LACONIA — This is not your father’s high school football team.
The Laconia Sachems and their coaches are doing everything they can to avoid player concussions, which have become a concern throughout prep sports.
Coach Craig Kozens said injury prevention starts with education.
“The game has changed since I played in the 1980s,” he said. “We used to teach you to put your head between the numbers and tackle. Then, we taught players to put the head to the side. Now, it’s to the side, wrap and twist.
“You’re using torque. You’re not going mass to mass.”
At all levels of football, efforts are being made to avoid concussions, which, depending on frequency and severity, can be a cause for concern for medical issues later in life, including the degenerative brain disease, Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy.
Those prevention efforts include rule changes that penalize head-to-head contact, blindside blocking and targeting of players in vulnerable situations.
Other changes have been made during practice, where foam rolling wheels are used in tackling drills. Full-contact, 11-on-11 scrimmages have become a thing of the past.
“The live hitting is taken out of practice sessions,” Kozens said.
“During a game, if you lead with the helmet, it’s an automatic penalty.”
Despite all the precautions, concussions do still occur. Receivers sometimes jump up to catch and ball and hit their head when they fall to the ground. Also, football is a violent sport and collisions of all kinds are common.
Kozens remembers one from a practice session last season.
“In man-to-man coverage, two receivers were doing a crossing route,” he said. “Two guys ran into each other, one on the offensive side, one on the defensive side. One kid got a concussion and the other was hurt in the leg.”
When a player suffers a concussion, he must sit out from games under a protocol intended to protect players until signs of the injury have dissipated.
“They sit out until they are symptom free,” he said. “It could be the next morning, or it could be months. They have to be symptom free, no loss of focus, no dizziness.
“In the old days, they called it, ‘Getting your bell run,’” Kozens said. “A player might be out for a week. Now, it’s based on the test.”
The Sachems do preseason medical exams on players to establish a baseline that can be used to assess the effects or severity of a concussion should one occur.
Another line of defense is the helmet, which are more advanced and offer more protection than once was the case.
Laconia buys top-of-the-line helmets of the type used in the NFL, at a cost of $300 each, not including the face mask.
“We feel like we are doing everything we can to protect players,” Kozens said.
Head injuries are not unique to football, he pointed out. Children sometimes suffer concussions in gym class. One girl recently received one during a volleyball game at the high school.
Still, with more than 1 million participants a year, tackle football remains the most popular high school sport in the United States and the one where players are most likely to get concussions.
A 2017 study in the Journal of Athletic Training determined sports-related concussion rates for 27 high school sports. Football had 9.21 concussions per 10,000 “athlete exposures,” which is defined as one athlete participating in a game or practice. Boys’ lacrosse was second at 6.65.
Statistics like these have led some parents to hold their children back from playing tackle football. Participation rates vary locally.
“We had real small numbers the last couple of years, and our numbers dipped into the mid-30s, but there’s been an influx in this current year, even though enrollments are down over time,” Kozens said.
Laconia High School enrollment was 551 last year, compared to 810 a decade earlier.
Some parents have their children playing tackle football as early as 3rd grade.
It might be better for kids to start the game a little older, Kozens said.
“I’m torn,” he said. “Maybe they should play flag football until 5th or 6th grade. The kid who plays real young sometimes develop bad habits. Some of our best players started a little bit later.”
Rod Roy, president of Laconia Youth Football – with players who go from age 6 to about 12 – is involved in a fundraising campaign to buy 100 helmets. The existing helmets are 10 years old and are required to be replaced.
“All the parents are worried about concussion, but we stress the new tackling techniques,” he said.
Joy of football
For those who do participate in football, there are benefits.
“There’s nothing like it in terms of camaraderie, teamwork, leadership,” Kozens said.
Brendan Minnihan, the Laconia school district superintendent, said the decision on whether to play football ultimately comes down to parents and discussions they have with their children.
There is no escaping danger in many sports.
“The talk is about football right now, but a lot of sports have risk involved whether it is rock-climbing, skydiving, spelunking, downhill skiing, even spirit or cheer.
“But certainly football comes to the fore. We see it on TV, the 10 most brutal hits of the week.”