Sometimes on a busy deadline day writing a column such as this is a pain in the neck. Literally. It was today so I had to stop, stretch and do some physical therapy for an old football injury.
This time of year the circumstances behind the bulging disc in my neck come to mind as I step onto fresh cut fields, hear coaches’ whistles and the thud of shoulder pads. In 1992 when I was a freshman in high school, I was at a normal practice. I got hit awkwardly on a trap play and was flipped over on my head. When I landed it made a loud cracking sound.
The player who hit me said he was afraid that I had broken my neck. I took his word for it because I remembered none of it. The hit or either the collision with the turf, knocked me unconscious. I was not targeted by a dirty hit. It was just a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
I came to and went over to the sidelines and had to sit out the rest of that practice. As a 14-year-old kid I wanted to go back in and play but wiser heads prevailed.
Times being what they were though, I didn’t even go to the doctor to get checked out. Years later during a physical exam X-rays showed bulging discs in my neck up in the high vertebrae.
If I had been X-rayed after the practice, my playing days would have been over.
I was lucky. Had I been hit the wrong way in a game that season, or in seasons after that, I could have been paralyzed.
Not every player who gets knocked out will have a neck injury, thankfully. Fortunately now-a-days youth are checked out more often medically following injuries, though. Gov. Haley signed legislation this spring about concussions. All South Carolina high school league coaches received mandated training about how to spot concussions and evaluate their players. Richard Winn coaches have been trained as well.
That emphasis on player safety has moved up the ladder to college and the pros. New rules in college football make it illegal for a player to lead with the crown of his helmet and “target” a defenseless player up around his head or shoulders, such as a receiver who just caught a pass.
Sure, the rules on bang-bang plays are judgment calls. Fans appreciate the hard hits and players accept the risks. Still, what can be done is being done for promoting player safety.
Football is an inherently violent sport and injuries are a part of the game. Players accept the risk. But the youthful bravado that allows a young man to get knocked out and then the following day ignore the warning label on the football helmet that says wearing it could result in serious injury or even death now is tempered more by a well informed public.
Part of that comes from added attention traumatic brain injury has received for servicemen and servicewomen in Iraq and Afghanistan. Part comes from more that is learned by studying the brain functioning of retired NFL players who are living to older ages than their predecessors.
Now that scientists are learning more about traumatic brain injury, safer helmets are being developed. Another plus is that volleyball and basketball players are evaluated for concussions if they suffer hard head-to-court collisions. In fact, there is literature posted on the gym wall at Richard Winn to tell people about the risks of concussions to all athletes, not just football players.
So, here’s some advice to the young athletes of Fairfield County. If you are a player of any sport, please take the precautions seriously. Give coaches an honest assessment of how you feel and think after a collision that affects your head and brain.
Toughness is something to value. We value it in our firefighters, doctors, police officers, soldiers and more. Some of that character is forged during athletic activities and that is a good thing in and of itself. The injuries are regrettable but they come with the territory.
Go Griffins. Go Eagles. Use your heads though and be smart this year while being tough players.
Kevin Boozer is a staff writer for The Herald Independent. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.