A Way of Life
With a new coach and a new philosophy of passing the ball, a legendary high school program in Kansas has adopted the slogan, 'Welcome to the New Age.' Yet football is still being played in America’s heartland without a certified athletic trainer on the sidelines
SMITH CENTER, Kan. — The head football coach was bailed out this time. There was, thankfully, an athletic trainer on hand to look into the teenager’s eyes, to have the player recall what he did earlier in the day, to ignore his cries of “I’m fine!” He wasn’t fine: The next night he would leave the homecoming dance early, complaining about loud music and bright lights.
It was the trainer’s decision to pull the player from the game, after diagnosing him with a concussion. But had the trainer, who travels 160 miles round-trip to attend this high school’s home games, not been able to make it—or had the team been on the road—it would have been on the coach to recognize a problem and make the proper medical call.
“Most kids can’t hide concussions,” says the first-year varsity coach, who has been around football for 20 years and takes an hour-long rules and health course every preseason. “They’re bawling, crying. They’re confused. But this one probably could’ve gotten away with it.”
Let’s back up.
As The MMQB set out to learn about head injuries in football—about the protocols and the varying attitudes across the country toward concussions—what better place to go, we thought, than the actual center of the U.S.? You might be surprised to learn there’s an official geographical center of the contiguous U.S., landmark and all. It’s just outside of a small Kansas town called Lebanon (pronounced “Leb-nun” by locals). There’s no high school there anymore. It closed in the 1980s as the population declined. The children of farmers and store owners and teachers graduated from high school, left town and never came back.
So the town sent its boys and girls 15 miles west to Smith Center High, which had the country’s longest active winning streak in football until 2009. It ended that year at 79 games. The legendary coach presiding over the streak sent several players on to the NFL, most notably Mark Simoneau, an All-America linebacker at Kansas State who played for the Eagles, Falcons, Saints and Chiefs in a 10-year career. New York Times writer Joe Drape traveled to Smith Center in 2007 to write a book about the team, the town and the coach, Roger Barta, who retired after last season. (The book, Our Boys, is quite good). The new head coach is Darren Sasse, 40, a former junior high coach and varsity assistant who grew up in this town of 1,600.
Ten days ago I travelled with the Smith Center team to its game against Ell-Saline High in Brookville, Kans., a town of fewer than 300 people that’s measured not in square miles but in square acres (366). I wanted to get an in-depth look at how concussions are being treated—diagnostically and philosophically—in America’s heartland.
The linebacker/center described at the beginning of this story, senior Wyatt Oliver, made the trip even though he hadn’t been cleared to play after being diagnosed with a concussion. Oliver stands 6-0 and is an athletic 180 pounds. He can snap the ball reliably and can run down ball-carriers with ease. On a team of 36 players culled from a student body of 121, he does both. In a game the week before I arrived in Kansas, he was in pursuit of Washington County’s quarterback when at the last moment the QB ducked, and the crown of Oliver’s helmet collided with a teammate’s chest. He staggered to his feet a few seconds later. The trainer asked him what classes he’d been to that day. “All of ’em,” Oliver said, trying to pull a fast one.
He was done for the night, and wouldn’t be allowed to play again until he passed the ImPACT test, which was developed by the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center in 1999 and has become widely used in recent years as the dangers of concussions have become better understood. For the first time, the boys at Smith Center are being tested this year by New West Sports Medicine in Kearney, Neb., with funding coming from a grant by Good Samaritan Hospital in Kearney and the Smith Center school district. (The grant covers 45 Nebraska schools and 10 Kansas schools.) Though the accuracy of the ImPACT test has come under recent scrutiny, it requires healthy athletes to take a baseline test that can be compared to a concussed player’s cognitive ability later in the season.
I met with Wyatt’s mom, Traci, in Brookville, about 115 miles southeast of Smith Center. Because there are so few schools in this part of the country, Smith Center will log more than 600 miles traveling round trip to its four scheduled away games this season. Traci drove the two hours to watch the game even though her two sons didn’t play—by Kansas rule Wyatt was mandated to be out for one week following a concussion diagnosis (the ImPACT test still to come), and his younger brother, Dalton, a freshman, was still recovering from a broken bone at the bottom of his pelvis.
