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High School Football And Concussion Concerns

Jim Levulis

Football season is upon us, and from the NFL to college to high schools, the safety of the game is under a microscope like never before. In the first story of a two-part series, we take a look at how the high school football season is being impacted by growing concussion awareness.At a recent practice at Mt. Greylock Regional School District in Williamstown, Massachusetts players were getting ready for another football season. But many observers say the days of crushing blocks and helmet-to-helmet hits have threatened football’s very existence in the longterm. It seems everyone has a story like Junior Austan Quagliano, a defensive back and running back for the Mt. Greylock Mounties.

“It was a kickoff,” Quagliano recalled. “We were getting the ball. I was going to set a block and there was a kid coming at me. When I lowered my shoulder he went and hit me in the side of the head. I ended up looking up in the air and I only saw yellow and green. So I knew I had to get off the field.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates emergency departments treat more than 173,000 sports and recreation-related cases of traumatic brain injuries including concussions in people younger than 19 each year. The number represents an increase of 60 percent over the last decade. Roughly 55,000 are sustained in football alone. With more frequent studies and high-profile cases in the collegiate and professional ranks, the national conversation over concussions has centered on football.  Lindsey von Holtz is the director of athletics and co-curricular activities at Mt. Greylock Regional School District.

“Our school committee policy is that every single student-athlete and their parent have to take the National Federation concussion course,” von Holtz said. “In addition to that, at the parent-athlete meeting we discuss signs and symptoms of concussions, things to look for, and stress the importance of not ignoring them because of how serious they can be.”

Shawn Flaherty has been with the district for 25 years and is entering his 12th season as head coach of the varsity football team. He says increased awareness of concussions hasn’t really changed how he, his staff and his players approach the game.

“The biggest thing we can preach is basically fundamentals and technique when you block and when you tackle,” Flaherty said. “Being low, not leading with the head and where you aim. The head has to go somewhere, but we just don’t want the old school way of putting that head right on that sternum or the small of the back, that’s where you have those catastrophic injuries.”

Senior Mike McCormack is a team captain who plays tight end and defensive back.

“It’s definitely scary to think about it especially if you have people who get multiple concussions because that can really mess you up for the rest of your life,” said McCormack.

Quagliano, who’s suffered a concussion each of the past two seasons, says he doesn’t think about getting another one when he’s playing.

“I was doing wrong habits, lowering my head,” Quagliano said. “Coach Barrett and Coach Flaherty have helped get that habit gone, so I don’t really worry about it anymore.”

He adds increased awareness has also spread to players.

“Last year we had an incident where one of our teammates wouldn’t tell coach and he couldn’t even keep his eyes open on the bus,” Quagliano said. “So we, as the older kids, we went and told coach what was going on and he got the proper medical treatment that he needed.”

Understanding players may shy away from telling someone they don’t feel right, fearing the loss of playing time, Flaherty says he doesn’t second guess taking a player out if he suspects a head injury.

“It’s pretty simple,” Flaherty said. “We’re talking about young peoples’ livelihood. We’re talking about your career, your profession and what you’re doing as a coach. So it’s real simple. If we suspect a concussion, he’s done. He’s not going back into the game. I think maybe that’s the stuff that has changed a little bit over the years. There’s no frustration and I don’t see players upset when they can’t get back into the game. I think they are more apt to know it and they’re sitting.”

Since 2009, all 50 states have passed some form of concussion law requiring athletes, coaches and parents go through concussion training along with mandatory removal from a game or practice and medical clearance to return if a head injury is suspected.

Members of the Brain Injury Association of Massachusetts also spend time in schools teaching students the symptoms and dangers of concussions. One key point is that once a person suffers a concussion, he or she is two to three times more likely to have another with even worse side effects. The agency’s prevention coordinator Justine Rivet says realizing how serious a concussion can be is the first step.

“If they’ve had a concussion they’re raising their hands,” Rivet said. “When I ask them ‘Whose had a brain injury?’ right after that, those same hands will go down. They aren’t made aware that this is in fact the same. So that is kind of stunning.”

Von Holtz says last school year the district tracked nearly 60 student head injuries, split evenly between sports, physical education classes and those occurring out of school. Seventy percent of the district’s 600 middle and high schoolers play on an athletic team, so von Holtz says teachers who don’t coach also need to be aware of the signs.

“Kids can’t sleep with a concussion,” von Holtz said. “It’s difficult for them to sleep so therefore they’re falling asleep in class. Then when they get home they’re still exhausted and not able to read and do things like that. So it was hard for the teachers to understand it. So we had to get into a position where we informing our faculty, coaches, students and parents what a concussion was, how severe it was, what to do for it and how you could recognize it.”

Flaherty says he’s noticed parents are a little more involved in terms of making sure the team has the best helmets possible. He adds player numbers have been flirting around 30, relatively small for a varsity squad, potentially because of parental concern.

“Some of the feedback was that the kid wants to play but his mother or father doesn’t want him to play,” Flaherty said. “That’s nature of the beast. I think it’s unfortunate, because I still think this game is the greatest game on the planet. It builds character and so many more things. But it’s a high-risk concussion sport and there’s no sugar coating that. That’s what it is. You’ve got your child’s well being in mind and you’ve got to make those choices.”

Click here for the second story in the two-part series on youth sports and concussions.

Jim is WAMC’s Associate News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org
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