With almost anything in life there is a potential dark side.
We have seen it in all forms of entertainment; the musician that dies of a drug overdose; the actor or actress who is killed when a stunt goes awry, and in sports, particularly contact sports, when an athlete takes his own life due to depression, which likely resulted from years and years of repeated trauma to the head.
These things are often thought to be occupational hazards that everyone understands going in, but now, more is being done to address the issue in the sport of football.
A 2014 PBS study that examined traumatic brain injuries found that 76 of 79 deceased football players suffered from degenerative brain disease.
Concussions and head injuries have been in the spotlight in recent years and steps have been taken to lower the number of injuries; and, reduce the residual effects of such traumas.
Thankfully, this recent focus on head injuries has trickled down to the high school level as well.
“It has always been an issue,” Argyle ISD Athletic Director and Head football coach Todd Rodgers said. “But I think science has a better understanding of the healing process and the repercussions of multiple concussions. So the ‘return the play’ process now takes all of this new information into consideration.”
Argyle has implemented such practices as: teaching proper tackling techniques to all players; regular strength-training in the neck and shoulders areas; purchasing the best equipment for players and making sure it’s fitted properly and maintained throughout the season; using proper mouth guards at all times; and, mandatory athlete educational awareness programs that teach the signs of concussions and fatigue related injuries.
Former Dallas Cowboy defensive lineman and three-time Super Bowl Champion, Chad Hennings, of Flower Mound, played 119 games in the NFL, with 27.5 sacks and six fumble recoveries. The 1987 All-American and Western Athletic Conference Player of the Decade for the 1980’s has seen his share of contact at both the collegiate and professional level.
Hennings said that head injuries have always been a part of a game, but said that there is more of an awareness about them now than there has been in the past.
“I think we are more conscious of the potential for head injuries,” Hennings said. “I think that it is more acknowledged, and that they are finally being proactive in regards to diagnosis, as well as treatment. I don’t necessarily think there are more head injuries now—I just think people are more aware.”
Denton ISD Athletic Director Joey Florence said that he believes that Texas high school coaches, in particular, do all they can to make athletes as safe as possible on the field.
“I believe the game is safer now than ever,” Florence said. “But, we can and will always do more as medical and sports-science grows. Texas high school coaches are some of the most highly-trained and credentialed coaches in the country and they will only get better through professional development.”
But that does not take away from the fact that it is still a serious issue, as illustrated when two Marcus High School students were taken to the hospital after colliding on the field during a practice in late July 2015. A similar incident occurred during a Marcus scrimmage game on May 19, 2016.
The UIL has recognized the seriousness of this problem and is doing its part with the implementation of HB 2038 introduced in 2011.
The bill requires each school district to establish its own concussion oversight team, including a Texas licensed physician, and, if possible, an athletic trainer, advanced practice nurse, neuropsychologist or a Texas licensed physician assistant. Each member of the concussion oversight team must have training in the evaluation, treatment, and oversight of concussions.
UIL Deputy Director Jamey Harrison said that HB 2038 is having an impact on preventing concussions and reducing the seriousness of head injuries as well.
“Anything that helps increase awareness of concussions, treatment of concussions and prevention of concussions is helpful,” Harrison said. “HB 2038 certainly helps increase awareness of concussions among coaches, parents and students. That is a very positive thing. We believe HB 2038 has had a very positive impact in this area. Additionally, the UIL has limited full contact practices, which helps prevent concussions. We believe the combination of these two actions has been powerful.”
Harrison said that there is an exciting new project in the very near future, as well, that will give the UIL and coaches throughout the state a tool to get a more precise idea of how serious a problem concussions really are at the high school level.
“We are currently working with UT Southwestern’s Texas Institute for Brain Injury and Repair for a concussion data collection project,” Harrison said. “We are hoping this project will be launched for the beginning of the 2016-17 school year, but we’ll certainly launch it once all the very complicated details of the project have been resolved.”
This is all great news for public schools, but what about the private school football programs?
Coram Deo Director of Athletics and head football coach Doug Hix said that his program has implemented a series of exercises and somewhat unorthodox techniques that have had an immediate impact on student athlete safety, particularly in the area of head injuries.
“We went from six concussions in 2014 to zero in 2015,” Hix said. “We went from the traditional head-in front tackling to the rugby style tacking, head-out of the contact zone. Additionally, we do neck exercises two days a week in the offseason and daily during the season. Also, we have a team of prayer warrior moms that cover our team with prayers.”
Hennings said he is pleased to see the issue being addressed with young players and said that as technology continues to advance and awareness continues to rise, he believes it will become less of a problem.
“The rules of the game and the education for coaches are there for the treatment and protocol to follow for head injuries,” Hennings said. “They need, at times, to take it out of the players’ hands– particularly as you crawl up the chain of the level of competition– because players want to be out there on the field and they are not necessarily of a mature age to pull themselves out. There are also times when it needs to be taken out of the coach’s hands and if there is a potential head injury on the field, it is a medical professional that is making the decision and not a coach.”
As awareness, prevention and treatment options increase, it is hoped that permanent damage from concussions can be minimized, and maybe one day, eradicated.