How concussions are changing high school football.


POSTED: Thursday, November 7, 2013 - 5:07pm

UPDATED: Friday, November 8, 2013 - 8:39am

Things are different for high school football coaches in the Rio Grande Valley. 

"It's changed dramatically in regards to awareness," said Sharyland head coach Ron Adame. "As coaches, being aware that concussions often times can lead to long-term damage.  Those days, the real common word that was used was just you got your bell rung.  You just go shake it off or give him some smelling salts.  Those days are gone."  

The University Interscholastic League, the governing body for high school sports in Texas, began mandating in 2011 that all coaches take a two-hour training course on how to spot concussion symptoms.  Any player exhibiting dilated pupils, light sensitivity or dizzyness after a tough hit must leave the game.  

Any player guilty of targeting another player's head is automatically kicked out. Players who suffer a concussion can't return to practice until a doctor clears it.  Even then, they must ease into full practice and contact.  

All those changes are a 180 from the mindset of coaches like Mission's Mario Peña, who has been walking sidelines for 35 years.  

"Back in the day, it was different," Peña said. "Different because one, we didn't have trainers.  Back then your coaches were the trainers… everything that has changed has been directed at the safety of the football player."  

As recently as the 1990s, coaches made players earn water breaks during practice. And practices would last well after dusk.  Nowadays coaches are restricted to eight hours of practice a week and only 90 minutes of full, game-speed contact.  

Mission's athletic department had 23 concussions in 2011, the great majority of them in football.  Sharyland has had two concussions this year, none of them at the varsity level.  

The gridiron is a tough place to play.  Toughness and durability have always been celebrated, which leads to another challenge: players consider themselves to be warriors who ignore and play through pain.  Coaches want to win ball games. And each must go against what they've been conditioned to believe... for the sake of safety.  

"That's number one, educate our kids on the symptoms, don't try to be macho, don't try to be, I don't want to leave the team, so I don't want to tell the coach anything," Peña said.   

"One common practice is to take their helmet away, to hide it from them," Adame said. "Otherwise the tendency is for some of these individuals to try to want to get back into the game.  You can't get in and play if you don't have your helmet."  

Schools have clearly defined roles for coaches and trainers when a player is hurt; adding another hurdle to return to games for the sake of safety.  

"Ultimately, if there's an injury, I refer that kid to our trainer.  I have a standing rule between me and my trainer.  Don't tell me how to coach and I won't tell you how to do your job." 

The concussion problem swelled up because nobody understood the risks.  Empirical scientific evidence has changed that.  These days, it's all about minimizing the damage from America's most popular sport.  

"Football is and always will be a contact sport; some would call it violent," Adame said. "Nowadays, participants seem to be getting bigger and stronger and faster… I wouldn't try to dissuade them from playing, as long as they know the risks involved in playing the sport."  

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