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Head Injuries Rattle Even Devout Football Parents

The Angleton Wildcats pose for picture day. The team of 7- and 8-year-olds is from the south Texas town of Angleton.
Tom Goldman
The Angleton Wildcats pose for picture day. The team of 7- and 8-year-olds is from the south Texas town of Angleton.

It's Monday after another football weekend in America. From the Friday night drama on high school fields to the multibillion-dollar juggernaut NFL, the game seems as popular as ever.

But in fact, amid the cheering, there's concern — a growing anxiety about head injuries in the sport, from the NFL all the way down to the pee-wee leagues. Some say kids shouldn't be playing until their teenage years. High-profile NFL players have gone on record saying they don't want their children playing at all because of the concussion risk.

In Texas, the risk is putting players and parents at odds with a sport many consider a religion.

Say Cheese

For many a Texan, the football journey to Friday Night Lights starts on Saturday mornings, posing for picture day in the park. That was the scene recently in the south Texas town of Angleton. Seven- and 8-year-old members of the Wildcats flashed grins for local photographer Mike Hattaway, who clicked away, teasing the boys, "I think your girlfriend's going to like that!"

At this age, though, the photos are more for grandparents, dads or moms, like Shani Pickett. Her son Jordan plays for the team, and she's a boisterous Wildcats booster. You can easily hear her cries of, "C'mon, Jordan! C'mon, baby! All right, Wildcats!" across the field in Angleton, where a day full of games starts to unfold Saturday morning.

Jordan is playing his first year of tackle football and carrying on a tradition in Angleton, population about 19,000. Despite its size, Angleton has churned out a handful of NFL players, including Hall of Fame defensive back Emmitt Thomas. Jordan begged his mom to play sooner than this year, but she made him wait. And she made him agree to a bargain once he started.

"He plays football on Saturday. Sunday morning we're in church," she says, "because I told him he needs to be able to give thanks. And we make sure we read the scripture. We pray over him, so that God protects him. You just have to go with God and let him play."

Shani Pickett is plenty hands-on though. She has read a lot about the concussion issue and talked to her son about it. "I make sure he's aware of everything," says Pickett, adding, "You know, these are the hazards, this is what can happen, this is what could happen to you. ... But then he says it's what he wants to do when he gets older, so ... mom's not going to stand in the way."

But she's vigilant. Pickett watches her son closely during games and practices. She also made sure she had a proxy on the Wildcats coaching staff.

"I threw his dad out there," she says, motioning to Jordan's dad, Roy, a member of the Wildcats coaching staff.

The Little 'Intimidator'

Sitting under a sun-blocking canopy in the bleachers, Wesley Rolan, a part-time medic, and his wife, Tara, zero in on their 8-year-old son, Bryce, as he limps to the sideline during the Wildcats game.

"What's wrong with him?" Tara asks. Wesley answers, "He ended up at the bottom of the pile."

Bryce was fine and ended up returning to the game. Bryce is playing his first year of tackle. He loves it. His dad calls him an "intimidator" on the field — all 4 feet 2 inches, 65 pounds of him. Bryce's parents enjoy watching him play, but Tara admits she worries.

Bryce Rolan, 8, and his dad, Wesley, at a Wildcat game in Angleton, Texas. At 4 feet 2 inches and 65 pounds, Bryce is playing his first year of tackle football.
Tom Goldman / NPR
Bryce Rolan, 8, and his dad, Wesley, at a Wildcat game in Angleton, Texas. At 4 feet 2 inches and 65 pounds, Bryce is playing his first year of tackle football.

"I don't think his little body is ready for it, ready to take those hits," she says, "and the risk of concussion in younger children is a big factor."

One of the nation's foremost head injury experts agrees.

Dr. Robert Cantu is a neurosurgeon and co-author, with Mark Hyman, of the new book Concussions and Our Kids. Cantu says children are among the most vulnerable to concussion because of weak necks, immature musculature and brains that are still developing. He advises that kids not play tackle football until age 14, and play flag or touch football until then.

The Rolans are letting Bryce play, although his dad says if Bryce suffers just one concussion, whether in pee-wee football or high school, that's it — no more tackle.

Like most kids his age, Bryce isn't concerned about the possibility of injury. "I'm the person who ... gives the hurting away," he says in his tiny intimidator voice. "Because I don't get hurt. The other team does!"

