It's an age-old question with no easy answer: Should you let your son play football?
Awareness of the game's risks has heightened with recent media coverage of NFL injuries, including concussions, and their long-term impact. Players are bigger and stronger. Collisions are more brutal.
Kurt Warner, one of the greatest quarterbacks in history, says he's not sure he wants his sons to play football. If a man who built his career in the game has doubts, it says something.
A definitive answer is elusive because coaching, equipment, training and awareness – particularly of the need to be cautious with possible concussions – are better than ever.
If your son says he wants to play football, what should you say?
“Play,” Indianapolis Colts safety Antoine Bethea said. “Play. The same things they talk about now have been issues since football has been here. It's up to whatever association to get the coaches and medical trainers up to par and get the right equipment.”
North Side football coach Ryan Hall knows firsthand the risks that come with being on a football field.
Playing for Northrop on Senior Night in 1992, Hall fielded a punt and took off. He wasn't big, but he was fast and tough. And he was nailed by a tackle from the side.
“It was a heck of a hit,” Hall said. “He hit me, my head hit the ground.”
Hall left in an ambulance. He was diagnosed with a brain contusion. He spent a few days in the hospital and missed two weeks of school. He had no long-term issues and played baseball that spring. But his football career was over.
And, yet, here's Hall coaching and teaching the game. He says his 7-year-old son wants to play football, and he plans to let him play.
“The life lessons it teaches young kids are tremendous,” Hall said. “Anything in football you can adapt to life. The bottom line is, you get knocked down, you get back up.”
Risk is inevitable
There's no denying the risks of football. Most would concede that the NFL is a different sport altogether, given the size and speed of the players and the force of the collisions. Yet football at every level is a contact sport, with hits on every play.
Few players make it through a season without bumps, bruises, cuts, jammed fingers, etc. Some experience the worst, from broken bones to concussions to severe knee injuries.
“Football is ingrained in American culture,” said Columbia City coach Randy Hudgins, whose mother snuck him out of the house to sign up for youth football as a child. “There's a lure to boys, especially. It's almost the perfect boys' game. There's violence, teamwork, brotherhood – a lot of the things boys are drawn to. I would argue with anybody about the life lessons in football.”
Former Leo High School running back Connor Kacsor took his share of hits – nearly every play. It wasn't until his senior season, during a sectional game, that he suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
Kacsor was a redshirt freshman this past year at the University of Dayton, and has only recently been able to train without a knee brace of any kind. Now he's eager to hit the field again.
Kascor said his parents, Kirk and Cynthia, encouraged him to play club football. But he decided after being tackled that he didn't want to be a running back. His father pushed him to keep trying. “It ended up being the best decision I ever made,” Connor Kacsor said.
Despite the injury, Kacsor has no qualms about the sport.
“Football is always going to be football, there's always going to be contact,” Kacsor said. “There's always going to be injuries and you can never worry about that. With technology and pads and helmets improving, they're taking steps to reshape the game and make it safer.”
Safety strides being made
Concussions are a major concern, given the recent media reports of NFL players and possible links to depression and other issues later in life.
“If I was scared of it, I wouldn't be playing,” Colts cornerback Jerraud Powers said. “Twenty years from now, I might not be able to do this or that, but that's a risk I'm willing to take. A lot of guys nowadays are doing much more to take care of their bodies.”
The new level of care includes an emphasis on concussions.
Twenty years ago, a player “got his bell rung,” sat out a play or two and went charging back onto the field. No more. Awareness of the need for precaution has increased. Many schools are now using preseason baseline testing to establish a standard for a player's cognitive skills. That way, he can be measured later to determine concussion symptoms.
“We're very blessed to be in this day and age with knowledgeable staff around us who are going to protect these kids,” Homestead coach Chad Zolman said.
Coaches have been trained to turn possible concussions over to medical personnel, starting with the school's athletic trainers and moving on to physicians.
“Any kind of headache, we're assuming it's a concussion,” Snider coach Kurt Tippmann said. “For the treatment of concussion, the medical people have taken over. No decision is left in the coach's hand whatsoever.”
The Indiana High School Athletic Association stipulates that a player with symptoms of a concussion must be cleared by a doctor before returning to any IHSAA sport.
Advancements in equipment have helped in all areas, but particularly in protecting the head, said Andy Vogel, physical therapist and athletic trainer with Indiana Physical Therapy. Vogel has worked with area high schools for many years.
“Helmets are the biggest safety improvement,” Vogel said. “Shoulder pads have also made improvements. Hip pads, knee pads – there's only so much they can do. A knee pad isn't going to stop an ACL.”
As far as concussions go, Vogel says coaches are much more knowledgeable about watching for the signs.
But players have to be upfront because head injuries aren't always easy to observe.
“High school kids are notoriously bad about not divulging injuries,” Vogel said.
“Our biggest role is educating the kids,” Tippmann said. “You can't lie and say, 'I don't have a headache.' We have to educate them on what a concussion is and it doesn't always happen by running into somebody.”
Teammates have to be aware, and alert coaches if they see a player exhibiting signs of a concussion, Vogel said.
To play or not to play
Bishop Dwenger coach Chris Svarczkopf has been coaching for 35 years. His sons Nick, Greg and Tony all played the game. He's seen all sides of the issue.
Clearly, he still believes the game is worth the risk.
“It's a game that we've loved, and I think there's obviously a lot of concern,” Svarczkopf said. “A lot of it is justified.”
Svarczkopf emphasizes, however, that coaches are more aware of safety measures than ever before. Dwenger issues high quality helmets, and at $200 apiece, it's a huge investment for the school. The school also allows parents to buy their own helmets if they feel they want the latest model, which can push above $300.
“(But), there's no concussion proof helmet,” Svarczkopf said.
Awareness of the importance of safety has changed football, and coaches have to adapt, Svarczkopf said.
“You still have to have a certain amount of contact in practice,” Svarczkopf said. “That's always a coach's No.1 concern. How much contact do we want to have? You have a fear of not having enough and having a soft team or too much and having too many injuries.”
Hard hitting remains. Common sense has simply been integrated better.
“The days of putting a guy in the middle and attacking him from all sides – I don't think too many people do that anymore,” Hudgins said.
Hall said his team had only two concussions last fall during North Side's most successful season – record-wise – in years. Some would say two concussions is two too many.
“You can get hurt doing anything,” Hall said.
Hard decisions on life lessons
What's the bottom line? Is it getting knocked down and getting back up, as Hall said?
The game is dangerous, to a degree. No one disputes that. It's also arguably safer than it's ever been.
“If a parent forces a child not to play a particular sport, I think you're holding them back from their dreams or goals they might have,” the Colts' Powers said. “A lot of people are looking at the negatives right now because of Junior Seau, rest in peace, and things like that. But you have to look at the positives.”
Tippmann probably speaks for many coaches when he says football – at the high school level – remains a great activity for molding young adults.
“Football and sports in general, along with marching band, drama, any extracurricular activity, is an extension of the educational process,” Tippmann said. “Through the game and their experiences and what they encounter with teammates, they learn to care about something other than themselves. That's a powerful thing.”
Kacsor can't wait to get back on the field this fall at Dayton, his first chance to carry the ball and attack an opposing defense since he left Leo.
“You have to weigh your options, but football gives you so many life lessons,” Kacsor said. “You learn to be a team player. You learn authority. Every sport, there's always injuries. You can't be scared to have those injuries. That's part of life.”