In the past few years the landscape of high school football - and any contact sport, really, has changed drastically.
A letterman jacket was once considered a ‘rite of passage’ - at least according to any classic '80s movie set in high school. But now the road to earning those letters is riddled with fear of long-term complications and potentially life-threatening injuries.
But does that scare us away from enjoying a football game every Friday? Heck no. Because like I said my first week here - there’s something special about high school sports.
But that doesn’t mean anyone has the right to put the score of a high school football game above the health and safety of an athlete.
Thankfully CHSAA, school administrations and coaches are doing everything in their power to try to prevent these scary injuries from occurring.
The report on former New England Patriots star Aaron Hernandez’s Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy screening hit me hard. I was overwhelmed with fear for ‘my kids’ - those I interact with and cover on a daily basis - both in Colorado Springs and back home in PA. As researchers continue to uncover the scary link between brain injuries and contact sports, I can’t help but wonder what high school athletics will look like 10 years down the road.
Thursday afternoon the news broke that Hernandez had a severe case of CTE. He was in stage 3 of 4 when he committed suicide while in prison in April. Doctors say his advanced stage of CTE, which can cause violent mood swings, depression, suicidal tendencies and memory loss, was the most severe case in someone his age -- a mere 27 years old.
It’s jarring to think that 10 years ago Hernandez was just another high school football player.
But thankfully times have changed pretty drastically.
Widefield football coach Nic Olney grew up playing hard-nosed football, and said there was a serious learning curve as a coach when new safety policies were initiated by CHSAA and other governing organizations. But he said despite the drastic changes since he was in school, he instantly bought into the new safety initiatives when his son Todd came home with a concussion at eight years old.
“He couldn’t walk in a straight line and had a lazy eye,” Olney said. “That really affects you. It changed my outlook on it as a coach. When you really experience it as your own kid you really look at it more seriously.”
The growing fear of CTE and reliance on concussion protocols has indeed changed the game, but it has also made us all more cautious about how we treat injuries at a young age.
“CHSAA came out last year with the limited amount of contact we are allowed to do, which was an adjustment, but I see the value in it,” Olney said. “(Do some of the changes) become a hassle? Sometimes, but if it’s right for the kids it’s something we have to do. I think the changes CHSAA and USA Football have made has really made the game better and safer.”
Back in PA I met a high school football player and wrestler who was diagnosed with post-concussion syndrome, and reluctantly had to hang up his pads and wrestling singlet in his senior year - ending his chances at a collegiate wrestling career. Kody Brown was 17 when a chiropractic neurologist told him that if he walked out onto the football field again, he might not walk back off.
Brown is now a sophomore in college and has become an advocate for athletes who may be too scared to speak up about head injuries, and tries to educate parents and coaches on the early warning signs.
In hindsight Brown’s parents remember his erratic mood swings, difficulty keeping up with school, and frequent headaches - but they chalked it up to ‘puberty’ and ‘being a boy.’
As these new advancements in technology and medicine continue to scare the bejesus out of us, I hope athletes know they should never be ashamed of reporting an injury. Your life means more than points on a scoreboard.
And while it’s scary to think about how much is still unknown about the cause and effect of playing contact sports at a young age, I’m grateful that the focus is on safety above all.
My little brother is in his second year of playing youth football, and you better believe I’ll be checking his eye movement with a flashlight every time I come home.