The number of high school football players in Illinois is on the decline.
According to the National Federation of State High School Associations the state has dropped 17 percent in the past few years with more than 7000 participants opting to take off their shoulder pads for the last time.
With injury concerns and new research being a factor, WMBD talked with central Illinois talking with coaches, neurosurgeons and the IHSA on what steps are being taken to make the sport safer for children to play.
On Oct. 1, a Richwoods High School football player was put in a medically induced coma after sustaining an injury during a game. While he’s now on the road to recovery the injury is bringing to light some of the risks associated with the sport. Not since football was nearly banned a hundred years ago has the sport been under the microscope the way it is today and it all has to do with matters of the brain.
“It’s happening over years caused by trauma, changes to the brain and brain structures,” said Jenna Ford, an advanced practice Nurse at the OSF Healthcare Illinois Neurological Institute in the department of pediatric neurosurgery.
As parents, coaches and educators have become increasingly concerned about the potential long term effects of head injuries in football, health experts have been faced with the clinical question: Will my child develop CTE?
Ford explained, “CTE symptoms can cause depression, anger, aggression, poor focus then years later can see the cognitive problems.”
Over the past decade the game has continued to evolve. Officials at all levels are re-engineering how football is played to put the players best interest in mind.
“There is no better time to play football, it’s the safest it’s ever been,” said Illinois State University Head Football Coach Brock Spack.
Helmet to helmet hits are now illegal. But kickoffs one of the most dangerous plays in football remains a main focus of conversation. Directors at the Illinois High School Association believe they are inching closer to following both the NCAA and NFL in reducing high speed collisions.
“I think we will see the fair catch taken on the 25 yard line in high school very soon,” said IHSA Executive Director Craig Anderson
With the rule changes athletic trainers are now stationed on the sidelines and high above every stadium in college and the pros with the authority to stop the game if they believe an injury and or concussion has gone unnoticed.
“We look at concussions from a sports lens headaches, dizziness, confusion, poor coordination or negate how they are walking,” said Ford.
After his college career ended in 1983 Spack moved on to coaching. He says coaches have taken a 180 degree approach on how to practice.
“We now go 11-on-11 with special teams without a helmet on Sunday and Thursday just to give the brain and the head a rest.” Spack adds, “The only way to eliminate contact is to to take the pads off.”
The new protocol is being shared state wide to protect players of all ages. Through training workshops, Washington high school head coach Darrel Crouch has been educating JFL athletes about the proper techniques of the game.
“We teach kids about learning how to pop your hips and how to land on a mat. Stressing the importance of tackling with your shoulder and having your head up,” Crouch said. He adds, “We will teach them the gator style or rugby tackle as well too.”
While Crouch and other high school coaches are laying the groundwork, JFL coaches are now mandated to receive training on helping players minimize the risk of injury.
Advanced practice nurse Jenna Ford says the way medical experts manage concussions has changed drastically over the past 10 years.
“First is recognizing it, then removing them from the sport or activity that is going to be putting them at further risk, rest, recover and get evaluated,” said Ford. She adds, “Then we will have athletes rehab if they need too, reconsider going back and then going through that return to play process.”
While the future of the game may have been in jeopardy at one time Coach Spack believes recent changes are for the best.
“It’s up to coaches to stop a drill if players aren’t practicing the right way. Winning is not that important, it’s the players safety that should be number one, if it’s not then you shouldn’t be coaching,” Spack said.
Currently, CTE can only be diagnosed in the deceased but new studies are being done at the Brain Bank in Boston with hopes that in five to ten years doctors will be able to diagnose the disease in the living.