(Pouya Dianat/Special to Sports Illustrated)
(Pouya Dianat/Special to Sports Illustrated)

Head Trauma in Football: A Special Report

Can football change? Will the sport become safer? How are concussions impacting the game‘s future? Introducing an in-depth series where we tackle those questions, starting at high schools and continuing into college and the NFL

Three years ago today, I sat in the office of Massachusetts neuropathologist Ann McKee, who studies the brains of deceased former football players to discover the effects of repetitive brain trauma. She showed me slides of cross-sections of brains of former NFL players with evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). This was five days after Rutgers player Eric LeGrand was paralyzed after a big hit in a college game, and four days after frightening blows by pro players James Harrison, Brandon Meriweather and Dunta Robinson. “I wonder,’’ McKee said that day. “Can we make it more of an Indy 500 and less of a demolition derby?”

The race is on to see if football can change—and so far, after three years, the effort is there on all levels. With the emphasis on the head trauma issue evident all over football and society, The MMQBwill spend this week publishing a series of stories taking the temperature of people across America—high school coaches and players, parents of players, medical experts and current and former pro players—about the game.

What you’ll read on our site this week:

  • The MMQBpolled high-school coaches, parents and players in 49 states over the past two weeks, and dispatched our reporters to games in Lawrenceville, Ga., Brookville, Kans., and Indiana, Pa., to learn if the head-trauma issue is more than a bump in the road of football’s future. It is.
  • Jenny Vrentas on helmet manufacturers using innovative methods to produce smarter models while not knowing if players will even wear them; plus, how far can technology go in lessening the impacts that lead to concussions? Later in the week, Vrentas writes about what football will be like in 10 years.

  • Can football change? Will the sport become safer? How are concussions impacting the game’s future?

    Introducing an in-depth series where we tackle those questions, starting at high schools and continuing into college and the NFL. Read the entire series.

    Robert Klemko on current NFL players coping with the new rules and fine system designed to lessen the number and severity of blows to the head.
  • Our regular columnists: Don Banks (What price football?), Jim Trotter (on a former player who needs a separate room in his house as a refuge when effects from concussions are severe), Andrew Brandt (on lingering helmet and concussion issues), Richard Deitsch (on the tightrope TV networks walk when reporting on head trauma), and Andy Staples (on college-prospect concussions being the new scarlet letter in NFL scouting).
  • Current player Richard Sherman, a regular columnist for us, on the effects of playing in the concussion era.
  • Former player Nate Jackson, with a must-read perspective on the residue of years as a player: I am depressed and suicidal thoughts, like raindrops, come down from the sky on seemingly sunny afternoons. Is this science, or the realization that my life peaked in my twenties? I have no skills other than football and no idea what else to do. And the incongruity of knowing he’d play again if a team picked up the phone and asked him.
  • One current high school coach sticking up for football. One current high school coach questioning why he’s sending in boys to play a violent game.

What’s been eye-opening to discover is the trickle-down effect from the NFL to youth football. As the pro league emphasizes safety more and more, so do high schools around America. High school parents and coaches and players noticed the league recently agreed to a $765-million settlement with former players who sued the NFL for hiding the effects of brain trauma. Some saw the black eye from the journalistically bruising “League of Denial” book and documentary.

Coaches are concerned; 41 of 49 polled said they have modified training techniques because of increased education about concussions and head trauma. Parents are concerned; 62 of 96 parents polled said they worried about football impacting their son’s health later in life. Young players, like their professional counterparts, showed they have to be protected from themselves. When Klemko, on his road trip to Kansas, asked Smith Center High  quarterback Kody Molzahn if he has ever hidden a concussion from coach or parents, Molzahn said after a pause: “Yes I have, to be honest. I just love the game of football and I don’t want to stop playing.”

That school in Kansas doesn’t have an athletic trainer at many of its games. Smith Center shares a trainer from Kearney, Neb.—82 miles away—with 11 other high schools in Nebraska and Kansas. So the head coaches at those schools, who have taken a one-hour online course to educate themselves about head trauma, have to monitor players who take a blow to the head. Meanwhile, at larger schools in more populated areas, medical staff is everywhere. Our Emily Kaplan reports from a game at Archer (Ga.) High School that five trainers or medical personnel were on hand at one game.

