The death last week of Damon Janes, the 16-year-old Brocton high school football player who suffered a devastating on-field head injury, has raised more questions than answers.
Chief among them: Just how safe is football?
The consensus among coaches, parents and doctors is that America’s favorite contact sport – from high school all the way to the pros – is a lot safer than it used to be.
But that’s not saying much.
“Football is a dangerous game, and those who play it need to realize that it can lead to these catastrophic injuries,” said Dr. John J. Leddy of the University at Buffalo. “That’s just the nature of the game.”
Leddy, clinical associate professor and the director of the Concussion Clinic at UB, studies the effect of sports-related head injuries on the brain – especially of young athletes like Damon.
“Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s any safe way to play football as it’s instructed right now,” Leddy continued. “If you’re going to play football, you have to be prepared to be injured, whether it’s your knee, shoulder or head.”
But supporters point out – and doctors even acknowledge – that other youth sports like cheerleading actually have a higher rate of catastrophic injury than football.
“If you take a look at the percentage of accidents or injuries, it really is a small percentage versus the 4 million who play football at all levels – a very small percentage,” said Dick Gallagher, former publisher of Western New York High School Sports magazine.
They also say the point made by Leddy – how the game is taught and played – is a key factor in how safe athletes are on the gridiron.
“As long as we can keep teaching the proper way to tackle, how to play with head support and play fast and smart, they’re going to be OK,” said Bill Bruning, football coach at Barker and Royalton-Hartland. “We can never eliminate risk in any sport, but we can definitely keep on coaching and reiterating the right way.”
To their credit, coaches in Western New York for years have been instructing players not to lead with their heads and not to leave their feet and lunge to make a tackle.
A large group of coaches also meets once each year, at the beginning of each season, to learn about the latest techniques in the detection of concussions and other head injuries their players might suffer. And new state legislation has mandated changes in how players are treated after a concussion.
Those efforts mirror a national program that is endorsed by Section VI, the state’s local governing body for football. The initiative, called Heads Up, aims to “change the culture of America’s favorite sport” by teaching athletes and coaches safer techniques.
“What we’re looking at is a whole culture change on every level of football, from the manufacturers to the coaches to the schools, looking for much more safety,” said Gallagher.
Efforts to change the game come as the National Football League recently settled a $765 million lawsuit with its former players who argued the league withheld information regarding concussions.
But while the highlight-reel hits common throughout the NFL are emulated by high schoolers across the country, local coaches say the two levels are much different.
“That’s not what they’re taught, and I think sometimes our analyzers on TV, especially in the NFL, the old-school guys, tend to misrepresent what the sport is like today at the high school level,” Bruning said.
But the two levels do share a common thread that may have contributed to the 25 high school football deaths suffered over the 10 seasons between 2003 and 2012.
Players are bigger, faster and stronger than they have ever been.
“With the kind of athletes that we’re putting out there, basic physics tells you your impacts are going to be to a higher degree,” said John Faller, the longest-tenured high school football coach in Western New York. “It’s a combination of trying to allow for the expansion of talent of kids, and then using the science of trying to protect them at the same time. It’s kind of a Catch-22.”
Faller has seen his share of changes in his 28 years at Sweet Home High School. When he and Gallagher started on the high school football scene, not every team had a state-of-the-art weight room. Linebackers weighed 160 pounds – much lighter than today – and some players shared equipment.
For players a generation ago, blows to the head weren’t labeled as concussions, they were merely part of the game. After having one’s “bell rung” a trainer would slip an ammonia capsule under the player’s nose, and after a shake of the head, he was back in the game.
Today all high school athletes involved in a contact sport are given a state-mandated impact test by a school trainer before their first practice. If they suffer a concussion during the season they have to be symptom-free for at least a week before returning to the field.
“In some cultures, they wouldn’t even let you get a water break, the helmets didn’t fit and you had equipment that was second-class or third-class,” recalled Gallagher. “And there wasn’t any effort to improve safety. Now there’s a tremendous effort.”
But all the training in the world can’t always prevent a young player from being knocked violently to the ground by an opponent, as happened to Orchard Park’s Cameron Hicks.
Hicks, making his way downfield on a kickoff a few years ago, had a more than 60-yard head start before he was blindsided by an opposing player.
After he came off the field, Hicks’ father sensed that something was wrong with his son, who was trying to get back into the game.
“I finally came out of the stands to go down there and say, ‘It’s clear you’re not all right,’” said the father, Dave Hicks. “You could tell he wasn’t right after that. And to hear him talk about it, just the visuals he was having, were pretty scary.”
Leddy, the UB doctor, said the difference between that type of blow and a fatal one can be small. And he added that it doesn’t always take a “big hit” to cause a fatal head injury. Smaller hits suffered after a player re-enters a game after a first concussion – or even a series of small hits over the course of a game – can be just as dangerous.
“Younger kids’ brains are in a state of evolution that makes them more at-risk than adults for swelling in the brain after a hit to the head,” Leddy said, adding that players should let someone know when something feels wrong.
“When they try to play through it and get hit again, that’s when things can happen,” he said.
Timm Slade, executive director of Section VI, said he worries each time his son, a junior at Iroquois High School, takes the field.
“We worry about him everyday, every second, whether he’s playing football, driving, walking, riding a bicycle, riding a dirt bike or snowmobile,” Slade said. “We worry constantly and I don’t think the worry’s going to change for any parent. They’re always going to worry no matter what.”
For many, football will always be the sport that turns boys into men, builds character and creates a positive value system of hard work and team effort that transfers to other aspects of life.
“I believe that as a parent and as a coach, there’s a lot worse things our kids can be involved in, and being around positive people and positive role models has had a tremendous impact on our young boys in ways we can’t imagine,” said Bruning, the coach.
But Hicks, after seeing his three grown boys fight through numerous injuries, is having second thoughts.
When he and a small group of fathers founded the Orchard Park little league more than a decade ago, he felt a sense of pride in helping youngsters play a great sport.
But now the feeling is different.
“Now it’s like a little bit of guilt,” he said.
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