It’s not your father’s football.
Today’s gridiron warriors, starting in youth leagues as young as age 5 and continuing through high school and beyond, are learning how to play a kinder and gentler version of America’s favorite contact sport — in part, because of the result of a growing concern that playing the sport can lead to debilitating head injuries.
At least, that’s the idea behind several trends designed to make the sport safer and to attract more participants, say youth league officials, such as Towson Recreation Council Spartans football commissioner John Putnam.
With an increasing emphasis on shoulder-first “hawk” or rugby-style “heads up” tackling, strict concussion protocols and well-informed coaches, the sport’s administrators, proponents and coaches are attempting to allay fears of parents and players who are well aware of recent reports showing that repeated head trauma can result in the degenerative brain disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, Putnam and other youth football coaches and officials said.
The result of one recent study hit close to home for fans of the National Football League’s Baltimore Ravens when backup offensive lineman John Urschel retired at age 26, just two days after a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association of former donated NFL players’ brains showed that 99 percent had CTE.
While the study has been criticized as being biased for, among other reasons, not having a control group, concussion-related issues have been in the forefront of the news in recent years, making parents of prospective players wary of potential injury.
Two years ago, a lawsuit filed on behalf of thousands of former NFL players forced the league to provide up to $5 million per retired player for serious medical conditions associated with repeated head trauma. Last year, an NFL official publicly acknowledged a connection between football and CTE, the first time such an admission came from a league official.
Just how much impact the recent spate of bad news has had on local youth and prep football programs depends on whom you ask, however.
Although participation rates in the Baltimore region tend to vary, the number of youth league players from ages 6 to 12 actually increased by a 1 percent nationally in 2015, according to data compiled by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association and published on ESPN’s website.
In their book “Concussion and Our Kids," which Baltimore's Mark Hyman co-authored with Dr. Robert Cantu, a clinical professor of neurosurgery at Boston University School of Medicine, Cantu says that kids shouldn't play organized tackle football until age 14.
“I'm inclined to believe what medical experts are telling us, including experts in sports-related head trauma, like Dr. Cantu,” Hyman said. “Flag football is a better, safer option for children. Younger children aren't ready from a physical standpoint for the punishment of tackle. Their heads are large relative for the overall size of their bodies and their necks are relatively weak. That places kids at greater risk from head blows. Their brains rattle like a bobblehead doll.”
“Concussion and Our Kids” is not an anti-football or anti-sports book, Hyman said.
“But how much evidence is needed to conclude that football isn't safe for children?” he asked. “Does it have to be 100 percent? Could it be 85 percent? There are parallels to reports about the risks of smoking in the 1950s and 1960s. We suspected smoking was harmful but it was years before research was definitive.”
He adds that no conclusive study on the subject exists, however, though one is needed.
“There should be a 10-year longitudinal study that compares kids who play tackle football with those who don't. That would cost $100 million. Perhaps the NFL would fund it. Until then, there aren't any foolproof answers.”
Hereford Recreation Council coach Dr. Rich George, a cardiologist and a former All-Ivy League lineman at Cornell University, takes a decidedly different position than the authors, citing Robert Stern, a professor of neurology, neurosurgery and anatomy, and neurobiology at the Boston University School of Medicine who “cautions that results from a group of NFL players might not apply to boys who do not go on to play professional sports.”
In addition, George said that the best study he has seen comes from the University of Iowa, which found that “injury is more likely to occur in youth flag football than in youth tackle football. Severe injuries and concussions are not different” between the two sports.
“Mark Hyman and Dr. Cantu’s recommendations are based on the results of deceased NFL football players extrapolated to young kids who have a less than .1 percent chance of playing in the NFL,” George said. “These studies are therefore biased and they, themselves, admit 14 is an arbitrary cutoff age”
He adds that a study by Sameer K. Deshpande and colleagues that appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed no difference in cognitive or depression outcomes later in life between high school football players and their counterparts who did not play the sport.
That said, 11-man high school football participation shrank shrunk by more that 25,000 players nationally in the 2016 season, according to a report by the National Federation of State High School Associations.
Those tabulations were somewhat offset by the fact that 52 more high schools in the country added 11-man football programs during that same span. Moreover, football is still the reigning king of prep sports with more than a million total participants.
In the end, however, the the fact that football could lead to head trauma is a major factor why youth and high school coaches are so eager to limit injuries, most notably by teaching safer tackling and blocking techniques, those interviewed for this story said.
