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Youth football draws calls for safety, tests

A few years ago, Omaha businessman Larry Hagan was watching a news report on concussions in high school sports and decided to do something.

Today, Hagan and his son Steve, an orthopedic surgeon in Omaha, have combined to write checks for $20,000 a year to cover the cost of the ImPACT neurocognitive test for 38 high schools, colleges and other athletic associations throughout Nebraska.

"It just tore my heart apart watching these kids in football, soccer, other sports, and I thought that something has to be done," Hagan said.

The ImPACT test, which compares pre-concussion and post-concussion test scores to help determine an athlete's ability to return to play, has gained widespread use in professional and college sports. Now it may be catching on in high schools and youth programs as a tool that could help alleviate parents' safety concerns.

"I don't think we're too far from having and pre- and post-concussion tests mandated," said Shannon Gerrety, the football coach at Blaine High School near Minneapolis. "It hasn't been mandated yet, but it's going to be. It costs 5-7 bucks a kid to do the pretest, which adds another expense. But it's worth it."

While Gerrety said football is more popular than ever in his area, he is hearing more safety concerns from parents. Gerrety's 13-year-old son, Sam, got a concussion while playing quarterback last fall.

"The concussion thing definitely is an issue," Gerrety said. "Twenty years ago you had a headache; now you might have a concussion. I'm not downplaying it. We're definitely watching it closely. Coaches have to be teaching tackling the correct way. We constantly preach to kids the right way to do things. If you do that, and you have trainers and parents watching their kids, it's manageable."

USA Football, a national organization founded by the NFL and the NFL Players Association, has put safety measures in place in recent years for the youth leagues that have joined its membership. Coaches must take a training class and pass a test, then follow specific instructions that include proper equipment fitting, an age-specific approach to teaching tackling and other techniques, and limits on contact in practice.

Riddell Sports said this week it will ship new helmets to retailers with a tag offering information on concussions.

But concerns remain.

John Sellett, a doctor in Champaign, Ill., who does some work in sports medicine, won't allow his son Jake to play tackle football until he's in high school -- and tries to gently dissuade the sixth-grader from dreaming about playing in the NFL.

"I think that the NFL has become such a high-impact, violent sport," Sellett said. "When my son says his goal is to be an NFL player, I tell him I would rather you not become an NFL player. To me, you're trading the health of your body for the money, and to me it's not a good trade."