And the numbers of the game are worrisome in some places. Our Andy DeGory reports from his old high school in Indiana, Pa., that more boys are signed up for lacrosse—a four-year-old sport at Indiana High—than football. Sounds sacrilegious for western Pennsylvania, where Dan Marino and Darrelle Revis prepped. “Much more than 10 years ago, or even five years ago,” a lacrosse program backer, David Zimmerman, said, “if you’re an adult and you use your brain for a living, and you think your kids are going to use their brains to make a living, you’re going to think twice about whether or not they should be playing football.”

Teaching young players the proper tackling techniques is one way to help limit the types of hits that can cause head injuries. (Pouya Dianat/Special to Sports Illustrated)
Teaching young players the proper tackling techniques is one way to help limit the types of hits that can cause head injuries. (Pouya Dianat/Special to Sports Illustrated)

Several high school coaches emphasized the NFL teaching new tackling techniques, such as “Heads Up Football,” which teaches coaches to train kids to tackle with heads up—instead of using the helmet as a battering ram. Said Middlebury Union (Vt.) coach Dennis Smith: “In any drills we’re doing—whether it be fundamental drills at the beginning of practices, especially defensive practices—we’re always stressing head up. You have to be able to see what you’re tackling. And I tell the kids, ‘If you are a head ducker, you will not participate.’ Especially on the defensive side of the ball, because I’m worried for their safety.”

Said Brandon (Miss.) High coach Brad Peterson: “We always start the year, whether spring or fall, with walking through the proper techniques of tackling. I always start the year by making the players read with me the warning sticker that’s on the back of each helmet, and then we discuss what it says. We talk about the importance of letting the coaches and/or trainers know if they have any symptoms of a concussion.’’

I was impressed reading the responses of the 49 coaches. Clearly they get it—they’re on the front lines trying to be sure they fill the roles of smart surrogates to high school players. Most love football, not just for the sport but for the lessons it can teach. The coach of E.O. Smith High in Storrs, Conn., Jody Minotti, said he knows he can’t prevent every concussion, but he trains his players to minimize the risks. “We do less contact throughout the week and we teach proper tackling,’’ said Minotti. “We preach in practice all of the time, ‘Bite the ball. Bite the ball.’ That means keep your head up and don’t ever lead with your helmet. We film tackling, we talk about tackling whenever we’re watching film.

“You know, I think football is a great game. I think a lot of skills are learned through football that you can’t learn through other opportunities, whether that’s in another sport or in the classroom. I think that the more coaches learn about concussions, the more coaches learn about how to tackle properly, the more coaches learn about how to help kind of guide the players in the direction of correct technique. I think the game of football should continue. I’m a big fan of football. I love it. I grew up playing football. It taught me a lot of skills that I wouldn’t have learned in other phases of life.”

That, over and over, is what we heard from those charged with preparing teenagers to play a rough game. But now, the coaches have to be on the lookout for kids who may have been concussed, adding another layer to their jobs. Last week, two parents of a player in Taylorville, Ill., were discussing the undue risks some kids take to play.

“Other kids go in [with concussions],’’ Regina Wilderman said. “We know.”

“Because they’re afraid of losing their spot on the team,’’ said Larry Wilderman.

“I know parents—I won’t name names—that tell their kids not to come out,’’ Regina said. “We’re just the opposite. It doesn’t matter. This is nothing compared to the rest of your life.’’

If coaches don’t take the time to understand this is of huge importance,”Duncan Shackelford said, “then I think the sport of football is going to slowly die.

The game, several high school coaches think, is at a tipping point. “We are the future of the NFL,’’ said Duncan Shackelford, head coach at Chugiak High in Eagle River, Alaska. “In high school in general, we feed the colleges that feed the pros. If coaches don’t take the time to understand this is of huge importance and don’t take the time to change old techniques, then I think the sport of football is going to slowly die.”

MMQB Mail

Don't miss the mailbag on Page 2, where Peter King answers readers’ questions about Jay Cutler's long-term future in Chicago and why Andrew Luck can't be judged on stats.

