High Schools Struggle To Tackle Safety On The Football Field More than 1 million high school boys play football in the U.S. With a growing body of evidence linking the sport with chronic brain injury, some schools are trying to change how teams play and practice — but they have a long way to go.

High Schools Struggle To Tackle Safety On The Football Field

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Last night, the PBS program "Frontline" aired the documentary "League of Denial." It alleges the NFL covered up evidence linking football and chronic brain damage. In recent years, pro football has introduced measures to prevent head injuries. Youth Radio now looks at three of those measures and compares them to what's happening at the high school level.

We start at Castro Valley High School in the San Francisco suburbs. Here's Youth Radio reporter Kendrick Calkins.

KENDRICK CALKINS, BYLINE: The NFL adopted a new rule this season making it illegal to hit with the crown of your helmet. In other words, ramming your head into someone like this...


CALKINS: It's been illegal to hit with the crown of your helmet in high school football, but unlike in the pros, I've hardly ever seen it called in a game. Still, Coach Nic McMaster tries to teach us better.

NIC MCMASTER: Alfaro, that was horrible technique. That's why you can't lean and put your head down when you block.

CALKINS: According to a survey by the Nationwide Children's Hospital, young athletes across all sports suffer 300,000 concussions each year, including my team's varsity tight end, Mack Woodfox.

MACK WOODFOX: I was hit helmet-to-helmet from the side of my face and I kind of stumbled over, and after that my ears started ringing and my eyes kind of blacked out a little bit.

CALKINS: Mack missed a week of school and a few weeks of practice. Almost 90 percent of concussions in football happen from player-to-player contact. That's one reason the NFL players association negotiated limits on tackling during practices. Very few high school leagues have caught up with that NFL standard. Texas has.

PAUL BEATTIE: Ready, go.

CALKINS: The state association that calls the shots for high school sports in Texas limited full contact during practice to 90 minutes a week. KERA reporter Lauren Silverman visited one school about half an hour south of Dallas.

BEATTIE: Ready, go.

LAUREN SILVERMAN: DeSoto High School is home to one of the top football teams in Texas. At practice today, you won't see head to head action or hear the thud of players falling to the ground after a tackle.

BEATTIE: Come on, on your feet. Come on, son. Come on, son. On your feet.

SILVERMAN: The state that brought you "Friday Night Lights" and more recently a $60 million high school football stadium has adopted one of the strictest limits on high school contact and tackling at practices. Desoto coach Paul Beattie.

BEATTIE: This is a tackling circuit. The way we modified it is we're not going to take them to the ground. We don't want to hurt our own players.

SILVERMAN: In this drill, players run past, instead of into, each other. But players like varsity linebacker Derion Woods are conflicted.

DERION WOODS: I mean, they do it to keep us healthy, but as a linebacker you do like hitting, but we understand they do it to just keep us healthy throughout the season.

SILVERMAN: Texas and Arizona both have rules in effect limiting contact during high school football practice. But most states have no regulations. In Dallas, I'm Lauren Silverman.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: One, two, three...

CALKINS: Back here, in the Bay Area, if you get a concussion, you might end up at the University Of California San Francisco Hospital with Dr. Carlin Senter, a primary care sports physician.

CARLIN SENTER: I'm going to read you the words and you repeat them back to me in whatever order.

CALKINS: She gave me a concussion assessment, which includes a memory test. I didn't get them all.

SENTER: Elbow, apple, carpet, saddle, bubble.

CALKINS: But you try it. So how do we figure out who just forgets bubble and who has a concussion?

SENTER: So it's very hard to know because we don't have a baseline. Who knows? You might not be so good at remembering things.

CALKINS: The NFL makes all players take a medical exam at the beginning of each year. This gives their doctors a baseline assessment of players' regular mental and physical state. At high schools, there's no standard medical testing for football players. Nor is there a standard requirement for medical personnel to be employed by the team.

This can contribute to situations like 16-year-old Jackson Wegner's. He plays for the Novato Hornets, about 30 miles north of San Francisco.

JACKSON WEGNER: I went up over here by the end zone to catch a ball, and I jumped up; I landed on my back and my head just whipped back and just slammed against the turf and that was it.

CALKINS: Jackson got a concussion during practice last season, but it wasn't diagnosed, so he played in the next game. As kicker, he hit three field goals before a coach came to tell Jackson's mom, Christine Wegner, something was wrong.

CHRISTINE WEGNER: He came to get me and said, Jackson has a concussion. He does not even know where he is or what field goal he's supposed to be kicking at. And this was after he already scored all these points.

CALKINS: Christine Wegner wants the team to be able to identify concussions sooner. There's some debate about how to do that. She supported her son's team getting a baseline concussion test at the beginning of the new season. It's an extra expense, but to commissioner Russell White, who governs all high school sports in Oakland, it's worth it.

RUSSELL WHITE: You know, when you start seeing the NFL do things, high schools, colleges are not too far behind. I think it needs to happen.

CALKINS: Commissioner White loves the game. He's played all his life and even made it to the NFL. But when it comes to his own children getting into football...

WHITE: I often see my oldest son playing pickup games, and they're out there just doing what we did, out there tackling each other. And you start seeing the moves, you start seeing the speed and you see him smiling. How do you say, no?

CALKINS: Joining a team is a decision that parents and teenagers have to make together. Check out the safety standards at your school and understand football is a dangerous game. But dang, is it fun. For NPR News, I'm Kendrick Calkins.

BLOCK: That story was produced by Youth Radio.

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