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Concussions And Connecticut High School Football: Are Players Safe?

Aug 30, 2017

The Connecticut high school football season starts on September 8. Players like Bobby Melms began practicing earlier this month.

He doesn’t worry about getting hurt when he plays because he believes he’s been taught the right way. Therefore, the Seymour running back doesn’t worry about dealing with the long-term consequences associated with playing football.

“If you just play how you’re supposed to play, you’re not going to get hurt,” said Melms. “I like playing football so whatever comes with it, I guess that’s what’s going to happen.”

His team plays fast and they don’t let up in practice because if a player doesn’t go full-speed in the modern game, that player is susceptible to a big hit in the open field.

“Everything is high-intensity, high-intensity,” Melms’s coach Tom Lennon said. “And they’ll get their breaks -- much like you would get a break during a timeout or change of quarter.”  

Connecticut coaches, including Lennon, must complete one of three refresher concussion management courses each year to continue coaching. They have to recognize concussion symptoms to protect players, especially because there’s not always a trainer or doctor around.

Tom Lennon, Seymour head football coach, during a 2016 practice.
Credit Frankie Graziano / WNPR

But when it comes to getting over concussions and returning to the field, the state’s governing body of high school sports, the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference, emphasizes that doctors and athletic trainers must make the final call.

“It depends on the recovery of the student-athlete, but there are definitely steps that go from initial engagement and activity all the way up through full participation,” said Karissa Niehoff, the CIAC’s executive director.

Throughout the process of dealing with the concussion crisis, Niehoff said no one reached out to her to request that the CIAC drop football.   

“No one has come out and said ‘we think you should just stop supporting football,’” she said. “But they’re just very concerned about whether or not our organization is advancing the health and safety policies to protect kids.”

The CIAC adopted a rule last season that limited total play to six quarters per week for high school football players.

But that didn’t go far enough for Diana Coyne. Her son Chris, a former football player at Staples-Westport High School and Yale University, suffered six concussions in his career, which turned Coyne into a player safety advocate.

She said that one hit is enough to cause chronic effects because the brain of a high school-aged kid is still developing. She advised parents not to let their kids play.

“If they want their kids to play football, I would say ‘put your foot down’ and say ‘there are other great sports.’ But I know in some situations that just isn’t a realistic answer,” acknowledged Coyne. “I would then say you really need to talk to the coach and you need to make sure that there is a safety protocol in place.”

But not all parents agree. Keith Penney is the team doctor for three football teams in northwestern Connecticut. His three kids played high school football and he thinks the game is safer than it has ever been.

“They’ve made the equipment safer,” Penney said. “There are rules now on how many impact days or hitting days these athletes have. It’s to minimize these repetitive hits to the head.”

The latest uproar in the concussion debate comes from a recent Journal of the American Medical Association study that found chronic traumatic encephalopathy in 99 percent of the donated brains of deceased former NFL players.

Hartford Public football coach Harry Bellucci believes the game of football is "under attack," based on fervor surrounding the concussion issue.
Credit Frankie Graziano / WNPR

Hartford Public coach Harry Bellucci said that football gets a bad reputation when it comes to player safety.

“I think it’s quite clear that football is under attack in many areas and people feel like the game is too dangerous,“ Bellucci said. “I feel like the benefits of playing football so far outweigh the dangers.”

Bellucci, who’s also the chairman of the state’s football coaches committee, said Connecticut high school players do a better job of protecting themselves than NFL players.

“We’re doing a good job keeping our head out of the play and limiting that sort of thing,” Bellucci said. “I still feel like at the pro level, I see so much helmet-to-helmet contact, and those guys should know better.”

Danilo Casso, 17, plays for Bellucci. He said that he doesn’t think about getting hurt because that’s what can get you hurt in the first place. Instead, he focuses on technique.

“Keep your head out of the play,” Casso said. “Every time you make a form tackle, make sure your head is outside of the body and make sure you get a good wrap up.”

The state Department of Education began asking its nearly 200 districts to report concussions suffered by school-aged kids for the 2014-2015 school year. The next year, just over 7,000 concussions were reported from 168 districts. With three more towns participating the following year, about 6,800 were reported.