By Matt Welch
Times West Virginian
It has been said that football was created for warriors.
A game that started out with hardly any pads has turned into a game that’s brought about many new rule changes in favor of safety. While it’s not necessarily a bad thing, will it go as far as to eliminate youth football?
There’s been much discussion about head injuries at the professional and collegiate level in the past few years. But now that discussion has moved to high school and even down to the Pop Warner level.
ESPN had an “Outside the Lines” special on head injuries and youth football.
In that report, they showed that the participation percentage dropped by a staggering 9.5 percent between 2011 and 2012. The report also cited that the biggest reason for the 23,612 youngsters dropping the sport was due to the concern of head injuries.
Some experts have said that youth football should be changes to flag football until the high school level in an effort to help the youth learn specific skills first before having full pad-on-pad contact. But will taking away the pads eliminate the problem, or just make it worse?
North Marion head football coach Daran Hays believes flag football would be a step in the wrong direction.
When asked if his future children would be kept out of football due to the risk of injury, Hays had a resounding answer.
“My child would begin playing football in youth league for numerous reasons,” Hays said. “Number one being the character you develop within the game. Two, because the only way to prevent (head injuries) is to teach techniques at a young age. I feel that flag football teaches the opposite – reach and lean. Which causes the head to drop and the injury rate to exponentially increase.”
I agree with Hays in that the youth who are put into football at a young age need to be taught correctly from the beginning.
Children are easy to mold and easier to be taught than a hard-headed high school freshman who’s never stepped foot on a football field. That’s not to say that it can’t be done. But it certainly seems that if you start teaching your kid a good habit while they’re younger, it has a better chance to stick.
Some teens, like Meadow Bridge’s Jake Parker, waited until junior high to get involved in the sport.
Despite his mother’s concern, Parker, who led the state of West Virginia in rushing this season, and his mother both understand the concerns of playing the game, and she cited his “love of the game” as the sole reason she still lets him compete.
Cynthia Parker said she always thought her son, Jake, was safe because of the protective gear he wears. But then she watched a documentary on the sport and injuries.
“I watched a documentary a few months ago showing MRI scans and running backs’ brains and the damage that’s caused by hits to the head. It definitely scares me,” she said. “Jake wants to go to college for football. I’m afraid every time he’s tackled.”
Hays said the gear the kids wear today is even better than when he played football and says that it all goes back to fundamentals.
“The game was played in leather helmets and shoulder pads,” Hays said of the original state of football. “Poor fundamentals taught at a young age is the reason football injuries have increased.”
Parker said that while she still worries about her son, she has faith in the coaching staff, saying they constantly go over ways to be safe with the boys.
Another coach in the Eastern Panhandle, who now has a son of his own, is on the other end of the fence but still agrees that it should be about fundamentals.
“As a former coach and now a son of a 5-year-old, I have some reservations of my boy playing,” Brett Rose said. “It’s a maturity – mental and physical – issue. It’s just my personal preference and opinion. I still think age 8 is the earliest a kid should start, and, even then, it should be all about fundamental technique and not be competitive.”
Players, parents and coaches know the risk, but is cutting the game back going to help the kids in the long run? I don’t think so. Neither does Hays.
“There is risk of car wrecks and various other accidental injuries which are much higher than any football-related injuries,” Hays stated. “I don’t see us selling our cars and walking.”
The issue isn’t the players, nor their ability at any level. The issue is that of coaching.
The rules have been changed year in and year out and still concussions are at an all-time high. Though football has been the top sport to see high numbers, sports like soccer and basketball are on the rise.
Are players taking their precautions? They likely are. They’re armed with the best equipment ready at their fingertips. But they could be missing one thing: coaches who teach them the fundamentals from day one. Coaches who throw winning out the window in hopes that the one kid from their 30-kid roster in Pop Warner will make it to the NFL and be confident that he can make a fundamentally sound tackle that will keep not only himself safe, but the player across from him.
Email Matt Welch at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow on Twitter @MattWelch_TWV.