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NFL, Youth Football Face Similar Battle To Keep Players’ Brains Protected

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Pop Warner leagues in North Florida and across the country are working to prevent head injuries within its next generation of players.
Pop Warner leagues in North Florida and across the country are working to prevent head injuries within its next generation of players.

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Connie Doby lets her 7-year-old son play Pop Warner football because it’s his favorite sport.

That doesn’t keep her from wincing at each of Fred Doby’s collisions, particularly when his head is involved.

“I’m always nervous, still nervous,” Doby said. “Being a mom, it’s hard.”

Even before the National Football League settled in August a $765 million lawsuit with former players over concussion-related brain injuries, hand wringing about player safety among coaches, parents and league officials had increased at nearly every level of the game.

The recent release of “The United States of Football,” a documentary from filmmaker Sean Pamphilon’s, chronicles the dangerous effects the sport has on both professionals and younger players.

This year, though, parents may have less cause for concern over each loud collision.

Pop Warner has endorsed “Heads Up Football,” a program USA Football developed in 2012 to teach players to keep their heads out of the line of contact when tackling.

The program also certifies coaches on safety fundamentals and educates parents on how to recognize and treat a concussion, according to the organization’s website.

Vernell Brown Jr., a Pop Warner coach and former University of Florida receiver and cornerback, said football is by its nature a high-contact sport. He teaches 5, 6 and 7-year-old kids and knows a hard hit will happen now and then.

“I’m comfortable with it, as long as you’re teaching proper technique: Head up, eyes up,” he said.

With a young age group, the advantage is players aren’t generating enough speed to seriously harm each other, Brown added. Brown acknowledged concussions are a true concern, one he’s dealt with personally.

“I’ve had a handful of them,” he said.

If coaches are being mindful of the players they have out on the field, and emphasizing proper contact, the coach said, they can minimize serious injuries.

Tony McCloud, Brown’s assistant coach, said being proactive helps instill the lessons and prevent future bad habits.

“If they do try something that we’re not coaching, then we stop right then, and we teach them the proper way to do everything,” McCloud says.
“If they do try something that we’re not coaching, then we stop right then, and we teach them the proper way to do everything,” McCloud says.

Doby said she is comforted by Pop Warner’s age-weight matrix that keeps players with similar physical builds together.

“It may drive me crazy,” Doby said, “But I’ve gotten to understand that if they’re playing with their age groups, if they get hit, it may not be that bad.”

At the Boys & Girls Club of Alachua County near NW 51st Street, sports director Mark Kahn said the organization has a similar grouping system in place where kids are grouped by weight and age. For each division, there is a weight players cannot be above if they want to run the ball.

Still, Kahn said the Boys & Girls Club has not endorsed “The Heads Up Football” program as Pop Warner did. Instead, the organization holds monthly coaches meetings where area doctors come in to talk about head and neck injuries.

Kahn said they strive to promote safety, but ambulances are called about five times a year. If the injury is serious enough, the organization is insured and helps foot medical bills, Kahn said.

Still, the director acknowledges football’s inherent violence.

“The thing about it is,” Kahn said, “you can only protect children so much.”

About Zack Peterson

Zack is a reporter for WUFT News who may be contacted by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news @wuft.org

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