Healthy Choices

Early retirement of 49ers’ Borland spurs discussion of youth football safety

Assistant Rosemont High School football coach and athletic trainer David Batts checks John Fitzgerald, then 17, who suffered a concussion late in the 2011 football season. Fitzgerald, a tight end, suited up for Senior Night, the last game of the season, but did not play due to his injury. Schools have taken greater steps in recent years to prevent concussed players from stepping back onto the field.
Assistant Rosemont High School football coach and athletic trainer David Batts checks John Fitzgerald, then 17, who suffered a concussion late in the 2011 football season. Fitzgerald, a tight end, suited up for Senior Night, the last game of the season, but did not play due to his injury. Schools have taken greater steps in recent years to prevent concussed players from stepping back onto the field. Sacramento Bee file

Parents of youth football players are crossing their fingers and strapping on their kids’ helmets a little tighter after this week’s abrupt retirement of San Francisco 49ers linebacker Chris Borland due to concerns about long-term brain injury.

Borland, 24, cut short a promising NFL career after just one season as a professional, citing worries about the long-term cognitive effects of concussions. His pre-emptive decision – unprecedented among players with his potential – renewed conversations about football safety and what precautions are sufficient for young people to keep playing the nation’s most popular sport.

Some recent studies have linked repeated, jarring blows sustained on the football field to mental disability and mood disorders later in life. The National Football League disputed such claims for years before estimating in 2014, after thousands of former players sued the organization, that it expects nearly three in 10 retired players will develop long-term cognitive problems.

The youth football world has grown increasingly vigilant about concussion prevention, enacting new protocols on helmet use, tackle strategy, when players can return from injury and practice schedules. Local parents say the changes give them enough confidence to keep their sons in the fray.

“In football, we’re reporting and being proactive, and it’s thanks to learning through the NFL,” said Mary Kay Hoal, president of the Davis Blue Devil Football Backers, a fan and parent club supporting the Davis Senior High School team. “It’s about learning the right drills you’re supposed to do, and not having the kids bang into each other consistently.”

Since 2010, the California Interscholastic Federation, which governs high school sports statewide, has prohibited any athlete showing concussive symptoms such as dizziness, confusion, ringing ears or slurred speech from returning to play until he or she has been cleared by a physician. More regulations followed, mandating concussion training for coaches and limiting practice time to 18 hours a week.

New state legislation enacted with input from CIF and in effect starting this year, Assembly Bill 2127 by Assemblyman Ken Cooley, D-Rancho Cordova, reduces full-contact training to only 90 minutes of practice two days per week during the football season. It also prohibits full-contact practices during the off season, including at high school football camps this coming summer.

The goal is to reduce the number of hard blows to the head, which can rattle the brain against the skull to the point of swelling and cell damage. Concussions also result from violent bodily motions such as neck whipping.

While most people can recover from a concussion with seven to 10 days of good rest, some suffer post-concussive syndrome for weeks and months after diagnosis. Recent research has revealed that people who suffer repetitive brain trauma can develop chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a neurological disease associated with memory loss, confusion, mood shifts and impulse control problems.

High school football players are nearly twice as likely to suffer concussions as collegiate players, according to a 2013 study from the Institute of Medicine. Some research suggests that the developing adolescent brain is more vulnerable to concussion than the adult brain.

Returning to game play while in a concussive state puts players at risk for having a second, more serious concussion, said Dr. Scott Meier, a sports medicine specialist who sees concussive adolescents daily at the Kaiser Permanente Sports Medicine Center in Elk Grove. Coaches should be firm about preventing teens who have suffered a bad blow from returning to the field too soon.

“Every hit to the head is something to be taken seriously,” he said.

For Kris Richardson, co-head coach of the 16-0 Folsom High School team that won the CIF State Division I championship in December, player safety is the No. 1 priority. He teaches body contact using the USA Football-devised Heads Up Tackling technique gaining traction across the country, which promotes leading with the shoulder rather than the head.