This week, please take time to read our report. And respond. Email us: talkback@themmqb.com. Tweet us: @themmqb. Next week, we’ll run your reactions, your thoughts, your praise, your criticism.

I think football will survive the storm. Too many love it; it’s the cornerstone of too many communities in America. High school games on fall Friday nights, college games on Saturdays, the pros on Sunday. But the clarion call is out: The game must be made safer, continually, if parents are to send their kids to play years into the future. I hope we can all learn something here, by providing a mirror to what the game is now, and where it’s headed.

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91 comments
ph78
ph78

We're going to see a vicious battle over the next twenty years about how football should be played - or played at all.  On one side those who profit from the NFL's $9 Billion a year and the NCAA's $1+ Billion -- on the other side parents, athletes, Congress, and the scientific and medical community. 

League of Denial: The NFL's Concussion Crisis:  http://video.pbs.org/video/2365093675/ 

This is Your Brain on Football: http://content.time.com/time/video/player/0,32068,64253995001_1957921,00.html

ph78
ph78

Former NFL Hall of Fame Linebacker & Team Captain: “The human body was not created to play football – you’re going to have brain trauma.”  

Football causes permanent long-term brain damage.  Period.  If you don't believe it does, it's probably because you've played too much of it and can't think straight. 

lcjones42
lcjones42

Force = mass times velocity squared. Physics on a fooball field is no different physics anywhere else. The danger of football is where too much mass is coupled with too much velocity. Where is to be found the genesis of the problem of  too much mass coupled with too much speed at the highest levels of football?

Performance. Enhancing. Druggs. 

PEDs allow for an unnatural weight to speed ratio that makes the game increasingly dangerous. They are what allowed Shawn Merriman, when he tested position to weigh the same amount as Hall of Famer Anthony Munoz, and run the 40 yard dash at the same speed as Hall of Famer Jerry Rice.   Players now are able to, through the use of PED's pack on unnatural amounts of fast twitch muscle without having to also deal with the bodies evolutionary desire to store body fat as well. This allows them to move weight at unnatural speeds resulting in highly dangerous collisions.

How do you stop PEDs? If PEDs allow a player to weigh 20-30 lbs more than is normally possible, while also miraculously running .2's faster a 40 yard dash time, there is one simple solution. 

Now,  there is a ton of logistics to this and it would take time and care to implement it correctly, but  if the NFL and college football were to institute weight limits for players which were determined by their position on the field it would reduce the need for players to seek to become 275lb, 4.6 second 40 yard dash time heat seeking missiles. If the limit for a safety was 225, he won't take PED's which could cause him to weigh 245 and therefore be forced to play LB.

On the field the basic idea would be to have reasonable weight limits by position and have players weigh in 1 half hour before the game. In addition there could be rules which require the offense to field 5 OL, 1 QB and any combination of WR TE or RB on every play.

The defense would be required to field 2 DT, 1DE, 2LB, 1 S, 1 CB on every play. The remaining four players would be made up of whatever personnel was though best defend the offenses choice.


farr
farr

It's not about concussions.  It's not about concussions.  It's not about concussions.  THIS IS SO FRUSTRATING.  When will someone talk to the people at the studies and realize this.  It is sub-concussive head trauma.   You get that when you hit with your shoulder or head.  If your body stops in a collision your brain sloshes against the skull causing the micro damage that causes the progressive brain damage.  Nothing you do on the outside of the skull will stop that.  So the question is if most kids are damaging their brains (or even 1 out of 10 for gods sake), which is where the doctors are starting to lean, then why play.  I love the game, played in college and can still work through the logic.  In a world where your brain is increasingly more important, behavioral disorders more of a liability.  Why put your kid at risk for a condition that can change his entire life.  Because of ego and money is all I can come up with.  Get the facts about sub-concussive hits or stop talking about it at all.

ImmaFubared
ImmaFubared

dear Mr King. I see the problem is that lack of practice in pads. The idea, and a wrong one, was to limit contact so players did not get hurt. On paper sounds reasonable. However, along with that came lack of practicing on how to tackle. Your not seeing the wrap two arms around the guy or grab the legs.

