Michael Betteridge, WTHU

More and more these days, the opportunity for our football players to letter in more than one sport is decreasing. There are other interests drawing our athlete’s talents, including focused travel teams, other sports, extracurricular activities, and academic opportunities. Some may fear injury to kids on the football field—not just the bumps and bruises of regular athletics, but life-changing injuries from concussions, knee injuries, and permanent joint damage. There is an incorrect perception that football is more “dangerous” than other sports.

Indeed, the recent life-threatening incident on the field during a football game at St. John’s Catholic Prep in Buckeystown is about as scary as it gets. A Winters Mill junior football player’s heart stopped (cardiac arrest) in the middle of a game and had to be defibrillated (a procedure that electrically shocks the heart back to life) on the field and again on the way to the hospital. And everyone at Catoctin surely remembers the head injury to Cougar Colan Droneburg, who was put in an induced coma for several days with a brain injury at Shock Trauma in Baltimore, the result of a severe concussion during a scrimmage in the spring season of 2021. These two incidents would scare any athlete or parent.

We have the same concerns in my family. My grandson, a sophomore at Fairfield Area District School in Pennsylvania, is an excellent all-around athlete who was heavily recruited to play football. He is the starting fullback on the Knights, a position that takes a lot of guts and even more pounding. He is an even better baseball player who plays on the travel team during the football season! His family allows him to play two sports, simultaneously. Someday soon, they could potentially be faced with the dilemma of protecting possible college scholarships for the lefty pitcher or Knights fullback and be forced to choose one sport over the other. The risk of injury will be the dominant factor. 

Over the past decade, smaller schools are more impacted and find it difficult to fill their rosters as parents err on the side of caution. Fairfield had to forfeit their game on September 9 against Hamburg with only 14 players dressed out of a meager 19-player roster, due to injury. Catoctin, the smallest school in the 1A in Maryland (1A schools are the smallest in Maryland), has a very small roster by Frederick County standards with 29 athletes. Brunswick, Frederick County’s other 1A school, has 27. By contrast, Linganore and Oakdale, 3A schools, have rosters of 51 and 50, respectively, almost twice as many as Catoctin. Catoctin’s next-door neighbor, Walkersville, a 2A school, has 44 on their roster. Since it takes 22 players to field a team, offense and defense, you can see the challenge. Many players must play both ways on the smaller teams, increasing the risk of fatigue and injury. Families must weigh all the factors carefully in making sports participation decisions.

One of the most impressive advances in high school football safety has been USA Football’s “Heads Up Tackling” techniques that have been taught to coaches from college all the way down to the youth level. As a varsity youth football coach several years ago, I was required to attend these classes and maintain certification in order to coach at the youth level. The program teaches proper tackling techniques and avoidance of helmet-to-helmet contact in practice and on the field. Practice times and procedures have been modified significantly over the past several years to limit injury and maximize safety.  Changes in helmet technology, hydration, conditioning, and coordination with trained medical professionals who examine and treat athletes have improved drastically.  Rule changes on the field regarding blindside blocking and hits have made an enormous difference. Local and state concussion legislation, along with a minimum return to practice requirements for concussions at the local level, have made a difference as well. The biggest change in youth sports has been the understanding by coaching staff that injuries must be reported and treated. The days of “shake it off” and “get back in there” are over. Coaches now are trained to put the player’s health and well-being first.

Ironically, the most dangerous sport during practice, when it comes to concussions, is cheerleading! This, according to a study by the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), results from poor practice methods and the reluctance to view cheerleading as a sport; therefore, injuries never get reported. Cheerleading has changed drastically over the past 30 years, from simple movements and chants to coordinated gymnastic feats that used to be seen only at events in a gymnasium on padded mats. Now they perform triple forward and backward somersaults with aerial walkovers and a round-out to a standing position on concrete and hardwood floors. It makes me dizzy watching it.

According to the CDC, high school sports injuries have been cut in half over the past decade, and football is safer than ever.  The risk of injury is small when weighed against the benefits of learning teamwork, perseverance, discipline, and work ethics. These benefits have an immeasurable positive impact for young athletes, especially when we’re all getting heavier and lazier as technology makes us work and exercise less. We see it everywhere; athletics builds self-esteem, conditioning, and good lifestyle choices. As one of my favorite Catoctin coaches, Mike Franklin, puts it, “If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change!”

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