Concerns Deepen over Football Head Injuries

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Lately, everyone is talking about brain damage in football.

New medical evidence has surfaced that suggests a direct link between playing football and brain damage later in life. Autopsies of a number of former NFL linesmen showed signs of Alzheimer’s and other problems caused by years of hard tackles. High school players, of course, are not immune. It’s enough to terrify a mother.

So, as they stood watching their sons slip around in the rain, parents at Saturday’s PSAL City Championship division quarterfinal game between Fort Hamilton and Lincoln voiced a number of qualms. “I worry very much about head injuries,” said Catherine Scott as she watched her grandson, an offensive center for Lincoln, run onto the field. Linda Scott, his aunt, remembered seeing a particularly scary moment on TV recently in a college game. “Did you see that guy in the Florida game last week? He took a bad hit to the head and you could tell right away, the way he was posturing, it didn’t look good. Those moments, they’re scary.”

A parent watches the action at Sunday's Fort Hamilton game vs. Lincoln High
A parent watches the action at Sunday's Fort Hamilton game vs. Lincoln High. Photo: Roberts/Brooklyn Ink

“I’ve read all the recent stuff and I do worry about it,” said James Sullivan, a Bay Ridge native who was watching the game. “But I’m not sure high schools can do very much except hope for the best and try to be ready if there is a head injury, God forbid.”

Dr. Ellen Panzer, a chiropractor who treats sideline injuries at Canarsie High School football games on the weekends, said that head injuries are “definitely a big problem.” Panzer specifically mentioned the case of Ryne Dougherty, from New Jersey, as a story that raised concern for her. Dougherty, a junior linebacker at Montclair High School, had sustained a concussion during a Sept. 18 practice this year. After three weeks out, doctors cleared him to play. But in only his second game back, Oct. 11, Dougherty suffered a brain hemorrhage after making a hard tackle. He died two days later.

Some Brooklyn football programs are constrained by budget limitations, as Canarsie High School Head Coach Mike Camardese will tell you. “There’s a new helmet out that conforms to the head, called, I think, ‘Ultra.’ It’s like $300 a pop,” said Camardese. “I’d love to have each kid wearing that helmet, but I could afford to buy my team one. Or say somehow I get even ten of those great helmets, who do I give them to? All the parents would be angry. It comes down to safety and what you can and can’t afford.”

In addition to fancy helmets, some coaches wish for more comprehensive physicals. “I think there should be tests given before the season, neurological exams,” said New Utrecht’s head coach, Alan Balkin. “Then you give all the players the same test again when the season ends. But who has the resources for that. The basic physicals really can’t go that deep.”

One of the main problems, both at the NFL and high school level, seems to be that players repeatedly get hit and go right back in on the next play, figuring it to be just another part of the game. But experts say each of these could be a minor concussion that damages the brain. In the previous month alone, the potential risks of brain damage in football were reported in three major magazine pieces, one congressional hearing, and a number of highly prominent news outlets. A number of parents at the game mentioned being troubled by a story they had heard on National Public Radio, for example.

The congressional hearing was called for after doctors found, in ten deceased NFL players, the type of brain damage typically associated with boxers. Experts pointed to repeated concussions as the direct cause of dementia and other forms of mental illness in these former players. Meanwhile, doctors have estimated that every year, 1 in 10 high school football players suffers a concussion.

Players from Brooklyn Tech, which was defeated by Lincoln in the previous round, showed up at Fort Hamilton High on Sunday to watch the cheerleaders and the game. Photo: Roberts/Brooklyn Ink
Players from Brooklyn Tech, which was defeated by Lincoln in the previous round, showed up at Fort Hamilton High on Sunday to watch the cheerleaders and the game. Photo: Roberts/Brooklyn Ink

Some coaches say they are beginning to watch out for this more than ever. “If a kid suffers a concussion,” said Fort Hamilton’s Coach Vince Laino, “I think the heightened awareness would make me think twice before putting him back into action.” Laino finds himself in an interesting position this season as both coach and parent; his son Frank is the team’s star quarterback.

Not all coaches are as careful about pulling kids if they appear to be dizzy. “I had a kid during the playoffs recently, in a soccer game actually, who had signs of a concussion,” said Sal Aprea of One on One physical therapy, a group that supplies trainers to New York City schools. “And the coach wanted to put him right back in the game in the worst way, but I told him they just had to wait. That tends to be the problem with football, is that kids get hit hard and want to just go right back in the game without stopping.”

Dr. Panzer pointed to the same issue. “Do I think that playing football is inherent to brain damage? No,” she said. “Do I think that there are coaches and players who take the game to a level they shouldn’t? Yes, at times.”

Still, awareness of the danger of concussions seems to be on the rise at the high school level. “At our meeting in June,” said Laino, “the PSAL did a big new thing on concussions. They gave a whole talk to us on what to look for. I found that to be very helpful.”

“We hold the kids out if we think there’s a concussion,” said Coach Camardese. “Not worth the kid’s health. We have that luxury though, because we’re not the NFL.”

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