You watch football and your seeing dbacks diving at the players violently with the idea, I'm taking you down with my body (includes the head) and your going down. I also see, like the Findley hit, one dback clearly had him in his grasp but the second guy flew in as a just in case. Lot of late, don't need to be in the play just in case hits going on and that's where the injuries are really ocurring. 

Ditto of Lacy in green bay. He was clearly going down with a third player leaped into the air and hit him in the helmit. Person did not have to even be in the play unless his (intent) was to do harm. 

That is the football your seeing now. Its not freak accidents, poor helmet design, its a lack of tackling with the arms and an increase of body to body hits, head first. 


ProfessorGriff
ProfessorGriff

I've said it before and I'll say it again.  If you want to put Steve Tasker in the HOF for Special teams, you have to put Bill Bates in ahead of him.  He was "Steve Tasker" before Steve Tasker!

DWJ08
DWJ08

This issue started with whether or not the NFL was informing players of the risks of playing football, but now it has morphed into preventing concussions. The problem with this transformation is that the physics behind a concussion are nearly impossible to avoid in a fast moving contact game like football. If the goal is to limit head trauma, then limit playing time, increase rosters so that players can take more time off, and proactively decrease the length of careers. As for children under 14, limit them to flag football. Short of this, you can fine and penalize players all day, and invent a million high-tech helmets, but they will not stop concussions and CTE.

decredico
decredico

hey pete, whats your excuse for being such a chowder head nincompoop, eh?  too many hot lattes fry that brain of yours?  you sat on this story for years and under reported it and you are part of the package that kept this off the radar for many years.  You are a disingenuous hypocrite that should be excoriated and excommunicated and bannished to writing for the local garden section of a small town newspaper

Rick in Huahin!
Rick in Huahin!

As I mentioned in my email, why has it taken so long for any discussion, you dont see any of it after the airing of the show. I think all are dodging the discussion, maybe from NFL pressure, I don't know!

And my biggest gripe is, yes its risky and all make their choices, BUT the NFL really looks bad in denying and making excuses! Their experts are totally out of whack with contemporary research! That is my problem with the NFL,  they are protecting their oney making machine over the players. Im even amazed and some of the players response, which I now have a different opinion of now!

And hopefully, their can be a diagnosis before the players flip out later in life, this should be the impetus in the research, checking players health on a yearly basis.

Still, no one wants to talk about it!!!

barca71
barca71

A "Special Report" Peter?  We've been reading about this for a few years now.  And, to think that after decades of reporting about the NFL, this is a new phenomenon occurring within the sport of football; well how naive are you!

skanee00
skanee00

There is no such thing as a safe sport.  All physical activity is inherently dangerous.

That said, if we look at other football sports around the world and compare them to American football, we can see why our sport is more dangerous.  It is more mass X speed than endurance, and obstruction and tackling aren't closely regulated.

I've written a rulebook for a football/rugby league hybrid sport that I think would probably be healthier for the players to play.  I'm not sure it actually would be safer, or whether or not the sport is even possible, because as far as I know, nothing like it has ever been attempted before.  It would be interesting to see an experimental game played according to those rules though.

The name of the book is "New Rules Gridiron Football:  The Laws of the Game" and it is available on Amazon Kindle.  Only 99 cents, so it's worth a peek.  I apologize for the book's formatting.

MidwestGolfFan
MidwestGolfFan

Well, Peter, you seem to be doing your best to destroy football.  How noble you are!  How altruistic! 

On the up-side, if you succeed, you'll have to get a real job.

DrKlahn
DrKlahn

They need to start by instituting a penalty for players who lose their helmets during a play. Most players wear very ill fitting helmets - they should not come off as easily as a worn out baseball cap. You see them pull side to side / up and down which shouldn't happen. They need to be tight with correct padding.

Jon8
Jon8

The NFL has settled the concussion issue with the NFLPA!

