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The impact of the concussion concern: the toll it takes on teams and players

GBS football player makes contact with a player from the opposing team. Neither necessarily sustained a concussion from this play.

Wyatt Richter

GBS football player makes contact with a player from the opposing team. Neither necessarily sustained a concussion from this play.

Eliza Schloss and Sofia Snyder

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Football leagues are taking a hard hit. As information on the long-term effects of concussions has come to light, participation in Chicagoland football programs has been on the decline, according to Geoff Meyer, president of The Chicagoland Youth Football League.

Enrollment for Highland Park’s Park District tackle football league has shrunk dramatically according to Liza McElroy, executive director of the Highland Park Park District. With only 11 players expressing interest in participating, the park district had to cut the program, says McElroy.

According to Greg DeVine, Jr. Titan Midweight Coach, there has been a decrease in enrollment for his majority sixth grade team. DeVine says in the 2016 season, 22 players participated on his team while this year there were only 17. DeVine believes the decline may be in part due to the impact that football has on developing brains including long-term effects like Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE).

“This year [concussions and their effects] have been such an issue in the news and have been very prevalent,” DeVine said. “I think that [partially] is why our numbers are down.”

Laura Eilts, mother of sophomore Nick Eilts, was hesitant to sign her son up for sixth grade tackle football after the flag football program ended in fifth grade. Laura says she can attribute her concern to the new information of concussion risks presented in the media.

“As the media started raising more awareness of the long-term effects of tackling, from concussions [and their] health effects as [players] age [to] seeing the types of injuries youth sustain from tackles, [it] made me very cautious of risking injury to my own son,” Laura said.

Laura, along with several other parents, voiced their concern to the park district and petitioned them to allow flag football to continue until eighth grade. According to Laura, the need for having flag football continue through middle school was due to her son’s love for the sport but disinterest in participating in tackle.

“I rallied the parents on our team, because we knew we wanted our kids to continue,” Laura said. “We got together and asked the park district to continue it until eighth grade, and the Glenview Park District was great. They saw parents were interested and willing to volunteer to coach, [so] they expanded the program.”

The decreasing trend in local feeder football leagues is similar in high school programs throughout the nation, according to a report by the National Federation of State High School Associations, who says such programs have lost about 25,900 participants in the 2016-17 school year. According to trainer Tony Catsaros, this decline hasn’t yet impacted South but he, like DeVine, is aware of what has, in part, caused this decline: concussions.

“There have been [schools] that we used to play with a freshman A and freshman B team that now only have one freshman team,” Catsaros said. “We’ve had some schools now in the area that have no freshman team. There are several schools in the area that have no sophomore team.”

David Schoenwetter, head football coach, says to create a uniform standard across Glenview, the Titan football team has to collaborate with the Jr. Titan coaches in order to learn safe tackling strategies before their players enter high school.

“We have tried to do a good job of working with the Jr. Titans and teach them ways to tackle,   show them what we’re doing, and they’ve done a great job of buying into that and teaching the younger kids,” Schoenwetter said.

As middle school students head into tryouts for the South football team, DeVine says he implements these tackling strategies in order to avoid concussions.

“We really have been focusing on [teaching kids proper tackling] in the last couple years,” DeVine said. “You can call it ‘heads up’ tackling and the idea is to make sure your head is up and your eyes are up. [Another technique] we have been using to try to minimize head to head contact [is] leading with your shoulder as opposed to your head.”

Catsaros says by being attentive to the risks of concussions and incorporating changes in football, policies will improve safety throughout the football season.

“There have been rule changes through IHSA down to the junior levels,” Catsaros said. “[This includes] where to hit and so on. [There have been] adjustments to kick-offs which can be seen in the professional level [by moving out kick-offs], which means a lot more touchbacks [and a] lot less contact on special teams.”

Despite changes in policies, senior Kosta Halkias says he received a total of five concussions throughout his high school football career. According to Halkias, his parents tried to warn him about the dangers of continuing to play, but due to his love of football,  he was torn. When he received his fifth concussion over the summer, Halkias decided that football was not worth the risks.

“From freshman year to the end of last summer it would have taken a lot of convincing to get me to stop playing football,” Halkias said. “But by the time August came around and I got my second concussion of the summer, it was really easy to convince me to stop because I didn’t want to go through getting the symptoms again and risk getting another concussion.”

Halkias believes that the hardest part of stopping football was watching his teammates play without him this season in his final year of high school, although he knows it will ultimately benefit his well-being.

“In the long run I know I’ll be happy [stopping football], but in the moment and especially during the season I was very sad because I kept thinking that my last play of football was during practice and not even during a game,” Halkias said. “But I know it will benefit me in the future.”

Senior Thomas Boutsikakis, a former Jr. Titan who also played for South, received multiple concussions throughout his football career. This past summer at a football camp, Boutsikakis received a concussion during a game but cast the pain aside to continue to play and did not tell his coaches how he was feeling at the time.

“For some reason I kept trying to make it through [the game] and I just kept getting tackled and after a while my head was pounding really hard,” Boutsikakis said.

According to Catsaros, educating all Titan athletes about concussion prevention is what makes a difference. If students are aware of concussion symptoms, for example, they are able to speak up, says Catsaros.

“I think that concussions [are] at the forefront right now [so] that kids can recognize that it’s important to say something whereas years ago [people] just dealt with concussions,” Catsaros said.

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The impact of the concussion concern: the toll it takes on teams and players