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Football Takes a Hit: Area Coaches Wary of Concussions, Other Injuries

Football is under attack. The most popular game in America is currently taking hits from all sides and on all levels — from the professional ranks all the way down to the youth groups. Maligned not only for its violent nature as a sport, but for the culture that is spawned from the macho attitude that permeates it, the game is being challenged to manage its issues before it begins to see an erosion of support and, eventually, players.

Crippling physical and emotional injuries — many brought on from years of being hit and doling out hits — are now the face of the National Football League. Concussions and dementia are as much a part of the game’s language these days as touchdowns and interceptions.

In a unique way, football is facing a “trickle-up” effect. If the number of youth league players begins to dwindle, then the ripples will eventually reach the high school level, where other fall sports like soccer already take a bite out of the male enrollment. And if numbers drop, that could eventually mean a drop in talent as the trend moves along to the college and even the professional ranks.

But it appears the issue of injuries and parental concerns, while troubling to coaches around the Upper Valley, has not reached critical mass, according to those interviewed for this story. Though numbers are down in some towns — Fall Mountain and Springfield were forced to suspend their varsity programs for the season, and Woodstock does not have the numbers to raise a youth level squad — no one has seen mass exodus toward other sports. Nor have they seen an epidemic jump in the number of concussions or critical injuries to players.

“Our numbers aren’t down any more than usual,” Hanover High athletic director Mike Jackson said. “When we hear about kids not playing football, it’s more a worry over injuries in general than about concussions.” Still, no one is putting a head in the proverbial sand. Changes, all understand, must be made to keep the players — and the sport — safe and healthy.

“It’s scary at every level,” veteran Dartmouth football coach Buddy Teevens said. “We’ve had a number of guys with injuries and not able to continue (playing),” Teevens said. “It’s a different environment today than in the past. We have much more information. We’re so cautious about the next (concussion).” A concussion is a temporary change in the way the brain works when it is suddenly moved or jarred — knocking against the skull’s bony surface — after a blow to the head. Victims of concussions may face other problems as well, including second-impact syndrome, which can be extremely dangerous if a second concussion occurs while someone is still suffering the effects of a previous one. Multiple concussions also can have long-term effects, including memory loss and a decline in brain function.

Tommy Patek knows all about what a concussion can do to your career. As a sophomore linebacker for Dartmouth, Patek made his varsity debut in the opener against Bucknell two years ago. But that was his last varsity appearance of the year after sustaining a concussion.

The next season, he again was on the field for the season opener. But another concussion — this one in practice — knocked him off the depth chart and eventually out of football.

“The hits were just like any other hit a linebacker takes, but I felt numb, disoriented and very strange emotionally after the hits where I sustained concussions,” Patek said in an email.

“The hardest part was feeling like I was in a mental ‘fog’ for an extended period of time. I had trouble concentrating on schoolwork and recalling things at first. The lingering effects were headaches and fatigue for months after my last concussion.” For a coach, the decision is now out of his hands — the judgment over whether a player can return is left entirely up to the medical staff.

“There is so much more of a heightened awareness. We work very closely with the medical people,” Teevens said. “There is no question now — if you get hurt, you can’t return until your baseline is recovered and you are cleared by a doctor.” For Patek, the diagnosis left him, in his own words, heartbroken.

“Football had been a major part of my life for over 15 years, and I would do anything to have one more chance to play with my teammates,” he wrote. “That said, Coach Teevens and Coach (Don) Dobes were extremely helpful and kept me very involved in the program so I could spend time with my teammates and contribute to the team in a different role.” The increased awareness over the causes and complications of concussions goes hand-in-hand with advancements in helmet design. Safety on the field is becoming as important as points on the scoreboard.

New science, like the imPACT system, a computer-based test that aids in recognizing concussion symptoms, and the Head Impact Telemetry (HIT) System, a biofeedback device that monitors what happens to players’ heads when they take a hit on the football field, developed by Rick Greenwald and his team at Lebanon-based Simbex, have made great strides in helping players in contact sports.

The science, however, can’t stop concussions. It can help identify hits that may cause them. It can also help identify changes in helmet manufacturing that would again help minimize the chance of injury. But football needs to take care of its own house. And that means a re-examining of proper tackling technique and harsher penalties for those who break the rules.

And one area coach lays the blame directly at the altar of the football church — the NFL.

“The kids watch what happens on Sunday and bring that back with them to practice on Monday,” longtime Woodstock High coach Jim McLaughlin said.

“They see the big hits, the leading with the head, the spearing … they see it on highlight films. But that’s not the way we coach football.

That’s not the way we play football.” McLaughlin, in his 30th year at Woodstock, would also like to see more regulating within the youth programs.

“Football hasn’t done a good job preparing people to coach youth football,” he said. “We’re not as vigilant as we should be in that area.

We need to make the lower-level coaches more understanding of what is needed.” While graduations and smaller class sizes can affect the number of players on a team from year to year, McLaughlin, whose team is the defending Vermont Division III state champion, has seen an uptick in numbers this year. But he is still wary of health issues surrounding the sport.

“I am certainly concerned by all the adverse publicity recently,” he said. “We need to emphasize proper (tackling) technique at all levels.

And make sure that the equipment is up-to-date and fits properly. The game needs to do this to continue to survive.” Along with the teaching of proper technique, coaches have also dialed back on the time and amount of hitting done during the practice week.

Gone are the days of two-hour tackling sessions. Teams rarely hit now during game weeks. And what little hitting they do is more controlled and less violent.

“We hit dummies and sleds, not each other,” Hanover High coach Mike Ivanoski said. “You still get your hitting in, but you’re not hitting each other, and you cut down on all kinds of injuries.” So far this season, Hanover has had only one player with a concussion, and he sat out one game before being cleared to play.

“We teach them to hit with their shoulders, not lead with their heads,” said Ivanoski, himself a former defensive lineman in college. “If we see it in a game, we take them out and make sure they know what they did wrong. What we tell them is to wrap up, grab cloth and come up hard inside.” But with all the teaching, all the new attitudes, all the increased awareness, all the changes in procedures, the issue over football safety is still a volatile and emotional one.

The issue is now leaving the field and heading for the courtroom.

According to an Associated Press review of 81 lawsuits filed last spring, the plaintiffs include 2,138 former NFL players. The total number of plaintiffs in those cases is 3,356, which includes players, spouses and other relatives or representatives.

Along with lawsuits, a number of former NFL players and Hall of Famers have come out and said they would not allow their children to play football today.

Patek, now a Dartmouth senior, sees the issue in a different way: “Despite the concussions, football has brought so many wonderful things to my life, and I would never deny the experience of being on a football team to a family member,” he wrote. “Also, I think football programs are now taking steps to prevent and understand the risk of concussions.” Football appears to be thriving in and around the Upper Valley. Within the past five years, Oxbow and Mascoma have added football programs. The Olympians made the playoffs in 2010, and the Royals qualified for the first time this season. In fact, in the state of New Hampshire, the sport has grown from 31 schools 25 years ago to 57 today.

But, as Dartmouth’s Teevens pointed out, there is still work to be done.

It’s not football light, it is, rather, football right.

“It is incumbent upon the sport to look at what we do and how we instruct our players as to what they do,” he said. “We must be clear as to what is appropriate and what is allowed.”

Don Mahler can be reached at dmahler@vnews.com or 603-727-3225.