RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
We're coming off another football weekend in America. From the Friday night drama on high school fields to the multibillion-dollar juggernaut that is the NFL, the game is as popular as ever, but there's a growing worry about head injuries in the sport, from the pros down to the pee-wee leagues. Even high-profile NFL players have gone on record saying they don't want their children playing because of the risk of concussion. We wondered how this conversation is playing out in Texas. That's a state where football is often described as a religion. NPR's Tom Goldman reports.
TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: For many a Texan, the football journey to Friday night lights starts on Saturday mornings, saying cheese.
MIKE HATTAWAY: All righty. Look right here big. Big smile now. Uh-oh. You think your girlfriend's going to like that.
SHANI PICKETT: Come on, Wildcats.
GOLDMAN: It's picture day for the Angleton Wildcats. Girlfriends are a few years away from these seven and eight-year-olds with their purple jerseys all puffed up by shoulder pads. Really, the photos are for mom.
PICKETT: Come on, Jordan. Run, baby. All right, Wildcats.
GOLDMAN: Shani Pickett's son Jordan is playing his first year of tackle football and carrying on a tradition in this South Texas town of about 19,000 people. Angleton has churned out a handful of NFL players. Jordan begged his mom to play earlier, but Shani made him wait until eight. And they made a deal once he started.
PICKETT: He plays football on Saturday. Sunday morning we're in church, because I told him he needs to be able to give thanks. And you know, we make sure we read the Scripture. We pray over him, so that God protects him. And you know, you just have to go with God and just let him play.
GOLDMAN: She is plenty hands-on though. Pickett has followed the news about concussions. She watches her son closely during practices and games, just like Wesley and Tara Rolan are doing on this Saturday morning.
TARA ROLAN: What's wrong with him?
WESLEY ROLAN: With who?
ROLAN: He ended up at the bottom of the pile.
GOLDMAN: Eight-year-old Bryce Rolan was fine after he limped off the field. He's also playing his first year of tackle and he loves it. His dad calls him an intimidator - all four feet two inches, 65 pounds of him. Tara enjoys watching Bryce on Saturdays, but she worries.
ROLAN: I don't think his little body is ready for it, you know, ready to take those hits, and you know, the risk of concussion in younger children is a big factor. It's funny that you're even here today because yesterday I was watching "Katie."
GOLDMAN: She saw Katie Couric interview concussion expert Dr. Robert Cantu. And he confirmed Tara Rolan's concerns. Cantu writes in his new book "Concussions and Our Kids," that children are among the most vulnerable because of weak necks and brains that are still developing. He advises kids not play tackle until 14. Still, the Rolans are letting Bryce play, although his dad says one concussion, whether in pee-wees or high school, and he's done. Of course none of this is on Bryce's radar screen. It's a physical game and you get to tackle, and people tackle you. Do you ever worry about getting hurt?
BRYCE ROLAN: No. I'm the person who gives the hurting away, 'cause I don't get hurt. The other team does.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Right there, come on (unintelligible), come on (unintelligible).
(SOUNDBITE OF TACKLING AND WHISTLE BLOWING)
GOLDMAN: With a crunch and a gasp from the crowd, this was one of those hits that brought the coaches running onto the field. It was now Saturday afternoon, about 25 miles north of Angleton in Pearland, Texas - a game between 10 and 11-year-olds, weight limit of 150 pounds, and the hits were bigger. After this one, a player stayed down. His coach stood over him, flashing fingers as in how many? The kid finally got up and walked off in obvious pain. But a sideline official shouted up to the stands that all was well, concussion-wise.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I think his helmet twisted, and he hurt his face. Yeah, I think it was his face.
GOLDMAN: As far as football injuries go, better the face than the brain. A week earlier, though, Austin Knox wasn't as lucky.
ALAN KNOX: Austin plays quarterback and handed off the ball to the backup running back and turned to block a blitzing linebacker and had a little head-to-head collision with him.
GOLDMAN: That's Austin's dad Alan Knox, who coaches his son's team of 10 and 11-year-olds in Pearland. Knox says after the collision, Austin said his head hurt. A parent at the game, a doctor, talked to Austin and determined he might have a concussion.
KNOX: So we took him to the sideline, took his pads off and decided he wasn't playing the rest of the day.
GOLDMAN: A specialist later confirmed a mild concussion and told Coach Knox to keep his son off the football field for two weeks. Knox made it three. At a time of growing concussion awareness, Alan Knox appears to have made the right moves. In the last year, he's also reduced contact during practices and instructed his players to signal if they don't feel right - either by tapping on their helmet of taking a knee. Knox's team is part of the South Texas Youth Football Association. This is the first year that STYFA, as it's called, has a concussion policy, featured on its website's homepage. It's up to these independent leagues to form their own policies. Lonzie Helms helped write up STYFA's. He was worried about a drop in participation this year. During the sign-up period there were tons of media reports about concussions, including the story about the suicide of former NFL star Junior Seau. There was speculation at that time that his death was prompted by brain disease from football head injuries. But Lonzie Helms was amazed to see a 20 percent increase in sign-ups.
LONZIE HELMS: And we had so many kids so early, we thought that maybe one of the other leagues had gone away or something, 'cause we were getting kids so fast. It turns out the other leagues were doing just as well as we were.
GOLDMAN: How do you explain that?
HELMS: I have no idea.
GOLDMAN: Here's a possible clue: Helms says this year 3,000 people are expected at Pearland Stadium to watch the seven and eight-year-old championship game.
HELMS: This is Texas. This is what we do. We, you know, we play football.
GOLDMAN: The play football in central Texas too, where Mark Lingard isn't so optimistic.
MARK LINGARD: Until we find out for sure and can find a way to keep kids as safe as possible, I have no problem with not being in the youth football. As much as I love the game, but it may have to disappear someday.
GOLDMAN: His pessimism comes from some recent numbers. Over the last five years, the Central Texas Youth Football League, which Lingard started 12 years ago, has grown by eight or nine teams per year. This year, two additional teams. Concussion worries, Lingard says, are a big part of the slowdown.
LINGARD: How's little Jimmy not going to get hurt? That's what they're concerned about.
GOLDMAN: And you answer?
LINGARD: It's going to make me sound bad - I says I'm not guaranteeing you anything. Little Timmy can get hurt playing football. It's the greatest game in the world. If he wants to play it, and you want to let him play it, you have to take those risks.
GOLDMAN: USA Football estimates almost three million kids, ages six to 14, play organized tackle football. That number essentially has stayed the same since 2006. Many still are taking the risk, aware that every kid who plays doesn't get a concussion and every kid who does isn't doomed to dementia later in life. Still, there are those pulling away. And they're doing so with Dr. Cantu's mantra ringing in their ears: No head trauma is good head trauma. Tom Goldman, NPR News.