Smith Center didn’t need either of the Oliver brothers in their 43-8 victory over Ell-Saline. The visitors took an early lead on a 1-yard touchdown plunge by senior running back Grant Lambert two minutes into the game, and the successful two-point conversion was a nearly identical smashmouth play.
“At Smith Center,” one mom explained, “we hit hard, we don’t pass, and we don’t kick.”
For as long as anyone can remember, the team has run a wishbone offense with a fullback directly behind the quarterback and two tailbacks split behind the fullback. Sasse added a new wrinkle this year: the short shotgun snap, also known as the pistol. Sasse wanted the quarterback to have a better view of the defense when making decisions with the ball on option plays. There’s also been a reluctant acknowledgement of a new football trend sweeping the nation—the forward pass. Coach Barta’s offensive goal had always been 400 yards rushing per game. Sasse now wants 300 yards rushing, and 100 passing. He’s on his way: Smith Center had 60 through the air against Ell-Saline.
Mrs. Oliver and I sat together in the bleachers during the first half, taking in the sights and talking football. Behind us, a two-lane road leading to Interstate 70 cut through vast fields of grain and other crops that seemed to touch the horizon in all directions. In front of us, dressed in red jackets and thigh-high green skirts, all five Smith Center cheerleaders danced to late ’90s jock jams blasting from a boombox. In the stands across the field, girls from Ell-Saline were already attired for the postgame homecoming dance. Wearing puffy, strapless dresses in hues of purple, blue and red, they wandered between the gym and the bleachers for much of the night.
At one point in the second quarter, a Smith Center defender was the second man in on a tackle, his face mask colliding with the back of the running back’s head. Yellow flags came flying out, and Smith Center was penalized 15 yards for “targeting the head.” About 75 Smith Center fans, who were separated from the field by a six-lane black rubber track, became incensed. A white-haired man wearing a red jacket and jeans jumped to his feet. “Come on,” he yelled. “Let ’em play football!” Another man spit a cloudy brown mixture into a half-filled plastic bottle before shouting, “That’s bogus!”
I asked Mrs. Oliver if head injuries frighten her, if she’s ever considered not letting her sons play for fear of brain trauma. Wyatt has had just that one concussion. His younger brother was knocked unconscious in a wrestling match last year. She paused briefly at the question.
“No. Not when you’re from Smith Center,” she said. “That’s what it is here. Now, if he had a second one, we would worry. But it’s a way of life out here. This is how a lot of kids get into junior colleges to go to school. Of course my heart stopped when he laid on the ground last week, but he got up.”
Wyatt tried to hide his concussion, but the athletic trainer couldn’t be fooled. Smith Center’s senior quarterback, Kody Molzahn, had to move on with the backup center, and the pair did fine against Ell-Saline, acing every shotgun snap. Watching from the back row of the bleachers, Molzahn’s father told me he remembered just one time when Kody had a concussion. There was another instance, the dad said, when Kody “had his bell rung, but I didn’t consider it a concussion.”
“I’ve kept up on the stuff that happens to pro athletes. And it’s scary,” said Dan Molzahn, a farmer. “But honestly, with my sons I never worried about it. If the doctor says they can go, they go. We try to leave it up to our sons—are you ready to play, or are you not ready to play? Because I expect 100% when you’re out there.”
Kody has an older brother who played for Barta and once suffered a concussion so severe that he missed two weeks of practice a few years ago. But that kind of precaution wasn’t always the norm here. When Smith Center was good—five-state-championships-in-a-row good—there was more pressure on players to get back on the field and less knowledge about concussions, Sasse told me. In 2007, the starting quarterback of Smith Center’s eventual state championship team suffered a concussion in practice, and there was some discussion whether he should play that very week. “He didn’t play,” says Sasse, a varsity assistant at the time. “I don’t know what we would’ve done if it had been the playoffs. You’d like to think we would’ve done the right thing for the kid, but who knows?”