Head games: Keeping an eye on concussions in N.H. youth football

  • GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Alex Eddy Jr. (right) wipes sweat from his forehead during a youth football practice last week. Eddy, a quarterback, suffered a hit to the head and felt woozy during his team’s season opener. As a result, he’s forced to practice without pads until he’s cleared by a medical trainer. GEOFF FORESTER photos / Monitor staff

  • Teri Sanborn watches her son Matt after practice. It’s been just four days since the 12-year-old took a shoulder to his helmet during the season opener, causing dizziness and pain on both sides of his head.

  • The Merrimack Valley youth team practice at Penacook elementary school recently. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Merrimack Valley trainer Tom Clark (right) and Teri Sanborn watch her son Matt after practice. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • The Concord Capitols practice at Martin field recently. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • A Merrimack Valley youth football team practices at Penacook Elementary School last week. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Monday, September 11, 2017

Teri Sanborn stood on the sideline, watching her son play football, torn by recent events.

It was just four days after 12-year-old Matt Sanborn took a shoulder to his helmet during the season opener, causing dizziness and pain on both sides of his head.

That’s why he wasn’t wearing pads during this practice at Penacook Elementary School, a reminder to his teammates on the Merrimack Valley youth football team that they weren’t allowed to hit him. Players who suffer any sort of head trauma are off limits at ensuing practices, until the medical trainer gives them the okay to return.

It was also the reason this mother has mixed emotions, creating a balancing act like that of tightrope walker.

Mom beams with pride. She’s the parent of a child who thinks Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski are the coolest. There’s a hint of uneasiness, though, a whisper of fear.

The buzz surrounding football lately says the sport can have dire consequences.

“I don’t want to restrict him from doing what he loves,” Teri Sanborn says. “But I also don’t like seeing him getting hurt, either.”

New Hampshire features three central youth football leagues for grade and middle school kids, numbering in the thousands.

While youth quarterbacks bark out signals with high voices that have yet to change, the NFL and the media send out messages that scream for change.

Like touchdown passes and first downs, concussions have become a big part of football, the part that spurred rule modifications to protect quarterbacks, and new forms of tackling to protect kids. Leading with the head, called spearing, is out of bounds all through football’s landscape.

But on the youth level, a central question remains, as parents, thirsty for all the knowledge they can absorb, try to determine if they should allow their kids to play a sport that, after nearly 100 years, finds its top league moving through growing pains.

Doctor’s advice

So let’s cut to the chase: Would Doctor William Storo of Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, who’s probably diagnosed more concussion-related youth sports injuries in the state than anyone else, let his kid play youth football?

“It depends on how bad the concussion is,” Storo told me. “If my kid was playing football and got a concussion and missed a week of school and two months of sports, that might make me say it’s a one-and-done matter. I don’t think you should go back to football.

“But,” the doctor continued, “if their symptoms were short lived, let’s say two days of symptoms, didn’t miss any school and missed only two weeks of sports, I would probably say it’s okay to continue to play.”

In other words, youth football is no more dangerous than we had previously thought, and you can’t equate what happens in the NFL with what happens on the state’s football fields that host grade- and middle-school players.

These are little kids, after all, and they don’t run like Le’Veon Bell. Collisions between 100-pound players can only be so vicious.

Add a societal microscope that has parents watching closely and coaches keenly aware of what’s happening in the NFL, and tackling on this level isn’t the same as in years past.

“Coaches coach very differently than they did when I was younger,” said Dan Herrick, who coaches the Concord Capitols of the 13-team youth Granite State Football League. “Everything is head away. We stop drills and reprimand kids if they put their heads anywhere near hitting another player. It’s just a different mentality. People are making advancements in helmets, but it’s how you coach the kids, how you teach them to hit.”

That’s soothing to parents. Still, it’s hard to remove the stigma that has engulfed football, no matter what the facts on youth football suggest.

Brain injuries

The NFL has been spotlighted during this recent climate of caution. Just last month, in fact, Ed Cunningham resigned from his post as a top ESPN college football analyst, citing his concern for brain injuries among players.

Studies over the past two decades have shown that retired NFL players suffer concussion-related effects through their mid life and senior years.

We saw what happened to Mike Webster of the Pittsburgh Steelers, who died from a heart attack in 2002 at the age of 50. His erratic behavior was shown in the movie Concussion, and it was later revealed that he’d suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease linked with repeated blows to the head.

The Will Smith-portrayed doctor in the movie fought to open the public’s eyes, trying to show that too many hits to the head could cause permanent brain danger, and how the NFL had tried to suppress this information through the decades.

And remember Junior Seau? He played here for the Patriots briefly, after starring for the San Diego Chargers. He shot and killed himself at age 43 in 2012, and tests showed he, too, suffered from C.T.E.

Further, a study released this summer showed that 110 of 111 brains of late NFL players tested were found to have C.T.E.

Hold on, says Dr. Storo.

“The first thing is, that’s not surprising,” the doctor told me. “They studied brain injuries on players with brain injury symptoms, so what did they expect? A study that needs to be done is to take a look at the brains with no symptoms in the NFL of players who have died and see what degree of C.T.E. they have so you can figure out the proportion of C.T.E. in the NFL.”

