Editorial: An open letter to all high school football coaches
By Richard Gaw
It is now August, the time of the year when you can practically breathe in the very first scents of the fall, and taste the anticipation of walking up and down the practice fields of your summer workouts, charting the progress of the players before you, performing offensive and defensive drills station to station in the sweltering heat, and determining in your mind where they will line up on that first Friday night of the season, now just weeks away.
There is a familiarity to high school football that is both comforting and ritualistic; it is a generous and significant slice of Americana, felt and seen in the makings of its visual pageantry. It is the golden glow of archlights high above a stadium; the school colors worn by fans and players, bright against a setting autumn sun; and the look of a teenager's eyes partially obscured behind a helmet's grill, looking to you for direction. High school football is also a sport of sounds: the brassy bombast of the band, leading the team onto the field; and the high pitch encouragement of cheerleaders and patrons.
There are other sounds. Do you hear them? It is the punishing crack of helmet upon helmet. It is the thrashing of a fullback's body as he attempts to puncture his way through a tiny hole in the line. It is the gruesome wail of a teenage lineman who has just received a pancake block that levels him to the ground. There is another sound, too, that neither you or any other football coach has ever heard.
It is the sound of a human brain shaking in its skull, caused by a violent hit to the helmet, that causes the brain to slide back and forth forcefully against the skull's inner walls. It may lead to bleeding in the brain. It causes symptoms such as prolonged drowsiness and confusion, which can lead to other conditions, and it can be fatal.
Last week, Baltimore Ravens lineman John Urschel announced his retirement from the National Football League, in part because of his desire to complete his doctorate in mathematics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. There is another reason why Urschel retired. He read the findings of a report published by the medical journal JAMA, indicating that 99 percent of brains from deceased former NFL players that were examined for a study contained chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.
Urschel is 14th player to retire at age 30 or younger this offseason. Twenty players retired at 30 or younger during the 2016 offseason, and the trend shows no sign of letting up. The study is the largest of its kind and examined the brains of 202 deceased former football players in all. Aside from the brains of former NFL players, CTE was found in 48 of 53 college players...and three of 14 high school players. If these statistics are indeed correct, that means that if you coach a 42-member squad this fall, nearly 20 percent of them already have some form of CTE.
In a society that continues to create ways to further perpetuate a selfish "importance" on the individual, coaching remains a selfless endeavor. You, and the assistants who will flank you on the sidelines this fall, belong to a fraternity of brothers who have the gift to see beyond the Xs and the Os and into the aspirations of young men who wish to succeed on the playing field. You are also entrusted with the maintaining their safety, so we include the following recommendations, as you prepare for this season:
1. Eliminate full-body contact during early summer workouts.
2. Emphasize speed, endurance and agility rather than tackling or blocking. It's better to be smart and prepared in football than just tough.
3. Teach the proper method tackling, emphasizing that bringing an opponent to the ground can be done more effectively by reaching for his legs rather than his head.
4. Stress the importance of head position when preparing to be tackled.
5. Continue to explore ways to get independent doctors on the sidelines.
6. Give trophies for proper tackling, not punishing hits. Suspend any player who delivers an overtly punishing blow to an opponent, for an entire season. Bring attention to his dangerous decision in front of everyone -- fellow players and fans.
A coach is charged with the responsibility of helping to mold young minds. Now is your opportunity to help save them, and in the process, help save the game itself.
Best of luck this season.