The heat of battle
The new tackling style many coaches are teaching is predicated on a defender leading with his shoulder at the point of impact in the middle of the ball carrier’s “strike zone” — from the chest to the knees — rather than the the tackler coming in head-first.
The ideal tackle is one in which a defender advances toward the near hip of the ball carrier and then plants his shoulder into a runner’s thigh before finishing the job by wrapping his arms around the ball carrier and rolling him to the ground, according to Dave Garbarino, a former professional rugby player who is George's defensive coordinator with the Hereford Bulls.
At least that’s the way it’s supposed to happen, although that technique sometimes gets lost in the heat of the battle, said Dulaney High School coach Daron Reid.
“Things happen when the lights go on,” he said. “But we work on it a lot, and we work on it in the offseason. We just kind of keep on reminding them.”
Reid said his teams have had five players receive concussion protocols in five years, two of which showed what he described as “serious” injuries.
Dulaney should have at least a 35-player roster this season, seven players fewer than last year, when the program posted its first winning season in 16 years, he said.
“Parents ask a lot of great questions about injuries, and we tell them that a lot of those [negative] studies came before ‘hawk’ tackling,” he said.
Limiting contact drills in practice is also something Reid and other local and high school and rec coaches say they do to minimize injuries.
Anthony Burgos, the coach at Franklin High School, said that he has been ahead of the curve in limiting contact drills with the Indians and that participation numbers are greater than they have ever been during his 16 years at the Reisterstown school.
The coach said he will carry between 46 and 50 players on varsity this season and a similar number on the junior varsity, culled from 130 hopefuls who showed up for tryouts this summer.
“We’re different,” Burgos said. “We never did a lot of contact drills — nothing live, nothing to the ground — and we still don’t, except for two days a week. It’s been that way for five years. I know our sport is under attack, but with better equipment and less contact in practice, we’re seeing less and less injuries. Too much hitting is just not worth it. ([Limiting contact] ) keeps the kids fresher, and by the time the game comes around, they’re ready to hit.”
Transparency also is a key element at Franklin, where Burgos holds open practices.
“Parents can come to practice and see our drills,” he said. “We want people to come to our practices to see how we teach and so our kids get used to playing in front of people.”
Fewer kids on the field
Youth league teams, such as the Towson Recreation Council’s Spartans, are part of a feeder system for local high schools.
Recently, though, the Spartans’ rosters have been providing fewer players to high schools, said Putnam, the commissioner.
“Three or four years ago, there were 200 kids out here,” the Rodgers Forge resident said. “We’re down to 75 kids now, and I have friends who say it’s the same way in South Carolina and Georgia.”
He said that parents’ fear of their children sustaining injuries has fueled the decline.
“Some parents say they will never allow their kids to play,” Putnam added. “Others say that they might allow them to play in middle school or high school.”
Rec league coaches are well aware of safety concerns, he said.
“We teach 10-step concussion protocols and we teach ‘heads up’ tackling,” Putnam said. “We’re very careful of the kids’ safety.”
Putnam’s son, Fisher, 11, a sixth-grader at Dumbarton Middle School, plays football.
“I want to make sure he’s playing because he wants to, not because he’s doing it just for me,” Putnam said. “We’re very cautious with all the young men out here, because we want them to play another day and to grow up to be good fathers and husbands as well.”
Timonium resident Jason Cooke said that his 11-year-old son, Reeves, kept “pestering” him to play tackle football with the Spartans.
“I thought this was the best time to expose him to it, and I want him to play a team sport,” Jason Cooke said. “If I don’t like what I see out here, I’d pull him out. But from what I’ve seen and from the feedback I’ve gotten from Reeves, everything has been very positive.”
To boost numbers, the recreation council has added flag football as a way kids from ages 5 to 7 to learn the basics of the sport.
Anneslie couple Peter and Lauren Niles said that they decided to allow their 7-year-old son, Jacob, to play flag football for the first time this season.
“We just want to let him try it out to see if he likes it,” Peter Niles said. “He’s not a large kid, so if he stays with it, I’ll be interested to see what techniques they teach as far as tackling goes.”
Lauren Niles grew up in a football-oriented environment in Cecil County, she said
“I do love the culture of it,” she added, noting that she and her husband talked about the potential for injuries. “It’s a fun thing, but we don’t want to push it too much.”