the side. Before shoulder-to-shoulder, before safety awareness, it was helmet-to-the-football.

The IHSAA endorses the USA Football philosophy.

Seahawks coach Pete Carroll raised awareness of the value of rugby tackling for football players in a YouTube video that went viral last year. Rugby tackling emphasizes tackling with your shoulder but aiming below the waist. Carroll has touted it as not only the safest way to tackle, but the most effective form of tackling. He recommended it for youth football.

McCormack said that style is geared for defensive backs tackling bigger ball-carriers and it isn't "revolutionary."

Marsh said that shoulder-to-shoulder tackling isn't new. Most coaches taught that before USA Football unrolled it as standard.

"We've been doing it for a long time," he said.

Other changes include reducing the amount of full contact in the August training period. St. Germain said next year he is certain teams won't be able to go full-contact on back-to-back days in practice during the season.

"It's coming," he said. "That's fine. Most coaches already follow that. It's common sense."

Dr. Julian Bailes, the co-director of the NorthShore Neurological Institute at NorthShore University HealthSystem, is hopeful that the football brand won't be permanently damaged at any level.

"You have to wonder if it is going to take a hit," he said of the perception problem football is dealing with. "It's a great American sport. It's an important sport. The egregious hits to the head rarely occur. Spearing no longer occurs. Unnecessary exposure to hits in the head in practice have been taken out. It's as safe as it's ever been."