But, the first lawsuit has yet to hit at the college level. This issue does have the potential to destroy College Football!!

jjohnson
jjohnson

Go back an look at games from the 70's & 80's. You should notice a couple of things. One is that the shoulder pads, thigh pads and knee pads were all bigger, by a lot, than they are now. This actually enhanced the technique of tackling as you almost always had to wrap your arms around the ball carrier. With the small pads they have today you can't help but butt heads!!! I know there were concussions back then as well but I am pretty certain the long term problems were a result of sending players back into games too soon thus making the chances of getting a second or third hit right away more likely. To me, the solution is simple, use what we now know and go back to the bigger, safer shoulder pads, thigh and knee pads.

PatrickMurphy
PatrickMurphy

This is the worst designed website in the history of websites.  It takes longer to find and get to a page than signing up for ObamaCare.

JMillerNC
JMillerNC

Dear Sgt Joseph K. Atherton,  I think Peter King forgot to include something in his response to you:  THANK YOU FOR SERVING YOUR COUNTRY.

-Jon

pjpthe2nd
pjpthe2nd

This is a stupid premise... is football dangerous?  Really? Is that the question?  Is "Safe Tackling" an oxymoron? What do people/players/coaches expect?  These guys are covered in padding and throw their bodies around with disregard.  From the beginning, aren't they taught to hit the guy as hard as possible?  I think there should be a rule that says if you don't wrap the guy up, it's an illegal tackle.  I'm not sure if it would help, but it seems like it would give the tackler something to focus on rather than just launching himself.

Say it out loud..."Hey Johnny, I know your only 7, but put on this helmet and then go run into that other little boy who has a helmet on".  Yeah, that's just what I'm gonna tell my son to do.

Hoosiermike
Hoosiermike

If I'm not mistaken, Hester has the same amount of tackles as Deion, so he should be a no-brainer for the Hall

RCH
RCH

Well maybe if Luck performed better in the first 3 quarters he wouldn't need those dramatic 4th quarter comebacks. Just saying!

Aloha!
Aloha!

Football has to shake off its Gladiator image or else it is going to die along with the guys that are in to deep. They will have to have play at your own risk contracts to save the game for a while , but that will be the last shot it will have. People love it to much like the Romans, they want to see blood.

ChrisSmith4
ChrisSmith4

I recognize that head trauma is the most talked about visible issue right now, and it is important to address, but if I had sons, I would be more concerned about the risk of knee injuries.  I know many people who need knee replacements because of "those years I played football back in high school."   

Only a very small percentage of kids who play high school football make it to big-time college football.   Only a small percentage of those players end up making it to the NFL, and even a smaller percentage end up having a reasonable career at it.  The men of the NFL are the elite of the elite....that's why they run faster, hit harder, and are really just freaks of athleticism.  That is the level where head trauma becomes the norm, either because of the size of the players or just having played football for so long.  Most high school athletes have 3-4 years of playing football, with a few of them going to small colleges for another couple of years.

The knees are still the most unprotected spot on the players' bodies.   The NFL guys run around with very little padding at all, and only those who have suffered injury wear any type of knee brace.   If shoulders are important enough to require giant pads, shouldn't knee braces and pads be a standard part of the gear?

Keep your kids in sports that they can play the rest of their lives, where even if they get hurt during competition, they can keep doing it when they get older.   There are grown up basketball, soccer, baseball, and other leagues all around the country.   You can play golf, run*, or swim completely on your own for most of your adult life.   Leave football to those who think they stand a chance to make a buck at it.

(* Running has it's own injuries, but most adults can still churn out a 5k every now and then.)


farr
farr

@lcjones42 Physics is where the answer lies but the problem is the equipment not the size.  The pads and helmet allow you to hit harder without breaking anything or even feeling it most of the time.  The brain still sloshes around though.  Cant stop it.  There are a lot of problems with your thesis.  First of all there are a great number of huge strong and fast guys that are natural.  Second of all the factor by which you increase speed and size is not as great as you imply.  Speeds are greater by less than a tenth of a second.  Lastly, watch Rugby.  The collisions are dramatically different and fewer because of the lack of equipment.  They wrestle a guy down and rarely collide like they do in football at full speed.

Sdwalt
Sdwalt

@DWJ08 I had never thought about the idea of a limit on playing time and bigger rosters. Seems to make sense so it would never happen.

Mike26
Mike26

@decredico It is WAAAYYYY past your bedtime son.  Time to put away the thesaurus and head to bed!