The doctor, of course, is not dismissing the danger. He sent me some data showing percentages of high school athletes nationwide who sustained concussions during a season, and football led the way at 16 percent. Rugby was next at 10 percent, followed by boys’ hockey and girls’ soccer (9 percent), then cheerleading (8).

“The biggest risk I see with playing football is some of the younger kids are going to go on to play in high school with bigger kids, and kids are bigger and stronger and faster and hit harder than they ever did before,” Storo said.

Friday night lights

Eric Brown has been coaching the Concord High School team for 27 years, the past eight as varsity head coach. Yes, his players have sustained concussions. And yes, they’re more aware of safety measures since the NFL began making headlines.

“We’ve had our fair share (of concussions), most in games,” Brown told me. “But even now, in practice we’re hitting less than before.”

But that’s high school. Joe Raycraft coaches Merrimack Valley of the Granite State Football League. He said he hasn’t noticed dwindling numbers in his program since the NFL concussion story began to make the rounds.

“Surprisingly, we haven’t seen an abundance of kids changing sports,” Raycraft wrote in an email. “This is my first year coaching junior high football after coming out of retirement from coaching high school, and I was impressed with the number of kids who came out this year.”

Some parents, of course, remain worried, opting instead for tackle-free flag football for their children. Participatory numbers in the Concord Parks and Recreation’s flag-football program aren’t logged, but third-year coach Scott DeFreitas, who played high school ball in Nashua, told me parents fall into two basic groups when it comes to registering their kids.

“Some parents are saying the kid is interested in contact but they would rather see them start off playing flag football first,” DeFreitas said. “And I have others saying they would rather not have their kids participate in contact football at all. Now, whether they hold that position true over the next handful of years, I don’t know, but I’m hearing both.”

No matter what your instincts tell you, it’s obvious that football, like motor sports, has a dangerous reputation, which has only grown more treacherous over the past 15 years.

‘The black sheep
of the contact sports’

I met Crystal Andres at Concord’s Martin Park, where she watched her son, 8-year-old D.J., practice for the Concord Capitols. Andres called football a “scapegoat.”

“People are putting a magnifying glass over the NFL,” Andres told me. “It’s become the black sheep of the contact sports. D.J. asked to play ice hockey and I said no because I saw that as more dangerous.”

At that same practice stood Courtney Fontone, whose son, Carter Fontone, turns 8 on Monday. She, too, said football gets a bad rap.

“I’ve seen kids get pulled out of games for the wrong kind of tackle,” she said. “Some of Carter’s peers have chosen to play the flag version. Football seems to be the go-to sport of blame. You can get hit by the CAT bus and get hurt.”

That’s why it was odd to find a pair of 12-year-old players at Penacook Elementary School who had suffered head injuries during the season opener.

Sanborn said his temples hurt. “I got hit pretty hard,” he told me after practice.

Alex Eddy Jr., a quarterback, was running a sweep when his head hit the ground after a tackle. “I had a headache,” Eddy told me.

During the game itself, Merrimack Valley trainer Tom Clark had his regular position on the sideline. He’s there during home games, hired by the school district because, unlike some other teams in the league, like the Concord Capitols, the Merrimack Valley team is affiliated with the school district.

Clark had to pass a national exam and has been a professional trainer, on both the high school and college level, for 11 years.

Once Sanborn and Eddy came off the field and mentioned their discomfort, Clark administered a few informal tests, moving his index finger back and forth and side to side, close in front of their eyes, then watching each stand on one leg, then the other, checking their balance.

Neither player returned to the game.

“It’s pretty obvious when you see it happen, but sometimes you’re relying on the athlete to be truthful and honest about what’s going on,” Clark said during practice. “These two particular kids have been pretty straightforward all the way through since Saturday in reporting their symptoms and what they may have felt through the weekend.”

The following Monday, two days after the game, Sanborn and Eddy were re-tested by Clark, a follow-up to the pre-season impact testing given to most, but not all, youth players.

Baseline testing

In the Merrimack Valley School District, a computerized baseline test is administered and logged every two years through middle and high school. Players try to recall shapes and words they’ve already seen and heard, and their memory strength and response quickness are placed on file.

Neither Eddy nor Sanborn scored high enough to return to contact practice early that next week, although neither injury was deemed serious enough to seek medical treatment.

“There were some deficiencies when we looked at their tests,” Clark told me.

Which is why Clark, who’s typically at Brown’s Concord High practices, was at Penacook Elementary School on this day, monitoring the two boys.

They were part of the practice, but they stood out as the only two players on the field without pads, and it was obvious they’d been placed in a separate category.

Sometimes they stood near the end zone while their teammates ran through formal drills. Eddy, wearing, a white jersey, threw passes to his receiver, Sanborn, dressed in black.

During the opening game, Eddy’s mother, Karen Eddy, a medical assistant, had moved to the sidelines to check on her son.

“I made sure his injury wasn’t too serious, that he didn’t have any ringing in his ear,” Karen Eddy said. “He appeared to be fine. With every sport there will always be a risk of some type of injury. I feel confident my husband and I are on top of it.”

At the end of practice, Teri Sanborn stood near midfield, waiting to bring Matt home. She had been at the game two days before as well, watching her son come off the field, looking a bit sluggish.

“I do get nervous, because he keeps getting whacked around,” Teri said. “But he said his headache went away on the way home. He seems pretty good.”