Youth Football Coach Pushes Neck Exercises

Football coaches are reminding players about good tackling techniques ever since the cervical spine injury of Kevin Everett, tight end for the NFL's Buffalo Bills. But one coach, who also runs a spine care clinic in in Portland, Ore., says neck strengthening at younger ages can also help.

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The condition of Buffalo Bills tight end Kevin Everett continues to improve. He was initially paralyzed from the shoulders down when he lowered his head making a tackle earlier this month. Doctors say Everett has movement in both hands. He's already moved his arms and legs.

Football coaches are reminding players about good tackling techniques, and one youth coach in Portland, Oregon wants to take the discussion further, as NPR's Tom Goldman reports.

TOM GOLDMAN: Football, it's said, is not a contact sport; it's a collision sport.

Unidentified Man #1: Sit. Go. Get there, Wilcox, get there. There you go. Now, that was a nice job by Wilcox. That was brave. He went into him full speed.

GOLDMAN: Last week, what appeared to be another day of youth football practice at Portland's West Sylvan Middle School was not just another day, because while coaches exhorted and kids collided, one group on this large green field simply talked.

Mr. STEVE HOGE (Football Coach, West Sylvan Middle School): Did you guys all pay attention to what happened with the player for the Buffalo Bills on Sunday?

Unidentified Man #1: He's got paralyzed.

Mr. HOGE: Show me what happened. Stand up.

GOLDMAN: Two members of the fifth and sixth grade team coached by Steve Hoge strapped on their helmets and demonstrated how Kevin Everett, at the last second, lowered his helmet into an opponent.

Unidentified Man #2: I saw his head go like this and run into him like that.

Mr. HOGE: Okay. So keep your helmet there. Keep your helmet there.

GOLDMAN: Steve Hoge used the meeting to reiterate what football players are told from the peewee leagues to the NFL, where locker room signs say, don't tackle with the top of your helmet. Keep your head up. See what you hit. But Hoge is also using Kevin Everett's injury to the cervical spine - the neck - to reiterate something Hoge has been saying for years.

Mr. HOGE: Cervical spine preparation for young football players is woefully neglected in this country.

GOLDMAN: When he's not coaching, Steve Hoge runs a spine care clinic that includes treatment for sports injuries. Disc problems, wear and tear on the neck that he says could be prevented with neck strengthening workouts at younger ages. But he says few high school weight rooms include neck machines, and many coaches don't emphasize neck strengthening.

Hoge played high school and college football. He's in contact with people at all levels of the game. And while they can discuss knee injuries, shoulder injuries, even concussions.

Mr. HOGE: Very few people want to sit and have a conversation about neck injuries, catastrophic or uncatastrophic. It's kind of a disturbing subject. It's uncomfortable. It evokes a certain amount of fear in all of us.

GOLDMAN: Fred Clausen agrees there's been a de-emphasis on necks, and he wonders if it has to do with players' size. Clausen is president of the Texas High School Athletic Directors Association. High School players, particularly in football-crazy Texas, have gotten enormous. And there may be the assumption, Clausen says, that necks don't need any extra work.

Mr. FRED CLAUSEN (President, Texas High School Athletic Directors Association): If the chest and arms and legs and biceps are big and strong, that the neck muscles kind of follow suit.

GOLDMAN: They don't, says John Thomas. In his 15 years as head strength coach for football at Penn State, Thomas says he's been concerned by the high percentage of incoming high school recruits who have big chests but also weak shoulders and necks.

Regardless of how much football players build up their necks, it's probably not enough to prevent catastrophic injuries like Kevin Everett's. Those are inevitable, albeit rare. But Steve Hoge and others say that doesn't mean neck safety should be left out of the constantly evolving discussion of how to make a collision game safer.

Tom Goldman, NPR News, Portland.

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