Football popularity in the wake of rising concussion awareness

Permanently removed from the game he loves after suffering another concussion last fall, 19-year-old Chris Kruse sadly recalls his playing days as a standout high school football player.

“Those were good times. I loved that team and I loved those years of my life,” said Kruse, a sophomore engineering major at Maine Maritime Academy. “I probably would do anything to be able to play football again.”

For Kruse, an all-conference defensive end in high school, football was everything for much of his life. Last August, he was looking forward to continuing his exceptional career at the college level for the MMA Mariners until intense physical symptoms from prior head injuries finally sidelined him for life.

“We’d have two practices a day during preseason. After the first practice I would go into my room and sit in there with the lights off all day,” Kruse said. “I don’t know, my head was just messed up. I couldn’t even hit a pad.”

Concussions are what eventually forced Kruse to quit the sport he loved. He suffered several head injuries during his high school varsity career, including one that went undiagnosed during Maine’s all-state Lobster Bowl game.

“I don’t really remember the Lobster Bowl.” Kruse said.

Though the sport is deep rooted in American culture, it is no secret that head trauma and football are directly connected. Professional players get banged up over the course of their careers. This issue was brought to light on a grand scale in August when NFL commissioner Roger Goodell signed a $765 million settlement for players with head injuries. The question is, has this concussion crisis reached the lower levels of the sport? If so, what efforts exist in terms of awareness, and more importantly, of prevention?

“You should never tell a kid he can’t play a game that he loves,” said Ashton Renshaw, a former Division I football player who currently lives in San Francisco.

Renshaw credits much of his success in life to his relationship with football. The 6-foot-2-inch, 200-pound former defensive back began his college career as an NCAA scholarship athlete at the Division II level Western State Colorado University. After one season, he transferred to the University of Colorado Boulder and walking on to the CU Buffaloes, a Division I program.

“Competitiveness and drive are really important qualities, whether you get them from football or from something else you excel at,” he said. “Of course there needs to be some awareness. But this negative stigma that surrounds football now, I think it is misguided.”

According to a study in the Journal of Neurotrauma, an estimated 43,000 to 67,000 players are diagnosed with a concussion each season.

“The word ‘diagnosed’ is a big word here,” said Sam Adams, athletic trainer at Bridgton Academy, a post-graduate preparatory school in Maine. “Eighty percent of concussions go unreported by the athlete. Therefore they go undiagnosed by the health care provider.”

The statistical evidence toward the dangers of high school football do not end there. Another study observed 21 players over 48 practices and games, a period of time that saw 15,264 collision events (15.5 per player per activity). Four of those players, though not suffering any diagnosable concussions, displayed significant cognitive impairment. This impairment came from what is known as sub-concussive impact – blows to the head that, while not causing a diagnosable concussion, rattle the brain on a repetitive basis throughout the course of a football game.

“You see this a lot in lineman. They go helmet to helmet on basically every play and are in such close quarters,” said Adams, who works very closely with the academy’s football program. “If you’re keeping track with all this NFL stuff, a lot of the former players who have committed suicide have been lineman.”

These injury numbers are certainly concerning to parents of youth and high school players. Kristin McCarthy of West Brookfield, Mass., constantly worries about her son, Conor, a skilled but slightly undersized sophomore running back.

“To be honest with you, I’m not the biggest football fan,” McCarthy said. “Every time he comes home from a game and hasn’t hurt himself, I’m relieved.”

Her worries were confirmed when her son received a sharp blow to the head in a recent game.

“It was helmet-to-helmet contact. It was hard enough to knock him down,” McCarthy said. “He didn’t seem to be too steady on his feet. Coach game him a quick exam, kept him out for rest of game.”

Though Conor was benched for the night, he was allowed to return to action in practice and played in the following game. According to Adams, the prep-school players at Bridgton generally have a much longer turnaround time.

“Athletically, they’re not doing anything until they’ve been asymptomatic for 24 hours,” he said. “Then we go into our return-to-play protocol, which usually takes about four days to go through. If they’re symptomatic for a week then the least amount of time that they can miss is two weeks.”

Bridgton Academy football is one thing, as they recruit extensively and are heavy contenders in the New England Prep School Athletic Council. In West Brookfield, though, varsity football has not been around for a very long time. McCarthy worries about her son and his teammates every week of a season that has already seen serious injuries, including concussions and in one case, a shattered femur.

“It’s a fairly young team, four or five years they’ve had it,” she said. “There have been quite a few concussions on his team, some of them pretty serious. Some of the kids missed a good part of the season due to head injuries.”

McCarthy is well-versed on the dangers of concussions, as is every parent of a high-school athlete in Massachusetts. The Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association requires all parents have to take a concussion education course before the start of a season.

“The course is basically an awareness program,” said Paul Wetzel, spokesman for the MIAA. “Frankly that’s been a significant benefit, because prior to this parents may think a number of other things were wrong with their child. Lethargic, distractible, even drunk or on drugs.”

Parents are not the only ones who the state requires take the course. Athletes and coaches must take it before the start of every season, and according to Wetzel, many schools across the state are mandating that faculty members be educated on concussion symptoms.

“The goal is to educate everyone,” he said.

The increased parental awareness of injuries in football has even reached below the high school level. Pop Warner, the nation’s largest youth football program, saw participation drop 9.5 percent between 2010-12, losing 23,612 players during this two-year decline. According to officials within the organization, Pop Warner is working hard to increase prevention, developing “comprehensive concussion awareness and safer play initiatives.”

“We believe athletes choose to play or not play specific sports based on a number of reasons,” said Jon Butler, executive director of Pop Warner Little Scholars, in a press release earlier in November. “When it comes to concussions though, (we) have been out front on the issue.”

These numbers would indicate that parents of both youth and high school football players are starting to be influenced by the highly publicized concussion crisis in the NFL. It would be an unlikely assumption that football is on its way out in America. But it is beginning to look like, at least to some, the sport may be on its way down in terms of cultural importance.

“Those stats are definitely eye-opening,” said Dan Lebowitz, executive director of Sport and Society, a research nonprofit from Northeastern University in Boston. “Is it the only factor? Probably not. The economic downturn is probably a part of it too. But it would be hard to argue that seven or eight of that percent is due to parental concern.”

To Kruse, there are kids out there who possess Division I and even professional talent in the sport. For those athletes, one or two concussions should not cause them to put the brakes on their career, as long as the injuries are handled accordingly.

“It’s obviously their choice,” he said. “If they want to make a career of it, if they think that’s what is going to get them into college and get an education, I say they should be allowed to go for it.”

Head trauma is a serious problem that is not to be overlooked. For Kruse, it was concussion trouble that ended a promising football career early. But his outlook on life remains positive, and he is looking forward to graduating in two years with a degree in marine engineering.

“When I was playing, and things were starting to get messed up with me, I did worry.” Kruse said. “It’s not like I was going to the NFL or anything. I just really didn’t want it to affect my future.”

A few Northeastern University students weigh on on the issue of head injuries awareness and its impact on the game of football in this country.

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