Bigger Hits

A quarterback calls out the signals. The play starts, and then ends, with the crunch of pads and helmets and a gasp from the crowd. It's the kind of hit that brings coaches running onto the field.

The game at Pearland Stadium is 25 miles north of Angleton, between 10- and 11-year-olds. The weight limit for that division is 150 pounds, and the hits are bigger.

After the collision that causes the crowd to gasp, a player stays down on the ground. His coach stands over him, flashing fingers and asking, "How many?" The player finally gets up and walks off, but he seems in pain. A sideline official shouts up to the stands that all seems well, concussionwise.

"I think his helmet twisted, and he hurt his face," the official says as the child walks off the field, and people in the stands applaud.

As far as football injuries go, better the face than the brain. A week earlier, though, Austin Knox wasn't as lucky.

"Austin plays quarterback and handed off the ball to the backup running back," his dad and coach, Alan Knox, says. "Austin turned to block a blitzing linebacker and had a little head-to-head collision with him."

A parent at the game, who's also a doctor, talked to Austin and determined he might have a concussion.

"So we took him to the sideline," Knox says, "took his pads off and decided that he wasn't playing the rest of the day."

A specialist later confirmed Austin had a mild concussion and told coach Knox to keep his son off the football field for two weeks. Knox made it three.

At a time of growing concussion awareness, Knox appears to have made the right moves. In the past year, he has also reduced contact during practices. He instructs his players to signal if they don't feel right — either by tapping their helmet of taking a knee.

This is a very important part of teaching concussion awareness, letting players know it's their responsibility to acknowledge a problem. Historically that hasn't often happened in football, where playing with pain and injury is a sign of toughness, a badge of honor.

'This Is Texas'

Knox's team of 10- and 11-year-olds is part of the South Texas Youth Football Association. This is the first year that STYFA has had a concussion policy, featured on the association website homepage. Lonzie Helms, STYFA's safety coordinator, helped write up the policy.

"We didn't want to get caught behind the curve if something comes up," he says. "There are people actually talking about not playing football before high school. So we wanted to be proactive as possible."

Still, Helms was worried about a possible drop in participation this year. During STYFA's sign-up period, there were many media reports about concussions, including the story about the suicide of former NFL star Junior Seau. There was speculation at the time of his death that it was prompted by brain disease from football head injuries.

But Helms was amazed to see a 20 percent increase in football sign-ups.

"We had so many kids so early, we thought that maybe one of the other leagues had gone away or something. We were getting kids so fast," he says, adding, "It turns out, the other leagues were doing just as well as we were."

Helms says he has no idea why the surge happened. But there is one possible clue: Helms says this year 3,000 people are expected at Pearland Stadium to watch the pee-wee championship game between 7- and 8-year-olds.

"This is Texas," Helms says. "This is what we do. We play football."

No More Youth Football?

On a football field north of Austin, referee Mark Lingard brings together the captains of two middle-school teams about to play.

"All right, gentlemen. Great night for football," he says. "I love this weather. Y'all gotta love it too, right?" The kids, true to their Southern manners, respond, "Yessir!"

Indeed, a beautiful night for football. But before the game, Lingard, who started the Central Texas Youth Football League 12 years ago, acknowledges that the sport he loves may be in trouble.

"Until we can find out for sure, and keep kids as safe as possible, I have no problem with not being in youth football," Lingard says. "As much as I love the game, it may have to disappear some day."

His pessimism comes from some recent numbers. Over the past five years, the Central Texas Youth Football League has grown by eight or nine teams each year. This year, there have been two additional teams. Lingard believes concussion worries are a big reason for the slowdown.

"How's little Jimmy not going to get hurt? That's what [parents] are concerned about," Lingard says. How does he answer those concerns? "It's going to make me sound bad, but ... I say I'm not guaranteeing anything. Little Jimmy can get hurt playing football. It's the greatest game in the world. If he wants to play it, and you want to let him play it, you have to take those risks."

USA Football estimates almost 3 million kids, ages 6 to 14, play organized tackle football. That number essentially has stayed the same since 2006, when the organization started keeping track.

Many still are taking the risk Lingard talks about. They do so knowing every child who plays doesn't get a concussion. And every kid who does isn't doomed to brain problems like dementia later in life. Still, there are those pulling away. And they are doing so with Dr. Cantu's mantra ringing in their ears: No head trauma is good head trauma.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on NPR.org.