Coach, trainer work to ensure players’ health

As master trainer, Streiff emphasizes practice, game safety

The varsity football team runs a drill during a practice that took place in September.

Mary Stempky

The varsity football team runs a drill during a practice that took place in September.

Sara Kress, Reporter

Football has long been one of the nation’s favorite sports. However, in the past few years, an issue has been threatening the dominance of the game: concussions.

A concussion is an injury to the brain that alters the way that it functions. Athletic trainer Mr. Mike Hunker is well versed in the complexities of the injury. “Your brain basically accelerates and then decelerates within your skull,” he said. “So then what happens is that it basically results in a change in brain chemistry because there is a metabolic change that occurs. Some of the changes include a stretching of the membranes that cover your brain cells — or the neurons of the brain — and you get certain chemicals that leak in and certain chemicals that leak out. It causes this chemical imbalance, and ultimately it results in a temporary decrease in blood flow to your brain.

“And then because of that, it affects your oxygen delivery and delivery of other nutrients to your brain.”

Concussions can be caused from either direct or indirect forces. Hunker said, “A direct force would be when something hits your head, or you hit your head on something. Indirect forces are when there’s a force on your body that causes your head to move rapidly. A whiplash injury, for example. So notice you don’t necessarily have to have something impact your head.”

Due to their effect on the brain, concussions should be considered a serious injury, according to Hunker. “The analogy that’s used a lot of times is you’re trying to drive a car without gas. You don’t have the energy that you need to function,” he said.

Football Head Coach Mr. Rick Streiff is dedicated to the game of football and therefore the prevention of head injuries. Streiff said, “Concussions are a major issue in football because there’s a public perception that it’s an issue. We are now in a situation in today’s world where we are so much better and more knowledgeable than we were eight years ago, for example. The game is actually much safer now than it was eight years ago, but the public perception is still that it could be a hazard to young people.”

Streiff said that he does his best to ease such concerns. He participates in a program called USA Football, in which he is a master trainer, one of 80 around the United States. “USA football is sponsored by the NFL, and it’s designed for high school and youth league coaches to be educated on a wide variety of things coaching, but (the issue of) concussions was really what kind of pushed it,” Streiff said.

Streiff’s involvement in USA Football has produced positive results. “Three years ago when I got into this program, we had 24 concussions. The second year we had 18. Last year we had 12, and as of (late September) we’ve had three on the freshman level and one on the varsity, so we’re at four about halfway through the season,” Streiff said.

The skewed statistic of the freshmen concussion rate is a recognized trend in football. “We have found that freshmen get (concussions) more often, and there’s two primary reasons for that. Number 1, the younger you are, the more susceptible you are,” Streiff said. “Number 2, there’s more of a physical mismatch at the freshman level than almost anywhere else. You’ve got little bitty kids and some kids who’ve been shaving for three years, so you get some mismatches. In practice we do a really good job of trying to avoid those mismatches, but they get in the game and you can’t help it.”

Senior Ben Treece was a freshman when he experienced a concussion at football practice. “We just went helmet to helmet,” he said. “I finished out the practice, and when I woke up the next day, I really didn’t remember much of the last day. It just seemed like a dream almost.”

The football program reduces the risk of head injuries in multiple ways. “The Number-1 thing that helps prevent concussions I think is technique. If you teach a kid how to block and tackle the correct way, that’s going to help them stay as healthy as much as possible. Then your second thing is the best fit of your helmet,” Streiff said.

Streiff has implemented a practice style know as heads-up football in hopes of improving his players’ technique. It is designed to provide a better, safer way to teach tackling and blocking. Hunker said, “Our practices are significantly different than what they would have been five years ago or 10 years ago. We do far less direct contact. When you think back to some of the stuff we did years ago, you think what were we doing, but at the time we dealt with the information we had available. Now I think we are better informed than we were five or 10 years ago.”

Hunker said that he thinks education is an important step in dealing with concussions. He said, “We address the injury and the issue in parent meetings, and some of the things we address are: what is a concussion, what are the causes, what are the signs and the symptoms, how do you suspect that somebody has it, how is the injury treated. So I think a lot of it is just being aware of it and being educated.

“Some  we have educational sessions for parents, we have educational sessions for coaches, our athletes are provided with information each year that they’re supposed to read over. We try to stay as current as possible with the best available science that’s out there when it comes to recognizing, treating, and as best as possible, preventing the injury. We really put most of our efforts into recognition and treatment.”

Treece said that he believes the practice style is effective. “I just think that Cathedral’s good about our heads-up football program, because our coaches like to emphasize that they don’t want us use our head for this drill, keep it out of contact, so I think that helps,” he said.

The other main aspect of concussion prevention involves the helmets. “We make sure all our helmets are fitted correctly. We just kind of customize the fit so that there’s less movement of the head within the helmet,” Hunker said.

However, there is only so much that helmets can do. “There is no concussion proof helmet,” Streiff said.

Hunker explained why: “It goes back to that you can get this injury from indirect impact, so regardless of what you have on your head, if you get hit and your head moves rapidly side to side or back and forth, you can still get (a concussion).”

All the concern about head injuries has led to speculation about the possible decline in the sport’s popularity. “(Participation) absolutely has declined. Six or seven years ago we had 115 players on the varsity team, and this year we have 95. The last two Freshman Classes have been smaller. Normally we have 60 players, and we had in the 40s,” Streiff said.

Hunker said he does not believe the trend will continue. “From all the attention that’s been brought on this, the people are probably a little more wary about having their kids play. I think over time as the coaches get smarter about how to approach the game and start doing things a little bit differently and making it as safe a sport as possible, I think it’ll stabilize some. It won’t continue to decline,” he said.

Hunker also pointed out that football is not the only sport with a concussion problem. He said, “(Concussions) are a major issue in all sports to be totally honest. Football probably gets singled out more because it’s the most studied and researched sport out there. A lot of it is just its popularity. In fact, of all the injuries we have seen up to this point since the start of the school year, we had one more in football than we’ve had in soccer and we’ve had two more in football than we’ve had out of car accidents.”

Streiff said, “I’m hoping that through the things that we’re doing and educating parents, that if we teach kids the right way, they’ll understand there’s absolutely still a risk of injury. It’s a dangerous game from that standpoint, but the risk of injury is really no more than other sports.”

Streiff also stresses that football is actually safer than it used to be. “Eight years ago when all this stuff hit, if you went to the emergency room, there were three medical codes for a head injury. There were 56 for knee injuries. Now there are 33 for head injuries. So we know so much more about what’s going on, we know so much more about how to help it, fix it, prevent it. The reality is the game is as safe as it’s ever been right now,” he said.

Streiff articulated his hope for the future of football. “There’s a lot of people doing a lot to try to figure out how can we keep this game, which we all think is pretty good, and make it as safe as we can.”