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High Schools Struggle To Tackle Safety On The Football Field

Football practice at Castro Valley High School in California. Proper hitting technique requires players to keep their heads up to prevent neck injuries and concussions.
Brett Myers
Youth Radio
Football practice at Castro Valley High School in California. Proper hitting technique requires players to keep their heads up to prevent neck injuries and concussions.

The NFL adopted a new rule this season that makes it illegal for players to hit with the crown of their helmet. In other words, ramming your head into someone.

In high school football, it's been illegal to hit this way for years. But unlike in the pros, I've hardly ever seen it called in a game. Still, Nic McMaster, coach at Castro Valley High School in the San Francisco Bay area — where I'm a defensive end — tries to teach us better.

At a recent practice, McMaster scolded a linebacker for leading with his head. "Alfaro, that was horrible technique. That's why you can't lean and put your head down when you block," he called out.

Football is the most popular sport among high school boys, with more than 1 million playing the game during the 2012-13 school year. But the sport has taken a hit in recent years over allegations that the game is unsafe.

Young athletes across all sports suffer 300,000 concussions each year, according to researchers from Nationwide Children's Hospital. My team's varsity tight end, Mack Woodfox, is one of them.

"I was hit helmet-to-helmet from the side of my face and I kind of stumbled over, and after that my ears started ringing and my eyes kind of blacked out a little bit," Mack says. He missed a week of school and a few weeks of practice.

Almost 90 percent of concussions in high school football happen from player-to-player contact. That's one reason the NFL Players Association negotiated limits on tackling during practices. But very few high school leagues have caught up with that NFL standard.

Improvements In Texas

Texas has. The state that brought you Friday Night Lights and, more recently, a $60 million high school football stadium in the city of Allen has adopted one of the strictest limits on high school contact and tackling at practices.

The University Interscholastic League, the association that sets rules for high school sports in Texas, limited full contact during practice to 90 minutes a week.

Just south of Dallas, DeSoto High School is home to one of the top football teams in the state. Lauren Silverman, a reporter for NPR member station KERA, recently visited a DeSoto High football practice and says she saw no head-to-head action or players falling to the ground after a tackle.

"This is a tackling circuit," explains DeSoto coach Paul Beattie. "The way we modified it is we're not going to take them to the ground. We don't want to hurt our own players."

In this type of tackling circuit drill, players run past, instead of into, each other. The team's head coach, Claude Mathis, welcomes the rule. "I saw a big improvement in our kids, in our kids' legs, in their body language. They weren't as tired as they were before," he says.

But players like DeSoto varsity linebacker Derion Woods are conflicted. "I mean, they do it to keep us healthy, but as a linebacker you do like hitting," he says.

Texas and Arizona both have rules limiting contact during high school football practice. But most states have no regulations.

No Set Standards For Medical Testing

If you get a concussion in the San Francisco Bay area, you might end up at the University Of California San Francisco Medical Center with Dr. Carlin Senter, a primary care sports physician.

She had me take the test that she uses to check for concussions. She read me a list of random words — elbow, apple, carpet, saddle, bubble — and asked me to repeat them back in any order.

I didn't get them all.

It's difficult to know what that might mean in my case, Senter says, "because we don't have a baseline. Who knows? You might not be so good at remembering things."

So how can we figure out who just forgets "bubble" and who has a concussion?

In the NFL, all players are required to take a medical exam at the beginning of each year. This gives their doctors a baseline assessment of players' regular mental and physical state.

But at high schools, there's no standard medical testing for football players. Nor is there a standard requirement for medical personnel to be employed by the team.

That can contribute to situations like that of 16-year-old Jackson Wegner. He plays special teams for Novato High School's football team, the Hornets, about 30 miles north of San Francisco.

"I went up over here by the end zone to catch a ball, and I jumped up and landed on my back and my head just whipped back and slammed against the turf and that was it," he says.

He got a concussion during practice last season, but it was not diagnosed — so he played in the next game. As kicker, he hit three field goals before a coach came to tell Jackson's mom, Christine Wegner, that something was wrong.

"[The coach] said, 'Jackson has a concussion. He doesn't know where he is or what field goal he's supposed to be kicking at,' " she recalls. "And this is after he already scored all these points."

Wegner wants the team to be able to identify concussions sooner. But there's some debate about how to do that.

What's A Parent To Do?

She supported her son's team getting a baseline concussion test at the beginning of the new season. It's an extra expense, but Russell White, commissioner for the Oakland Athletic League, which governs all high school sports in Oakland, says it's worth it.

"When you see the NFL doing things, high schools [and] colleges are not too far behind. I think it needs to happen," White says.

White loves football. He's played all his life and even made it to the NFL. But when it comes to his own children getting into football, he's torn.

"I often see my oldest son playing pickup games, and they're out there just doing what we did, out there tackling each other," White says. "And you start seeing the moves, you start seeing the speed. ... How long can you keep him away from it? And you see him smiling. How do you say, 'No?' "

Joining a team is a decision that parents and teenagers have to make together. Check out the safety standards at your school — and understand football is a dangerous game.

But dang, it is fun.

KERA's Lauren Silverman provided additional reporting for this story. Audio was produced for NPR by Youth Radio.

Copyright 2021 YR Media. To see more, visit YR Media.

Kendrick Calkins

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