September 8, 2013 Updated: September 9, 2013 at 2:08 pm
In his first season of playing football, every time Elijah Engelby caught a pass, his mother cringed.
"I would just get scared and cover my eyes," Maria Engelby said.
A year later, preparing for another season with the Rampart Eagles, a sixth-grade team in the city of Colorado Springs youth football league, she'll probably still cringe if he is clobbered. But she's at ease with the fact that, should said clobbering lead to concussion symptoms, coaches and league officials know what to watch for and how to respond.
"I think the training the coaches had this year, it really makes me feel comfortable," she said. "They went over all of it with us in the first practice."
The topic of concussions and traumatic brain injuries has been at the forefront of football in recent years, from the NFL on down, as evidence surfaces of the long-term impacts of blows to the head. President Barack Obama told The New Republic, "If I had a son, I'd have to think long and hard before I let him play football."
But many parents and coaches - who are often fathers of players - say they don't have a problem with their sons playing the sport. Gerry Strabala, recreation supervisor for the city's parks department, said a new program this year emphasizes the importance of recognizing concussions.
"It really is more of a focal point nationwide, as well as locally, to try to educate not only our coaches but our parents on concussion awareness and symptoms and making sure we're teaching the proper tackling techniques so we're limiting the head contact," Strabala said.
More awareness of danger
Nate Budge played football through grade school, and he remembers what it was like when a player "got his bell rung" during a game.
"Back in the day, it was just, 'Put your helmet on and get back out there,'" said Budge, also a parent of a Rampart Eagles player.
"Now it seems like the NFL, in college and in little league, they're trying to push (concussion awareness) a lot more and that's important. We want to keep them safe. A lot of studies are coming out showing what can happen later in life if they've had a few concussions, so I appreciate them trying to have better awareness of it," he said.
The city parks league has tackle football programs for kids in second through eighth grades, about 2,000 playing in the fall and the same number in the spring. The league this year instituted USA Football's Heads Up Football. Strabala said all coaches go through six hours of field training and an online course on recognizing and preventing concussions.
Each team has a safety coordinator responsible for watching for hard blows and checking out kids involved, with a list of questions to ask the player to determine if he has symptoms. If there is concern, the player is pulled, parents are notified and the player can't return to the field until cleared by a doctor.
Strabala said there are an average of 10 such incidents a season.
"When you equate that to how many games we run in a particular year, the percentage is probably relatively small," he said.
Other youth football programs around the country, such as Pop Warner, have adopted similar concussion-prevention practices.
'You have to know the kids'
The Eagles went 5-2 last year. Coach Steve Ernst likes their chances this year.
The first four practices of the year weren't even in pads, so coaches can learn each player's mannerisms and personality. That's key to being able to tell when something is wrong.
"You have to know the kids. Not all kids are going to handle concussions in exactly the same way," said Ernst, a six-year coach.
On a recent Monday afternoon, much of the practice was focused on tackling, as eager boys unleashed their pent-up energy from the first day of school on tackling dummies. Most head injuries occur during a tackle, so Ernst sees proper technique - leading with the hips or shoulders and not the head - as a key tool in prevention.
Among his coaches are two registered nurses, so he feels confident they can spot a player with symptoms.
"You kind of start getting in their face. If there's been a hard contact, you look them in the eye, making sure their eyes are right on you, making sure they're able to answer questions like, 'What day of the week is it?' and 'What are your parents' names?' and 'What's the name of our team?'" he said.
City officials ask coaches to limit contact in practice to less than 30 minutes, and that's fine with Ernst, even if the players are raring to go.
"They really want to hit right now and there's nothing wrong with that, but you want to save that for the games and when it really matters," he said.
Neither he nor team safety coordinator Jason Kramer, who both have sons who play for the Eagles, have a problem with their kids playing the sport.
"The Heads Up program, it goes to show you the leagues from the top down - NFL, collegiate, youth sports - they're taking an active and proactive response to concussions and making kids aware of them, and we're teaching techniques to help reduce or eliminate them," Kramer said.