He took the play from Raiders quarterback Davis Bloemendaal. He broke from the huddle and walked up to the line. He clutched the ball and waited for the cadence. He heard his cue, snapped the ball and proceeded to run the assigned play. He felt a helmet connect with his own. He felt a pulsating pain as he fell to the ground. He, senior Tyler Janota, the starting guard for Northwestern, had experienced a major concussion, and the two weeks that would follow would be a blur of aimless memories and random stories told to him by teammates, coaches and friends.
Janota is among many football players to suffer this type of injury in recent years. This has led to a raised awareness of such injuries and new penalties that make football a safer game.
In recent years, concussions suffered on the field have been a rising problem in the football community. From the NFL down to high school football, awareness for these types of injuries is increasing, and actions are being taken to help with prevention of such injuries. Helmet-to-helmet penalties and targeting fouls are a fairly new solutions to manage the issue of illegal hits on the field. Most of the actions that have been taken in this sport have originated at the NFL level and trickled down to NCAA Division I and eventually down to high school football. These types of precautions come as a result of medical research that found long-term health problems as a consequence to head injuries.
The root of the issue
In the world of football, addressing the issue of penalties and injuries that go along with them is a slow-moving process. Football has been around since the late 19th century, and it wasn’t until 1933, according to Deadspin.com, that head injuries even started being addressed at any level.In 1991, the Colorado Medical Society created the first grading scale to determine the severity of concussions. This scale was incorporated into both college and high school football. It wasn’t until 2009 that the NFL finally acknowledged that concussions could lead to long-term health issues.
Head injuries and targeting fouls are hot topics for conversation in the sports news world. However, lower levels of football such as the NAIA are rarely addressed in such conversations. The NAIA, NCAA Division III and high school football don’t have the luxury of being televised, which means they are often overshadowed. Referees who officiate televised games are under greater pressure. They are expected to make the right call and face scrutiny if the instant replay shows a missed call. Because of this, not only do officials at these upper levels tend to over-call such penalties, but officials whose games are not televised don’t feel the same pressure to make the call.
According to coaches and players, this lack of replay resources leads to a hesitation for NAIA officials to make these calls. Rule differences also play a role. In the NCAA, if a player has an illegal hit penalty that occurs in the first half, that player misses the rest of the game. If the penalty occurs in the second half, that player misses the rest of the game, as well as the first half of the following game. However, in the NAIA if a player receives the same penalty, that player is required to sit out the remainder of that game as well as the entire game to follow.
“I feel it is the official’s job is to keep the game moving and most importantly to protect the players,” Janota said.
Coach Kyle Achterhoff, head football coach for NW, said this doesn’t always happen. He recalled something that happened to one of his players during the first game of the 2013 season.
“Jerel Kyles was simply making a play on the ball carrier, and one of the other players attempted to block him illegally and delivered a blatant shot to the helmet, which the ref clearly should have called,” Achterhoff said.
Standards for these penalties are inconsistant and can potentially lead to career-ending injuries and sometimes even death.
A troubling trend
According to a report in the New York Daily News, there have been more than 200 deaths of high school and college football players in the past 10 years. Approximately 20 percent of them can be attributed to head or neck injuries. Several recent stories reflect these statistics.
21-year-old Dylan Steigers, a freshman defensive back at Eastern Oregon University, passed away in the spring of 2013 due to a head injury sustained during a football scrimmage. According to The Oregonian, coaches and players alike all report nothing unusual about the hit that caused Steigers to leave the game. As the team’s head coach, Tim Camp, told The Oregonian, Steigers came to him after the play and simply said, “I think I got hit in the head.” He then proceeded to vomit and was immediately rushed to the hospital. He died the following Sunday due to bleeding of the the brain.
Damon Janes, of Brocton, NY, is a more recent case of the same tragedy. The 16-year-old lost consciousness after suffering a major helmet-to-helmet hit during a varsity game, as reported by Newsday.com. The teen died three days later due to a severe brain injury.This tragedy struck the football team’s communities of Brocton and Westfield so hard that the football team he played for took a vote and decided to end its season early. Death from these types of injuries are rare; however, it is the long term effects of head injuries that has researchers concerned.
A prolonged problem
In 1952, studies done by the NCAA concluded that any player who has suffered from more than three concussions in his lifetime faces serious long-term effects if that player continues to play and another injury occurs. One of the most common long -term illnesses caused by multiple concussions is Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE. This is a progressive disease that slowly deteriorates brain tissue over time. Studies done by Boston University show that CTE is commonly found among athletes involved in contact sports such as boxing, hockey, professional wrestling and football.
In 2012, 35 brains of former NFL players were donated to Boston University to search for CTE. Thirty-four were found to have had this disease. According to ESPN, symptoms of such diseases include confusion, nausea, depression, headache, memory loss and insomnia. The long-term effects of a concussion are comparable to early Parkinson’s disease.
A great depression
Andre Waters was a defensive back for the Philadelphia Eagles and the Arizona Cardinals during his 11-year NFL career. After leaving the league, Waters had a successful coaching career with four different college teams. On Nov. 20, 2006, Waters ended his own life in his home in Tampa, FL. There was suspicion of depression issues by family and friends, but nothing was ever reported. Former college football player and professional wrestler Chris Nowinski, who had his wrestling career cut short due to PCS (Post Concussion Syndrome), contacted Waters family members and asked if they would be willing to donate the brain of their lost loved one for research that might lead to answers as to why he took his own life.
After the family agreed, samples of the deceased player were sent to the University of Pittsburgh for testing. The results of these tests were shocking. The 44-year-old’s brain tissue had been so severely damaged that the tissue showed similar characteristics to that of an 85-year-old man. Doctors also concluded that the injuries obtained during his football career were the cause of Waters’ depression issues.
A brighter future
Football decision-makers are heading in the right direction bytaking action to try and make the sport safer. Awareness and prevention has been taken more serious. As the reality of such injuries and their consequences are better understood. Actions that can be taken by each team include using custom-fitted mouth guards, up-to-date protective gear, and the overall awareness and care when these injuries occur. Reducing live contact in practice to a minimum level, as well as stressing the importance of proper tackling techniques are also simple ways every team can make the sport more safe.
“It is appropriate that proper protocol for dealing with the steps of prevention and rehabilitation are taken, as well as getting coaches to buy in to these processes,” Matt Schmidt, head athletic trainer for NW, said.
Football has and always will have injuries. It is part of the game. Every player enters the game knowing there is a possibility of injury at some point. It’s up to officials, coaches and trainers to help reduce injuries and continue to raise awareness of these injuries and their consequences.