Pop Warner group hitting concussion issue head-on

Aug. 13, 2012 – By David Pevear, dpevear@lowellsun.com
Updated:   08/13/2012 11:31:06 AM EDT

LOWELL — There are so many horror stories. More than 2,000 former players are suing the National Football League, claiming it concealed knowledge about the risks of permanent brain damage from repeated concussions.

When former linebacker Junior Seau committed suicide May 2, immediate speculation was perhaps Seau, like former NFL players Ray Easterling and Dave Duerson who also took their own lives, suffered from football-related brain damage.

But are such horror stories from the NFL relevant to youth football, which seems as distant from the muscular and warp-speed collisions of pro football as bumper cars are from NASCAR?

“We just don’t know,” says Richard Greenwald, a biomedical engineer whose Lebanon, N.H. company Simbex developed the Head Impact Telemetry (HIT) System, which uses sensors, a processor and transmitter to monitor the head acceleration of athletes in helmeted sports. The technology was sold in 2004 to football helmet manufacturer Riddell, which markets it as HITS.

The emerging consensus drawn from data gathered so far suggests “certain impacts to the head are probably not good” for young athletes, says Greenwald, who thinks it wise to educate parents, coaches and players about eliminating football drills that lead to head contact.

Pop Warner football, the nation’s largest youth football organization, with 285,000 players ages 5-15, is moving in that direction. Practices underway for the 2012 season must adhere to rules instituted in June by the national governing body — Pop Warner Little Scholars — that limit contact drills and scrimmaging to one-third of each practice, and prohibit full-speed head-on blocking or tackling drills involving players lined up more than three yards apart.

Sal Lupoli, president of Chelmsford Pop Warner, agrees wholeheartedly with the new restrictions. “At this level there is no need to do serious contact during practice,” says Lupoli, a former standout lineman at Chelmsford High and Northeastern University. “It should be all about technique … technique … technique. Teaching proper technique is everything.”

Jim Hutt, coach of the Lowell Pop Warner A team, says contact restrictions were overdue. It is believed most head injuries occur in practice. “There always have been discussions about concussions. And there have been all types of training (for coaches). But now it’s serious,” says Hutt.

Hutt adds, “They’re really cutting down on how much we can hit in practice, and they’re really almost micro-managing what we can do every week. I honestly don’t have a problem with it. Because I feel like what it does is forces the organizations and the coaches to be more educated.”

Teaching is the key

There is widespread agreement that the best concussion-prevention measures are teaching proper head-up blocking and tackling techniques, and repeated condemnation of helmet-to-helmet hits. But because Pop Warner is an organization that relies on volunteers, perhaps not all coaches are experienced in teaching fundamentals and technique, says Lupoli.

The pilot study which prompted Pop Warner to adopt practice restrictions was conducted by Stefan Duma, head of the biomedical engineering department at Virginia Tech. Sensors placed in helmets of seven players, ages 6 to 8, last season detected 5 percent of collisions measuring enough g’s to be comparable to a “car accident,” Duma told the New York Times.

Duma was surprised by the data. He has expanded his study this season before making a determination whether youth helmets need improvement.

The speed and force of head contact can be measured. Precise concussion data is foggier, because only incidences of diagnosed concussion symptoms are known. No absolute medical test for concussions exists. Not all athletes report symptoms. As the technology for monitoring hits becomes more widely used, it will provide another tool for coaches and parents to immediately identify hits that call for medical attention, says Greenwald. “But there is no cut-and-dry answer here, ‘You get hit this hard, you have a concussion.’ It doesn’t work that way,'” he says.

Anyone watching the mayhem of the NFL probably needs no studies to be convinced of the likely risks to players. What is still unknown at the youth level must be respected while research continues. Lupoli says he experienced concussion symptoms from a hit when he played Pop Warner and has friends who played in the NFL who now suffer from the repercussions of repeated concussions over several years.

“Most of what Pop Warner is doing is in line with data and research they’ve gathered, and is preemptive,” says Tim Hills, president of Lowell Pop Warner. “Some people think it’s overkill. I think anything we can do to provide a safer environment is good.”

Parents not yet aware

The Pop Warner practice rules are self-enforced; it is assumed parents, looking out for their children’s well-being, will monitor coaches. Some parents watching a recent Lowell Pop Warner practice were unaware of the new restrictions.

“I’m not worried so much,” said Heidi Diaz, a nurse from Lowell whose 10-year-old son Aaron has returned to football after three years away. “I know these coaches will look out for them.”

Chris Libertini of Lowell, whose 84-pound son Justin, 8, is playing football for the first time, remembers his mother forbidding him to play after Patriots wide receiver Darryl Stingley was paralyzed by a hit from the Oakland Raiders’ Jack Tatum in a 1978 preseason game.

“You can’t make the sport different from what it is. It’s football,” said Libertini. “At his age, though, I’m not really worried about my son getting seriously hurt. As they move up, certainly that can happen. But a lot of that can be mitigated by good practice, good drills, good coaching.”

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