2013-05-31 / Front Page

Safe play in football stands out

By Jack Flagler
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND – When Steve Stinson and Joel Rumelhart were teammates on the University of Maine football team, little was known of the lingering physical and mental impact the sport can have on former players, specifically the effect of multiple concussions.

Stinson, a former Black Bear offensive lineman and 1996 University of Maine graduate, is now the head coach at South Portland High School. Rumelhart, a 1997 graduate and former defensive lineman, works as an application engineer and volunteers as a youth coach in the city. Both said the game they are teaching today is significantly different from the one they played 15 years ago in Orono.

“The phrases were definitely around like, ‘You got your bell rung, shake it off.’ It’s changed a lot since then. Coaches, officials and athletic directors are much more aware,” Stinson said.

Rumelhart guessed that he experienced a few minor concussions during his playing career from the constant head-to-head contact every day in practice and games, but none that affect him now. In his playing days, Rumelhart said a player might be held out of a game if he was disoriented or dizzy, but he would be back on the field the next day without any questions asked.

“That’s the biggest difference, realizing there is a lingering effect,” Rumelhart said.

New information, research and knowledge about the effects of concussions in football have changed both the rules of the game and the way coaches teach the sport. This year, South Portland will be one of three Maine communities to adopt a program that hopes to prevent head injuries by focusing on education and proper tackling technique.

The Heads Up Football program is run by USA Football, the National Football League’s youth football partner. The program will provide South Portland’s 30 volunteer youth coaches with the knowledge to recognize and respond to possible concussions, properly fit helmets and shoulder pads, and teach a tackling method that de-emphasizes head-to-head contact.

Tom Desjardins, director of South Portland Youth Portland, said players were taught to be “human missiles” when he was growing up playing football, but in the eight years he has run the youth league in South Portland, safety has become increasingly important for parents and coaches.

Stinson agreed.

“The days of throwing the kid back in the game (after a possible concussion) or not noticing are long gone,” Stinson said.

The growing concern for player safety in South Portland has mirrored a growing national interest with safety at the professional level. Over the last three years, a disease with a long, difficult name became known to nearly every football fan and concerned parent. Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) is a degenerative brain disease caused by head trauma that can cause depression, aggression, memory loss and other symptoms.

Researchers at Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy found evidence of CTE in both living and deceased retired National Football League players, including Dave Duerson and Junior Seau, each of whom committed suicide by a gunshot wound to the chest.

Currently, thousands of former players and family members have a lawsuit pending against the NFL alleging the league knew of the long-term effects of head trauma and chose to do nothing. Stinson said the safety concerns are a serious threat to the NFL’s billion-dollar business.

“It could shut them down,” Stinson said.

But at the youth level, a recent study brought some more positive news to the discussion. Preliminary findings of a USA Football study released in May show that 90 percent of 2,000 youth football players studied from ages 6 to 14 did not suffer an injury. Additionally, fewer than 4 percent of players sustained concussions, and no catastrophic head, neck or heat-related injuries were reported.

Stinson, Rumelhart and Desjardins anecdotally backed up the conclusions of the study. They said concussions are extremely rare at the youth level because the players aren’t big enough and don’t move fast enough to deliver the hits that could be potentially dangerous. Therefore, they said the important focus of youth football coaches should be to teach the proper techniques, like the ones supported through the Heads Up program, so players develop safe habits when they grow up.

The new program will not take head-to-head contact out of the game entirely, according to Stinson. The speed and nature of football makes that impossible. But he said the new tackling technique, non-contact drills and coaching emphasis on “hitting in the strike zone” rather than the head will make the game safer.

Both Stinson and Rumelhart have sons who participate in the South Portland Youth Football League, and both former teammates said they have no qualms about allowing their children to play.

“I don’t have any concern. There’s always a chance he’s going to get hurt. I know that, and when I played there’s always that chance,” Rumelhart said.

“It’s great for him to play. The exercise, social benefit, and the lessons from the coaches to hold him accountable, those are all things I want him to experience,” Stinson added.

Desjardins said parents sometimes have questions about how coaches are keeping youth players safe, but recent news has not affected registration. Last year, about 175 players from second through eighth grade participated in the league.

“Stuff can happen. It’s a sport, but I don’t think people have shied from playing,” Desjardins said.

Online registration is now open for the South Portland Youth Football leagues at southportlandfootball.com. Games begin in lat August, just before Labor Day.

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