Football the safest it has ever been?
The Madras football program and head coach Kurt Taylor's efforts toward player safety have been paying off. Not only has the number of concussions decreased, even with the percentage of players rising, but they also had no concussions for the 2019 season.
The team had around five to six concussions in each of the 2016 and 2017 seasons. Last year, the number dropped to two and this season to zero.
Since 2016, when head coach Kurt Taylor took over the program, several different focuses have been added to the football program to help keep the athletes safe.
"Specifically for football, the main reasons were how much we worked on our necks," Taylor said. "We take measurements right about at this time, girth size of the neck. We measure their necks and program in our strength and conditioning, some type of neck exercise two to three times per week. They have really taken ownership."
"The science behind the neck exercises are, the more rigid the neck when an impact happens, the less it is going to whiplash," he said. "The whiplash is what is going to cause that concussion, with your brain inside of your cranium bouncing inside of your skull. The more rigid the neck, the less likely you will get that whiplash effect."
"We have been telling all of our soccer boys and girls, you are going to do it because you have just as many concussions as we do," said Taylor. "In fact, in girls soccer, sometimes more than football because they are going for headers all the time. With that movement, they whip their neck to try and head the ball. The rigidity factor is huge. The strength and conditioning portion is a big percentage why concussions are happening with the largest numbers of kids we have seen."
The football program has followed specific tackling drills from the Seattle Seahawks and their head coach Pete Carroll. Those drills are taught to coaches during their tackling and blocking certification videos. Coaches must watch those videos in order to coach for their school. Madras has adopted those drills and taken it to the next level.
"We teach tackling and work on tackling every single day of the week," Taylor said. "It is all about shoulder tackling, team, with leverage, clearing your head and a lot of no-contact stuff, working on a lot of techniques. You can see it on film. Even when our boys lunge for tackles, you can see they are lunging at an angle where the shoulder is leading and not the head."
"When I played football, the coaching was bite the ball," he said. "Which literally meant put your head on the ball or put your head in the guy's sternum. Now, it is nothing like that. You need to clear your head. It is a big part, as well, and it is mandated. USA Football mandated it, but Jerry (Shaw) especially does it every single day."
In 2018, the Madras football program earned a $10,000 grant for new football equipment. Last season's grant was awarded to programs which were dedicated to "smarter football."
The funds came through former NFL quarterback Peyton Manning and his "18 in 18" equipment grant. With the growing numbers and the program's DESIRE core values, the program ordered brand new Riddell gear. The 2019 season was the first year players were wearing the gear all season, every game.
"We have the best helmets you can buy," said Taylor. "Luckily, we got a lot of them from the grant, but that is the only helmet (Riddell) we buy now. We had some other players try out Xenith football helmets and some other brands. They put on the Riddell brand and they wonder why they even leased or bought those other brands. Riddell tests the best right now out of every helmet."
"Our entire varsity team and entire JV team except for two boys were wearing Riddell," he said. "We pride ourselves on that, and it is not just because of the grant. That is a big piece, but they are dang good helmets. I wish I had a helmet like that when I played. It is like the luxury car of helmets. It's pretty cool."
Football players are being protected now more than ever. With the NFL changing its rules to make sure there is no head-to-head contact, players now have to try their best to avoid head-on collisions.
The NFL now has rules that you can't even touch the quarterback in the head, tackle too low, or tackle with excess force. Those actions all result in penalties now. High school football is not quite as intense with those rules, but the rules of the game have changed drastically.
"It is a different game — let's be real," Taylor said. "I mean, we teach tackling differently. The rules are changing. Even at our level, if you lead with your head, you get ejected. You miss a whole other game the next week, too. Thank goodness we haven't had that happen here. I think it is because we talk so much about it. They just don't do it; they don't lead with their head. We have had close calls."
"I struggle with it so much because one of the reasons is the contact," he said. "When I was a player, I was constantly leading with my head. I have upwards of a least four (concussions) to who knows how many others. Two of them sent me to the ER, and I can probably attribute that to things that are weird with my brain and development. It is nice knowing that the kids you are coaching, cause you love them so much, are not having those same issues."
