Ahead of the Game

SFPS sees mix of decreases, increases of youth concussions in football programs

Head-to-head or head-to-body and head-to-ground contact are all causes of concussions. (Katherine Lewin)

An August sun glints off dozens of silver and black helmets as the Capital High School football Jaguars run drills, laps and various plays. Coaches scatter throughout the pack of perspiring athletes as they practice proper tackling techniques with mountains rising to the south, behind the metallic bleachers.

As the young men step up to teammates on the other side of the scrimmage line, wrapping their arms around them and lifting upwards, careful to move their heads to the side, head coach Bill Moon stresses that players' heads must be kept "out of the game."

Moon isn't suggesting his players stop thinking on the field.

Rather, he's teaching them to avoid what has become a national flashpoint in football: concussions and the long-term effects of multiple hard hits to the head.

"Basically, the rule is don't initiate contact with the head. That'll take care of most everything," Moon explains to SFR, his hands behind his back as he watches an assistant correct a freshman's technique. "The ground is always there and there's not much we can do about it, so we want to strengthen the body during the off season, strengthen the neck and shoulders, and train how to fall."

The consequences of concussions in both scholastic and non-scholastic youth athletics, as well as in the NFL, exploded into the national conversation after Dr. Bennet Omalu, a pathologist, discovered damage in NFL player Mike Webster's brain and attributed it to repeated severe concussions without sufficient recovery time before Webster was sent back onto the field.

Omalu believed the damage, which he called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, caused Webster's erratic behavior prior to his death, and also could have contributed to depression and neurological disorders in other players of contact sports such as football and hockey.

The debate about concussion prevention and diagnosis has touched New Mexico, too.

Trainers who are tracking concussions have been in place at every youth sports practice and game for the last three years here, contracted through Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center, according to documents provided to SFR through a request under the Inspection of Public Records Act.

Their data shows that the number of concussions at the Southside's Capital High School has increased slightly from the 2016-17 school year, when there were four, to seven the following year. Three were reported in football, two in soccer, one in wrestling and one in basketball.

Santa Fe High School has seen a sharp decline in concussions during the same time period, from 21 to just five: one in football, one in soccer, two in wrestling and one in cheer.

While the district was willing to provide the numbers of concussions for three years, the step-by-step process by which they deal with them remains murky because officials have so far refused to release individual concussion reports.

Santa Fe Public School District Athletics Director Hilario (Larry Jr.) Chavez attributes the decrease to improved coaching techniques.

"It's nothing we've done differently," Chavez tells SFR. "If [the coaches have] prepared and coached the proper way, technique can reduce concussions. It's not so much the equipment. Proper coaching and technique leads to a decrease in the amounts of concussions."

Moon agrees that experienced coaches who understand how to teach techniques to avoid initiating contact with the head is important, as is having proper safety equipment for student athletes.

"Hire professional coaches as a way to prevent concussions, have proper facilities for off-season training," Moon tells SFR. Warning the students with an "over the top" message on the first page of the playbook about the dangers of concussions to get their attention is also part of his strategy.

However, head-to-head or head-to-body contact is not where all concussions occur in football. Many occur when students hit the ground with their heads.

"Our helmets are very light but very durable," Moon says. "They're the highest-rated helmets in America. We buy top of the line helmets, they're $300 each. The helmet will handle ground impact if the ground is safe. We want a safe helmet and a safe field. Nobody thinks of the field as a piece of safety equipment. It is the second most important safety equipment in all of sport."

But concussions just aren't avoidable in any contact sport. To more easily detect a concussion when an athlete isn't sure or doesn't want to admit they have one in order to stay in the game, the school district says that they use baseline testing with a software called IMPACT contracted through Christus St. Vincent.

According to the Center for Disease Control, baseline testing is an exam conducted by a trained health care professional to assess cognitive function, such as memory, balance, ability to concentrate and how quickly the athlete thinks and solves problems. When a concussion has possibly occurred, they can take the test again and see how they measure up against their "baseline."

SFPS only uses IMPACT for high school football players. On average, about 20 football players per season elect to take the optional baseline test, according to Chavez, and the district is "looking at" expanding the testing to other sports as the science around concussions continues to improve.

Moon agrees that more medical research needs to be done to also look into exactly what factors go into CTE in the most severe cases. He thinks more football players, whether professionals or former student athletes, should donate their brains to science after death.

"I'm fierce about protecting my players," he says. "I don't want to give them a false sense of safety or fear. … If we find out that there's an outcome that ought not to be tolerated, there is no Second Amendment for sport and no justification for hurting children, so we have to guard against it. We want to be successful on the field and also guard safety."

This story was completed with information from Reveal's Reporting Networks.

Letters to the Editor

Mail letters to PO Box 4910 Santa Fe, NM 87502 or email them to editor[at]sfreporter.com. Letters (no more than 200 words) should refer to specific articles in the Reporter. Letters will be edited for space and clarity.

We also welcome you to follow SFR on social media (on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter) and comment there. You can also email specific staff members from our contact page.