Sdwalt
Sdwalt

@Rick in Huahin! It seems to me that ALL of this column was talking about it. So I guess people do want to talk about it.

peter.io
peter.io

@barca71 He didn't advertise it as "breaking news" like he somehow just discovered it or it was a new phenomenon. He simply said that the site is taking this week and devoting it to reporting on the issue of head trauma in the game of football at all levels. Lighten up.

decredico
decredico

@skanee00 golf is pretty safe so too bocce, swimming, jogging. table tennis .... ninja please, you being supercilious

Jon8
Jon8

@skanee00 

YOU want to ruin the game!

Take your rule book and go to California, if you are not there already!

decredico
decredico

@MidwestGolfFan football is nothing more than fascism packaged for morons anyway ... its goal is to keep people agitated and ready to accept war as a part of life.... if your kid want to play football you're raising them wrong as they then become the same parents that give their kids up to be used as canon fodder in wars

Mike26
Mike26

@Jon8 There won't be much of a lawsuit at the college level.  Where you'll see the tie-in is when guys with a concussion history in college (ala Jahvid Best) get blackmarked in the scouting process, much like those that get marked with character issues, intelligence issues, size issues, etc.

Wombat
Wombat

@Jon8 Maybe the NFL will finally decide that a farm system will work for them and be profitable if the college system takes such a hit.

redmch91
redmch91

@jjohnson and test/ban HGH.  250 LB players are flying around at the speed of light because they are on substances that are banned in other major sports.  I hate how the NFL  and public have picked up this concussion flag and ran with it under the guise of player safety when the "illegal substatnce" issue has yet to be acknowledged and that damage is much easier to mitigate.

BY
BY

@pjpthe2nd Played a lot of football, didn't you? Will you let your child drive? Way more dangerous than football. What about soccer, the safe sport? Lots of injuries there, not much padding and no helmets. Put bubble wrap all over him and keep him completely safe. Nobody gets hurt playing chess.

BY
BY

@ChrisSmith4 Thanks for a well reasoned opinion. I completely agree with you. Most football players retire well before any head trauma can occur. Of course there are exceptions. Nothing is absoluely safe.

Freddy-Says
Freddy-Says

@ChrisSmith4 You seem to presume that this is only a problem in the pros, or that repeated blows to the head or concussions aren't as big a deal if you play high school football. Head trauma occurs in college football, high school football, and even in youth football. In fact, under the age of 14, when the child's skull and brain are disproportionately large for the rest of their body, their brains are more susceptible to that kind of trauma. They even talked about the impact in the high schools in the League of Denial documentary, examining the brain of a deceased high school senior football player who displayed the same types of CTE damage they saw in professional athletes. The brain is a delicate item. It doesn't take many blows to the head to begin doing serious damage. Nobody will deny that the hits a football player takes are much more fierce the higher up the ranks they go and into the pros, but bad hits and concussions (and sub-concussions) still occur in the younger leagues. It's the nature of the game. As a parent, the concern is obviously for your child's overall health, but ANY concern over bodily harm like the possibility of knee injury should be placed lower than those over head traumas, especially in a contact sport. 

decredico
decredico

@peter.io @barca71 he's a johnny come lately that is doing damage control as the commisioner water carrier ... pay attention to reality, fool

Jon8
Jon8

@Mike26 @Jon8 

As usual, you are flat-out wrong!

The ground work is being laid as I write this!

peter.io
peter.io

@Jon8 @peter.io Oooooh... very clever... really put me in my place there... how old are you? 12? 13?

Have a nice day. Ha!

Jon8
Jon8

@skanee00 @Jon8

No it hasn't, but people like you are trying hard to make it so!

peter.io
peter.io

@Jon8 Contempt prior to investigation... typical of most of your posts...

skanee00
skanee00

@Jon8 @skanee00 Maybe the sport today has already been ruined.  It only resembles the sport Vince Lombardi played and coached.

Jon8
Jon8

@skanee00 @Jon8

I've written a rulebook for a football/rugby league hybrid sport that I think would probably be healthier for the players to play. 

All I needed to know!!!

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