"If we are going to prolong this sport in an avenue where kids are going to continue to play it, it has to be safer," Taylor said. "Regardless of the guys in the NFL right now, 10, 20, 30 years down the road, the kids in third grade right now are going to be those NFL guys. If their mom and dad aren't letting them play because they're scared to death of concussions, then we are not going to have a sport. In order to keep the contact the way it is, there needs to be some rules about it."
Athletic trainer commitment
As part of its commitment to improve athlete health and safety at all levels of sport, the NFL Foundation launched a grant to increase the number of athletic trainers in high schools.
The grant is a collaboration with Gatorade, the National Athletic Trainers' Association, the Korey Stringer Institute and the Professional Football Athletic Trainers Society.
The program aimed to provide athletic trainers to 150 schools. Four states — Arizona, Illinois, Oklahoma and Oregon — can apply for a three-year $35,000 grant.
Apex Physical Therapy in Madras and the Center Foundation in Bend have teamed up with both the Culver and Madras schools to provide onsite athletic trainers.
"Having Nicole (Porter) here is immensely beneficial," Taylor said. "She is amazing. Nicole helps with all these different things. Not only does she help with all these injuries, knees, ankles whatever, she is an athletic trainer that knows athletics, especially football. If a kid has a boo-boo, she is going to send them back out to practice. If kids are legitimately hurt, she does wonders."
"She works so hard and I just hope that there's some way to keep her with this grant running out; whatever we have to do to keep her, I want to do," he said. "She is one of the best trainers I have ever been around and it is because she is tough."
"The protocol for concussion is if there is any symptoms at all, whether it be headache, nausea, dizziness, the first things we do is what is called a SCAT5," Porter said. "It is a series of questions and tests looking at balance and memories, recall, delayed recall, just seeing how they are reacting. If they don't do well at that, we sit them out a practice. We will hold them out once they are symptom-free. Once they are symptom-free, we will do an impact test."
"The impact test is an online computer test," she said. "Everyone completes it at the beginning of the year to get a baseline. If they are injured, they will take a post-test and we can compare how they are doing. If they do the same or better, or within a certain percentage of their baseline, then they are cleared to return to play protocol, which is a three-day return to play, just doing cardio, no hitting. Second day, (they do) a little bit more with the team. We usually still don't let them hit; they can do more drills. Third day is a complete practice. Every day at the end of practice, we check in with them. If symptoms return, we take a step back and try again the next day. After those three days, we get to return them back to competition."
"A lot of it is unfortunately luck," Porter said. "It just depends on how the season goes. Sometimes you have a lot, sometimes a little, but the coaching staff has done a really good job with strengthening exercises, working on strengthening neck muscles, which can help decrease concussions. If the neck is more stable, the head isn't bouncing around as much. Also working on tackling and working on tackling properly, where you are not leading with your head. That way, there is not a lot of head-to-head contact, which is usually the biggest way to get a concussion. Other than that, the kids have been really good about taking care of themselves, making sure if they have anything little, they see me right way, which is good."
"We still have lots of kids that aren't playing because Mom and Dad are scared their kids will get a concussion or hurt," said Taylor. "For me it is tough because it is so easy to say, they can get a concussion playing soccer or baseball. They can get a concussion riding their bike home from school or in a car accident. My response is: This is what we are doing in the weight room; this is how we tackle, how we are mandated to tackle. Now moving forward, I can say, look at how our numbers have dropped."
"You are always going to have parents that don't want their kids to play this game," he said. "It has always been like that and yes, it is more now than back in the day. People want to protect their kids more now than ever. Kids used to ride their bikes to the store to get a pop. Now, kids can hardly do anything without parents being afraid that something will happen. It is just a different era."
"I am excited to see where (football) goes moving forward," Taylor said. "I am excited that we are doing a good enough job keeping our kids safe. I love the fact that I didn't have a single kid with a concussion this year because it is not fun to watch kids go through that."
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