Richardson said he can’t remember the last time one of his players was out with a major concussion.

“The ultimate goal is showing up on Friday nights with kids that are healthy and ready to play the game,” he said. “If you’re hitting every single day, you’re going to get those kids hurt. And the smart coaches don’t do that.”

Football continues to draw the most high school male athletes in California, with participation increasing slightly between 2013 and 2014, according to CIF data.

Increased awareness of concussions at the NFL level might lead some parents to pull their kids from the sport, said CIF spokeswoman Rebecca Brutlag. But more likely, parents, coaches and students will focus additional attention on how to treat and avoid head injuries.

“It’s a cultural change of how we have to learn how to practice,” she said. “Once everyone gets involved and understands it, it’s going to change the face of the game and allow the game to continue to be played.”

Lynda Yancher, a Davis High School mother, is intimately familiar with the consequences of aggressive play. Her son J.R. Yancher, now 27, played football from ages 7 to 18 and still suffers effects from the multiple concussions he sustained during that time. When her younger son Owen wanted to play, she agreed – but on the condition that he take the less physical kicker position. He is now a high school junior playing on Davis’ varsity squad.

Still, injury couldn’t be avoided. Last season, teammates “rushed the kicker,” taking Owen down hard. He suffered a minor concussion that kept him out of school for a week. He has since recovered and said he is looking forward to playing again this fall, hopefully with a helmet designed to protect against concussions.

The prospect of missing school due to injury on a campus as academically focused as Davis High has been a big obstacle to building a successful team, Owen said. Last year, the school was barely able to fill the roster because of what he suspects were students not wanting to risk getting hurt. He is currently working on recruitment and raising money to replace some of the team’s older helmets with newer, more protective ones.

“Things are not quite looking up quite yet,” he said. “We’re still trying to spread the word that things are going to be better and safer ... hopefully things will get better number-wise.”

J.R. Yancher, now living in Seattle and studying theater, said football might be safer now than it was during his time, but that it can never really be considered a safe sport. Hearing about Chris Borland’s retirement drove home a point he’s been mulling over lately, especially on days he struggles to remember what he had for breakfast – that no amount of money is worth what can happen after.

“Part of me loved that part of my life, loved what football was,” he said. “And a huge part of me wishes I’d never stepped out on the football field. It’s the same way I feel watching football every Sunday – it’s thrilling, it’s entertaining. But I know what can happen. We revere these people, but we also cheer them on in something that could destroy their lives.”

Patti Ortiz, mother of Jeffrey Ortiz, sophomore quarterback at Woodcreek High School, knew her son could get hurt when she signed him up to play football. She bought him his own helmet, purchased an extra-protective chin strap and lauded the school’s efforts to use precautionary measures, such as testing players’ brains at the start of the season to have a baseline record for comparison after a head injury.

Last October, her son suffered a severe concussion after a double-impact blow and had to be taken off the field by ambulance. Now recovered, Jeffrey will be back on the Woodcreek lineup for the fall. There’s no more risk of injury in football than in any other sport, Ortiz said, and she worries more about her daughter on the soccer field than her son at the 50-yard line.

“Like any sport, you could get injured,” she said. “But football in particular, with the team bonding and all of that ... those are life lessons he will take into his adulthood.”

For Mike Costello, a West Sacramento parent and former football player, saying “no” to his son Logan was an easy choice. The 10-year-old expressed interest in playing football on the peewee level. But Costello remembers from his own days on the field that while guys who started that young were more skilled, they had already suffered multiple head injuries by high school.

If Logan still wants to play football when he is older, Costello won’t say no. In the meantime, he’ll stave off his son with what he considers safer activities – swimming, track and field, and basketball.

“The head injury issue, from a layman’s perspective, is you can only take so many before they start affecting you, so why start accruing those early?” Costello said. “Football’s not a contact sport. It’s a collision sport.”

Call The Bee’s Sammy Caiola, (916) 321-1636.

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