Concussions and youth football: a parents' guide

2:05 PM, Sep 16, 2013   |    comments
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Chris Davis loves football, and he has had a concussion.

"You got blacked out, and you got smelling salts after the game, and you kinda played through it," recalls the current Cedar Shoals High School football coach. "You really just told somebody you blacked out, and they said, 'I think you had a concussion the other night.'"

That was more than 20 years ago. Concussions today are the biggest controversy in professional and youth football.

Davis is one of many taking aim at the problem.

The coach signed his school up for Heads Up Football. The program, run by USA Football, teaches players to tackle with their heads up. Cedar Shoals is one of 34 high schools involved in a program aimed mostly at youth.

The logic? In crunch time, Davis says, "You're gonna do what you've been taught, and that's what this program does."

But, Davis freely admits, it only solves part of the problem.

"Both concussions we've had this year weren't due to tackling," he says. "They happened at the point of attack at the line of scrimmage. You got kids who are banging heads every play. I think that's an issue that, I don't know how we're gonna resolve that."

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Brantley Summers loves football, and he has had a concussion.

"At the start of the play I remember everything that happened," said the Cedar Shoals junior. "Then I blacked out for a little bit."

Summers' concussion came two weeks ago at the line of scrimmage. At practice early last week, he was held out of contact.

The state of Georgia is getting smarter about holding out players who have suffered concussions. This past spring, the legislature passed a bill that said if a youth athlete sustains a concussion, the athlete must receive clearance from a health care provider before returning to play.

Dr. Ken Mautner served on the Georgia Concussion Coalition. "We are at least understanding that we need to protect the brain," said Dr. Mautner, "and the culture of football is changing to make it a safer sport."

The bill and the Heads Up program emphasize awareness: teaching students and parents about the signs and symptoms. But for young athletes learning about their bodies, this also is not foolproof.

Says Mautner, "Kids tend to not report symptoms because they don't want to come out of the game, or because they don't understand what a concussion is, and they don't really know what they're feeling."

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Chris Slade loves football. Has he had a concussion?

"Not that I know of, no," says Slade before reconsidering. "I mean, I'm sure I did," he then says, "but you just, you know ... you  just get out there and play."

Slade played ten years in the NFL, mainly as a linebacker for the New England Patriots. Now he coaches the Pace Academy in Atlanta, and he is getting proactive.

Slade purchased Guardian Caps for his players; the caps, made by a local company out of Alpharetta, are used by schools around the country. They fit around a typical football helmet and claim to reduce impact by 33%.

"One, it protects you," Slade said. "Two, you can wear it all the time. Most importantly, it gives the parents peace of mind."

The players don't wear the caps during games, but many studies say most concussions occur during practice.

"Thus far in the season," said Slade, "knock on wood, we've had zero concussions."

But do the caps work? The American Academy of Pediatrics just released an article saying there's "no evidence that helmet add-ons reduce concussion risk". Like with everything, more research must be done.

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Kyle Orr loves football, and he has had a concussion.

"It hurts your head pretty bad," Orr says. "You have a constant headache for about a day or so."

Orr suffered his concussion in 8th grade. He took 9th grade off, he says, "because my mom didn't want to risk me getting another bad one."

This year, he came back.

"I just missed the game so much," he said.

Concussion risk aside, football is usually agreed upon as a sport with more benefits than drawbacks.

"Getting your child involved in sports at a young age has so many great advantages for their health, confidence, and well being," says Dr. Mautner. "We just need to understand there are risks involved."

Those risks, for some, are too much. According to USA Football, last year participation in youth tackle football fell 6 percent. The organization has poured millions into research, but that research may not bring tangible results for years.

"I think there is a greater awareness of what a concussion is and how to treat it," says Dr. Mautner. "In terms of figuring out ways to prevent it, we still don't really have all the answers to that."

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Please click on the links throughout the story for more on this subject. To see more stories by Matt Pearl, you can follow him on Twitter, like him on Facebook, and read his Telling The Story blog.


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