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Concussions prompt change at all levels of football

Caption
(Josh Peckler – jpeckler@shawmedia.com)
Gwen Rosegay of McHenry helps put a jersey over the football pads of her son Nathan, 10, before a recent football practice for the McHenry Township Junior Warriors third- and fourth-grade team at Pro Player Consultants in McHenry.

RICHMOND – It’s the second game of the season, and Adam Kinsella shuffles along behind the defensive line, eyes on a sweeping Winnebago running back.

Kinsella shoots outside, lowers his shoulder just as the ball carrier does the same. They collide. Shoulder pads and helmets meet violently outside the edge.

Then:

“Lights out,” said Kinsella, a senior at Richmond-Burton High School. “I didn’t remember much.

“Actually, nothing at all.”

• • •

The diagnosis came not long after, as trainers pulled Kinsella from the game and his parents escorted him to a hospital. A concussion, of course.

Kinsella never lost consciousness. Instead, he started talking and acting uncharacteristically, and his condition became evident.

A discussion on football player safety has erupted in the past few years. Awareness of the suffering of many retired NFL players has led to research into the long-term side effects of multiple concussions.

In September, the NFL announced it would pour $30 million into brain-injury research. Rules changes over the past half decade have – to the ire of some hard-nosed players around the league – decreased the chance for violent, concussion-inducing collisions, although Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler is a recent testament that such collisions still happen.

But what kind of effect is the growing awareness about NFL life post-football having on lower levels of the sport? What are coaches and league officials at the high school and pee wee levels doing to ensure their players’ safety, and to keep parents from pushing their children away from football? And is it enough?

Boston University researchers studying the brains of athletes have found that repeated brain trauma seen in many football players can cause chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. It causes degeneration of the brain tissue and is associated with memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, impulse control problems, aggression, depression and progressive dementia, according to Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy.

Former Bears safety Dave Duerson, a member of the 1985 Super Bowl team, killed himself with a shot to his chest in early 2011, and requested that his brain go to the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy. Researchers confirmed later that Duerson suffered from “moderately advanced” CTE.

Junior Seau, a 12-time NFL pro-Bowl linebacker, took his life in the same fashion in May. Some of his brain tissue was donated to the National Institute of Health’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, but the center experts have said they won’t share their findings.

“It was the scariest thing I’ve ever been through. That experience, that drive to the hospital, hearing what he was saying,” said Amy Wilson, Kinsella’s mom, of the night her son suffered a concussion.

Later, Wilson said she was comforted by the response from the Richmond-Burton coaching staff and trainers both the night of the injury and during his rehabilitation. Is it enough?

• • •

It’s a cold November Wednesday, and inside the Pro Player Consultants practice facility in McHenry, Joel Benton still is pounding tackling form into the minds of his 9- to 11-year-old players days before they’ll play – and win – The Chicagoland Youth Football League Super Bowl.

Bend at the waist, knees flexed. Arms back. Approach low and then explode upward into the target, driving chest-first, head-back.

“It’s more leading with your chest, getting your head out of the way,” Benton said.

Benton has completed advanced concussion training as has every coach in the youth football league, thanks to a requirement put in place this year. The tackling form he’s teaching is part of a USA Football initiative aimed at decreasing helmet-to-helmet contact.

Mike Girolamo, president of the McHenry Township Junior Warriors of which Benton coaches one of a dozen teams, said the program tries to stay ahead of the curve when it comes to concussion training. This year, they hosted Centegra Hospital representatives for a training session geared for coaches and parents.

The efforts are enough to comfort Cindy Powell of McHenry, whose 8- and 10-year-old boys play for the McHenry Township Junior Warriors.

“I’ve seen a couple times in practice where coaches have pulled a parent over and said, ‘Listen, you need to watch him tonight, he took a hard hit. Here’s what I want you to watch for,’ ” Powell said. “That’s proactive. A coach doesn’t have to do that.”

Powell said she’s not immune to parental nerves on the sideline, but she’s not letting it keep her kids from playing a game they enjoy.

Others, she said, can’t say the same.

“I have several friends who’ve said, ‘There’s no way I’m going to let my kids play,’ ” Powell said. “If a parent isn’t comfortable, you can’t do it. You’ll just drive yourself crazy. But I’m a big advocate for everything this league has done.”

In all, three of the 244 Junior Warriors’ players suffered concussions this season.

Girolamo said talks surrounding concussions haven’t caused a widespread exodus from the program. He said he had just one parent pull her son from football before the season because of safety concerns.

“It’s a physical game and a hitting game,” Girolamo said, standing aside as Benton’s team practiced. “With the proper techniques, we eliminate that. Next year, we should have no concussions.”

“I don’t know if I’d say no concussions,” interjected Tracy Fees, the program’s secretary. “Out of 244 kids, having three kids, with no severe issues ...

“We can’t control what other towns teach their children,” she said. “But we can control what McHenry teaches our children.”

• • •

At the high school level, Richmond-Burton coach Pat Elder said the main change has been in education. He’s more informed and so are his staff, trainers, players and their parents.

When it became evident Kinsella wasn’t making much sense, he was pulled from the game, no questions asked, Elder said.

Kinsella’s dad, Brad Kinsella, said that alone is a change from years past.

“Thirty years ago when I was playing football, I probably would have gone back in the game,” he said.

Instead, Adam Kinsella was taken to the hospital for testing. He was given a baseline test in the following days to compare with the test he took before the season – another precautionary measure becoming increasingly commonplace at all levels, including youth programs such as the Junior Warriors.

Kinsella passed his baseline test and was cleared to play the next weekend, but coaches and trainers held him out anyway.

“I knew the risks. Getting another one would have meant not playing for the rest of the season,” Kinsella said. “I know they told me I had to sit out a week, but if I could have, I would have gone in right away.”

Elder knew there was no reason to rush him back.

“There is now an understanding that if a player is brought back too early from a concussion, it will cause them to miss more time than if you bring them back [later],” he said. “That rush to get people back on the field is not there.”

• • •

When he did get back on the field, Kinsella played a significant role in Richmond-Burton’s 7-4 season.

Coaches had the previously two-way player focus on offense after his injury. Kinsella finished the year with 113 carries for 837 yards and nine touchdowns. Now he’s working on getting film together for college coaches.

That scares his mom.

“I’ve had a couple of conversations when I say, ‘I know you love football and I know you want to play in college, but you have to think long term, about how this is going to affect you when you’re in your 40s, not when you’re 18, 19,’” Wilson said. “I know he’s going to make his own decision, and I’m trying to guide him away from it, but he wants to play.”

The potential long-term health implications aren’t completely lost on Kinsella, who hasn’t yet made a decision on his football future. He said he is concerned about what further concussions could mean down the road.

“I’d have to think about it,” he said of whether those concerns would be enough to keep him out of football. “But I love the game.

“I want to keep playing.”

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