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LEFT: Coach Sam McCary watches Javeon Wilson, 13, left, and Jai Harrison, 11, go through drills during a recent practice.

Concussions on the mind

Metro and PAL youth football conscientious of head injuries

Photos by Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette
ABOVE: Coach Eric Jenkins makes sure that Dylan Bennett, 8, is suited up properly before a recent practice at Village Woods Elementary.

– The football players spill out of the cars in dribs and drabs these days, as autumn’s chill deepens. They are 7-year-olds and 8-year-olds and 11-year-olds. They wear Brett Favre jerseys and Marvin Harrison jerseys and Dallas Clark jerseys, and white helmets that tend to bobble-head above the shoulders of the younger kids.

All of them are concussions waiting to happen.

Oh, not literally, of course. But that’s the way everyone here at Village Woods Elementary on this sun-splashed October evening tends to look at it, because that’s the only rational way to look at it in an age when football and its consequences have come under long-overdue scrutiny.

“Used to be if a kid took a hit, it was like, ‘Oh, he just got his bell rung,’ ” says the big man in the green jacket with “Coach Sam” stitched over the heart. “Nowadays you’ve got to be real careful, because concussions are a big, big thing.”

This is Sam McCary, the genial head coach of the JV Spartans and varsity Eagles of the Metro Youth Football League. And although there’s probably only 20 or 30 kids out here at 5:35 in the afternoon (“It’s starting to get cold, so they’re starting to get late getting to practice,” McCary says with a patient chuckle), he has roughly 85 kids total.

That coincides with the numbers generally for Metro, which has added two teams in the last three years and includes roughly 750 football players and 250 cheerleaders, according to league President Jim Winters.

PAL, meanwhile, is down roughly 60 kids from a year ago, and league President Steve Butz assumes at least part of that is because of “the concussion issue.” How much, however, is impossible to say.

“I don’t have anything to base it on,” Butz says. “Jason Fabini started a program in CYO for kids in our age bracket, so I think we lost some over to him, too.”

Hardly anyone is under the illusion that it could have been worse had the local leagues, like every youth football league in America, not come to terms with the heightened awareness that concussions are far more serious long term than previously believed.

Like a lot of such revelations, it began in a laboratory.

Even as the NFL was belatedly (and some say, coerced by impending legal action) coming to terms with the effects of concussions on its workforce, a Virginia Tech study indicated that kids as young as 7 or 8 could deliver potentially damaging blows. In response, Pop Warner announced new rules to limit contract drills in practice, and most youth leagues instituted protocols ranging from new practice rules to mandatory preseason seminars devoted in large part to concussions.

“We have continuously pressed our coaches to become more aware of the concussion facts through the Jason Baker camp we’ve been attending,” Butz says. “One of our coaches (Jim Keszei) was on top of it from the get-go, and that kind of put us in a position of being ahead of the game. We’ve been pretty well versed on this issue.”

Over in Metro, meanwhile, President Jim Winters says the issue of concussions first came up in depth two years ago at a USA Football clinic.

“That was a red flag that went up,” says Winters, whose coaches are required to attend a preseason seminar on concussions. “We came back and … bought 200 new helmets this year, and we’ll do it again next year. We’re trying to protect that child.”

McCary will second that. He’s been coaching Metro ball for 12 years, and while he initially was pretty ambivalent about it (“At first I was like, I don’t know, I’ll give it a shot,” he recalls), he can’t imagine himself not doing it now. And one day about a month, month-and-a-half ago, one of his charges took a shot to the head.

Per the new league rules instituted this fall, they pulled him from the game. The doctor saw the young man the next day, and, after determining that he did, in fact, have a concussion, sent McCary and his coaches a detailed concussion protocol to follow before he would be cleared to play again.

“The training really helped us (recognize the situation),” McCary recalls.

As intended.