PETE CHIODO/Meadville Tribune
High school head football coaches from throughout Crawford County sound off on the impact of concussions, the steps they take to keep their players safe, and how the recent research on the hazards of concussions has changed the landscape of the sport:
“I think a lot of it has to do with how you tackle, the techniques of tackling. You try to eliminate using the head. It’s something we discuss all the time — try not to use the forehead, try not to take hits that way or deliver hits that way. We do some neck strengthening activities every day other than gamedays. That’s the main things we do. And we just discuss it with the kids so that they know the symptoms and we do as well.
“I think a lot of (concussions) you see early in the season. We don’t seem to see it as much as the year progresses. ... I bet if you asked around you don’t have as many as the season progresses. It’s a matter of getting used to wearing your helmet, wearing shoulder pads, not being as tired.”
— Pat Gould, Conneaut
“We try to limit the number of full contact collisions in practice. It’s more form-fit tackling and blocking. But there are some places where you have to have it during the week. You still have to be prepared for the (games). But the number of live plays and live drills have definitely decreased.
“We have very active first-aiders and trainers that are there a lot. We can have a kid diagnosed with a concussion, a minor one, and there’s a chance he’s back the following week if he has no symptoms. But then we have kids that say, ‘Oh, I feel good.’ They’ll let it go for a week. Then all the sudden they’re exercising and they start getting a headache and they have to take a step back.”
— Clint Rauscher, Cambridge Springs
“First and foremost, obviously, and I’m sure all the teams do it, is we make sure the helmets are fitted properly. We always check if the kids need more air in their helmets. So we do that first and foremost. Secondly, one of things we tried to do this year, even thought we’ve been plagued by (concussions) is we try to do neck strengthening and conditioning at the end of each practice. I read in some coaching magazines that there is information out there that supports the theory that the stronger the neck the more it could help prevent concussions. So we’ve incorporated that after each practice.
“We have an information board. On the board it states all the symptoms of a concussion. That’s posted for everybody to keep as much information on hand as possible. One of the symptoms is a headache. And as soon as a kid comes up to me and says, ‘I have a headache,’ now there’s a protocol I have to follow and a series of questions we need to ask — Did you get hit? When did you get hit? You look at eyes their eyes to see if the pupils are dilated. Are you nauseous? Are your eyes sensitive to light? During rigorous exercise do you get lightheaded? If a kid says yes to a couple of those questions we immediately tell them to see the trainer. I’ve got to err on the side of caution. You can’t just give it a couple days and see what happens. There are state laws that say that if we feel a kid has a concussion and we continue to play him there are ramifications, ultimately in us losing our jobs.”
— Mike Rhoades, Saegertown
“If something happens where a kid complains about (concussion symptoms) we would pull them out. The sports medicine (professionals), they do a great job of making sure the kids go through certain steps to get treated and get back to playing.
“I think it’s on everyone’s mind. It makes it seem like it’s more prevalent now. Any time there’s a big hit or anything like that, it’s the first thing that pops into your head. It used to be if there was a big hit, you would think, ‘Did they break something?’ Now when there’s a big hit, the first thing that comes to mind is a concussion.
“You have to worry about it. Especially when something happens like that kid in New York.” (Damon James, a 16-year-old running back from Westfield-Brocton High School, died in September after a tackle in a football game.) “It’s something I always worry about. It seems like every year there is one situation like that nationwide where that happens. It’s part of it now. But I never even thought about it when I played. I didn’t think anything about it. They were so rare. It seemed rare. Now it seems like you have a multitude of them every year.”
— Bryan Borkovich, Maplewood
“Basically, we do a lot of half-line (drills). We work it out to have our starters going against starters. It’s Single-A.” (Single-A is the smallest classification in Pennsylvania football, signifying 185 or fewer boys attend the school). “That’s tough. I wish we had more numbers, we could do a lot more one-on-one tackling. But we can’t afford the injuries with the numbers we have. So it’s a lot of form tackling. My first year here, the boosters helped buy a pop-up tackling dummy. Every defensive session, that’s what we hit. That was the first thing I wanted. And the boosters bought it for us. And you’ve got to get with your Ridell (helmet manufacturer) rep, making sure you have the right parts in the helmet, have the newest helmets every year. Every year on the budget, you have to put it on there.
“The game has changed a lot. The pound-and-group, the power I’s; that’s changed to speed, speed speed. ... The game has changed so much, you have to change the technique of how you hit. You have to coach technique. It’s not just ‘Let’s go hit and win a football game.’ You have to know technique and how to coach it.”
— Nathan Liberty, Cochranton
“We always put a heavy, heavy emphasis on keeping our heads up, leading with the hands when we tackle. We make sure that we’re teaching the kids not to lead with their head. You don’t want to have them putting their heads down. It’s heads up, lead with your hands, slip your head to the side when you tackle.
“I think there is some confusion. You have some symptoms of a headache at the beginning of the season because of the helmet and it’s not necessarily a concussion. That’s why we like to have our kids in helmets during the summer, that way they can get used to the helmet without the hitting. So we don’t see it much here, because they’re used to the helmet by the time we start hitting. That headache from the helmet should have worn off before we even started to hit.
“The protocol is pretty cut and dry now. At Crawford Central (School District), every coach has to take a concussion certification test. It’s a 20-minute video that we have to watch and then there are questions afterwards that make us aware of all the concussion-like symptoms. It’s in the hands of the trainer after that. If we see any of the symptoms, we always err on the side of caution. If somebody has symptoms, we’re going to sit them out until they are cleared by a trained professional that can get them back in. If they don’t go back in and they’re not cleared during the game, there’s a protocol that happens during the week. We use the ImPACT test (Immediate Post Concussion Assessment and Cognitive Testing). The players have to pass the ImPACT test before they can get back into action.”
— Mike Feleppa, Meadville