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 a growing concern that football 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 Ellicott City Patriots president Dave Zeleznik and Towson Recreation Council Spartans football commissioner John Putnam.
Coaches and administrators are starting to emphasize shoulder-first "hawk" or rugby-style "heads up" tackling and strict concussion protocols in an attempt 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 Zeleznik said.
The magnitude of the problem hit close to home in July for fans of the Baltimore Ravens when backup offensive lineman John Urschel retired at age 26, just two days after the Journal of the American Medical Association reported a study showing that 99 percent of the donated brains from deceased NFL players had CTE.
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 a league official made such an admission.
In the book "Concussion and Our Kids," co-authored by Baltimore's Mark Hyman and Robert Cantu, a clinical professor of neurosurgery at Boston University School of Medicine, Cantu writes 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 [to] 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 bobble head doll."
Hyman said "Concussion and Our Kids" is not an anti-football or anti-sports book.
"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."
Hyman admits that there still isn't a conclusive study on the subject.
"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 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 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. Non-biased studies, like the one by Sameer K. Deshpande and colleagues [in the Journal of the American Medical Association], shows no difference in cognitive or depression outcomes later in life between high school football players and their nonplaying counterparts."
That said, 11-man high school football participation shrank by more that 25,000 students 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.
Even so, officials from the Howard County School System announced on Aug. 18 that Centennial High School would not field a varsity team for the 2017 season, a first for a school in that county. The Eagles lost 29 of their last 30 games and suffered from "a lack of sufficient numbers [of players]" leading to a "concern for student safety," according to a county news release.
There was no indication from the release that concussion-related injuries were a factor in shuttering the program.
"The decision was made to discontinue the varsity football season primarily for the safety of the participants," Brian Bassett, senior communications strategist for the Howard County Public School System, wrote in an email. "With an active game day roster of approximately 15 players, that would require most players to be on the field for every offensive, defensive and special teams play. Over the course of the season, this puts their body at risk of significant fatigue and injury. There were also concerns about whether the players that were available could fulfill the duties of the positions required."
Still, the fact that football could lead to head trauma is a major factor why youth and high school coaches are so eager to limit all injuries, most notably by teaching safer tackling and blocking techniques, sources said.
That new tackling style 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 tackler coming in head first.
Dulaney High School coach Daron Reid and others say limiting contact drills in practice is something local high school and rec coaches have done to minimize injuries.
"We only have two live tackling days a week," Reid said.
Reid came to Dulaney after coaching with Anthony Burgos at the Baltimore County football powerhouse Franklin High School, which was denied a third state title in the past four years when beaten by Damascus High School in the Class 3A championship game last December.
Burgos said he has been well ahead of the curve in limiting contact drills with his team, and participation numbers are greater than they have ever been during his 16-year tenure 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 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."
Catonsville High School coach Rich Hambor enjoys a similar situation to Burgos in regard to having plenty of participants.
"We're down a little, but not significantly," Hambor said. "We usually have more than 100 kids try out, and this year we had somewhere from the mid-to-upper 80s. We'll still have enough kids to have a full varsity and [junior varsity]."
Contact drills at Catonsville are carefully monitored, the coach said.
"We have a lot of kids who would like to play a game every day," he said, "but as coaches, it's our job to make sure that doesn't happen. It's like a parent of a child who would like to just eat dessert. But a parent has to make sure a kid eats vegetables, too. We limit contact to twice a week, 20 to 30 minutes at a time. But it's not constant contact on those days."
Youth league coaches like Putnam in Towson are part of a feeder system for local high schools. Recently, though, the Spartans' rosters have been providing fewer players for local high schools.
"Three or four years ago, there were 200 kids out here," the former Elon University lineman said. "We're down to 75 kids now, and I have friends who say it's the same way in South Carolina and Georgia, too."
He said that fear of their kids sustaining injuries has fueled the decline.
"Some parents say they will never allow their kids to play," Putnam said. "Others say that they might allow them to play in middle school or high school."
Putnam said that coaches are well aware of safety concerns and so are players' parents.
"We teach 10-step concussion protocols and we teach Heads Up tackling," he said. "We're very careful of the kids' safety. It's not the same football I grew up playing [in Winchester, Va.]."
Putnam, who lives in Rodgers Forge, said he is very serious about coaching the right way for all of the kids, including his son, Fisher, 11, a sixth-grader at Dumbarton Middle School.
"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."
Hereford Recreation Council's program boasts 180 participants on 10 teams in eight age groups, including tackle for the 7-and-under level.
The program has grown 40 percent in the past three years, according to George, who is also a member of the the Bulls' executive board.
"We have educated parents on the risks associated with football and what we do about them," George said. "But we also address the benefits of playing football. We take kids from all different kinds of background and put them into what is the ultimate team sport. It's a sport that takes a lot of perseverance to play, and that's the kind of thing that employers and colleges are looking for. It teaches the skills the kids will need as adults."
George and one of his assistant coaches, Dave Garbarino, also emphasize neck-strengthening exercises, citing statistics that show that every pound of added neck strength translates into five percent fewer concussions.
"We have tracked our concussion rates," George said, "and they are about two per 8,000 athletic exposures [at games and practices]. If we even suspect that there could be an issue, we assess the player immediately for signs and symptoms of a concussion, including any dangerous neurological signs. If we see a sign or symptom or if we feel further observation is needed, we remove the player from the field immediately."
Bill Lally, a lieutenant in the Baltimore City Police Department, said that he allows his stepson, Nico Mosquera, to play on the Bull's 11-and-under team because George is a physician.
"He [George] also has a son on the team," Lally said. "So he has some skin in the game, so to speak. I can see how much they emphasize heads-up tackling. Nico plays lacrosse, too, and I've seen a lot harder hits in lacrosse than I've seen in football. There are risks in everything you do, I guess. But the deal I have with Nico is that if he has one traumatic head injury, he's through."
In Howard County, the Centennial program's closing notwithstanding, the Ellicott City Patriots are holding their own in terms of numbers.
"We have stayed fairly steady this year," said Zeleznik about having 159 participants on nine teams in six age brackets. "But we're about half of where we were nine years ago."
He added that besides parents worried about injury issues, another major factor contributing to the decline is the trend for other sports —baseball, lacrosse and basketball — playing year-round schedules.
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The Atholton High School alumnus, whose son, Michael, plays the sport for Long Reach High School, said that he had no trepidation about his son playing football beyond the youth league level.
"That's because I know what goes into [coaching]," the Elkridge resident said. "Coaches are required to take refresher courses every year — concussion, safety and protocol-oriented courses."
Still, if total numbers continue to drop county-wide at the youth level, the sport and its advocates may have to convince some parents that football is relatively safe and getting safer.
In Howard County, there are 666 participants in the five football programs for the upcoming season, down from 716 a year ago, according to Will Dunmore, the Mid Maryland Youth Football and Cheer League director of operations and recreation supervisor for Howard County Recreation and Parks.
Anthony Blocker, whose three sons, Zion, 11, Beau, 10 and Knox, 7, play for the Patriots, said his boys started by playing flag football and then begged their father to allow them to play tackle as well.
Blocker said his decision, in part, was because of what he said was the Patriots' reputation for "minimizing all injuries, not just concussions."
He added that "you have to let boys be boys, but I told them that any time you feel like not playing anymore, don't be afraid to let me know. If they get a scrape on their knee, they have to get back up and play, because that's football. There's a difference between the feel of what happens when you play football and a serious injury. And my boys have been fine so far."