Brain Injury in Football More Common in Practice
In the 9th grade, I was 5’11” tall and weighed 185 pounds. I ran a 24 second 200 meters. I played running back and safety. Back then, 9th graders were in junior high school, not middle school. Our team was terrible. I played running back for three years on a team that won one game in the three years. I got tackled a lot and never was the player I always believed I would become. Games were rough. We lost by scores like 30-0, 44-0, week after week. But worse than the games, were the scrimmages.
Today, another young man went from the football field to the emergency room, where he is reportedly having seizures: http://www.clarionledger.com/story/prepsreport/2014/08/23/jackson-prep-football-player-critical-condition/14490017/ . As I write this it is not known if Walker Wilbanks collapse was related to football hits or the conditions under which this game is played in August. Perhaps neither. But a day after my brother in law got a concussion in practice, this story appears.
I first started on the 9th grade team as an 8th grader because my coach was impressed by my ability to lay crushing hits on my teammates in passing drills. I played safety even though all of the running back carries in games were limited to 9th graders. My 9th grade year I was going to get all the carries. Careful what you wish for.
My first concussion? It was a scrimmage between the 9th graders and the high school Junior Varsity. Once a year, the 10th graders, who were winning no more than the 9th graders, got to take out their revenge on the 9th graders. The scrimmage was an annual slaughter. As the only player on my team who had experience playing with the 10th graders (from the year before) I was given the privilege of being the one who got hit. Over and over, smothered, hammered on every play. Defense wasn’t much better. The 10th graders scored on every play that I wasn’t in position to make a tackle.
By the end of the practice, I was wobbly and sick to my stomach. Was it a concussion? No one on my sideline would have had a clue. I played one more year of football, but never with the relish I had as an 8th grader.
We spend so much time worrying about concussions in those who play this game long enough to be on the field with trainers and neurologists. Now the NFL limits tackling and hitting in practice. But each day of August I see a field of 10 year olds playing football. Practicing football. They are tackling, the coaches trying to sort out the kids who like to hit from those who don’t.
I worry about the kids who are too small or weak to make it an even contest. I worry as much about the kids who stand out at that level. Being good means you will get hit and get hit more, for more years. Perhaps, you will start to hate the game and move on like I did after my 10th grade year. But if you don’t, your ability will make you a target and it doesn’t matter how well you play the game, your brain will pay the price.