Hillsdale’s youth football coaches gather their players after each game. Courtesy | Ted Jansen

NFL players suf­fered 281 con­cus­sions in 2017, more than any in each of the pre­vious five years, and parents in Hillsdale are taking note. 

Youth par­tic­i­pation in local football has severely declined, although this effect hasn’t reached the high school level yet. Hillsdale High School Ath­letic Director Dave Pratt said during the three years he has been at the high school, par­tic­i­pation has remained stagnant with around 60 to 70 team members each year. 

Across the nation, high school 11-player football is down 9.6% from its 2008 – 2009 season, according to the National Fed­er­ation of High School Association’s latest par­tic­i­pation survey, released in late August. 

Youth football is on the decline on the national level, and many coaches, parents, and players say the cause is the con­cussion-scare that developed earlier in the decade. 

The City of Hillsdale’s Recre­ation Director for 13 years, Michelle Loren, said the Hillsdale football program for stu­dents below the high school age is suf­fering from fewer numbers at a higher rate. 

Loren said prior to her taking over the position, the football program was more dan­gerous than today. She and Chad Culbert, the Board of Public Util­ities Exec­utive Elec­trical Super­in­tendent, came in at the same time and revamped the program from what it was before.

“It was pretty wild football at that time, almost out-of-hand,” she said.

Culbert aimed to get back to the fun­da­mentals of football and restruc­tured it to be safer for younger children. At the time, fathers vol­un­tarily coached the teams, and Loren said many encouraged illegal behavior such as being inten­tionally tough on the field. 

This behavior included ‘clothes-lining,’ or knocking someone down by grabbing their neck. To combat this behavior, Culbert paid closer attention to the coaching and mod­ified the prac­tices. 

“It wasn’t sup­posed to be NFL football out there with these little boys,” Loren said.

The program had remained unchanged for over 20 years prior to the major changes with the coaching tech­niques. Loren said it used to be con­sidered the best program to par­tic­ipate in, having 167 par­tic­i­pants one year from all over the area, including Pittsford, Jonesville, Cold­water, and Adrian. 

In 2012, the program had 70 boys, but decreased to 52 boys in 2013, which is the year that Jonesville pulled out of the program. Pittsford left  shortly after, con­tributing to dropping numbers. Loren also observed that more boys are playing bas­ketball, baseball, and soccer. Hillsdale’s club soccer is more popular than ever. 

Although Loren said  the program has gotten safer within the last 10 years, numbers don’t reflect this change. 

Hillsdale College Head Ath­letic Trainer Lynne Nuekom said people are often more scared of con­cus­sions in football than they should be. 

Con­cus­sions occur at a rate of 26.3% with youth football — the highest of any age group. That number has sig­nif­i­cantly increased from 10.4% only 10 years ago. The reason, Neukom said, isn’t that con­cus­sions are occurring more, but because trainers and coaches are better at rec­og­nizing and eval­u­ating them. 

Younger children involved in football, Nuekom said, are at a more dan­gerous risk. From ages 8 to 13, con­cus­sions expose children to the pos­si­bility of repet­itive trauma to the brain since their brains are going through the most changes in that time period.

Youth football overall leads to more injuries. Next to con­cus­sions, the most common injury is ankle sprains. Nuekom said the reason kids are at the greatest risk is because their growth plates are still open and there are dif­ferent types of frac­tures asso­ciated. And with growth, the bones develop faster than tendons do, so there is more stress on the bones. Typical ankle sprains often result in more serious frac­tures for that age group. 

Dif­ferent mea­sures are in place now with the orga­ni­zation Heads Up Football which teaches teaching tackle tech­niques. Coaches undergo coaching cer­ti­fi­cation, which now includes learning how to identify con­cus­sions. 

Regarding con­cussion training at the high school level, Pratt said they train coaches to be on the lookout for any potential issues. 

“As we learn more about con­cus­sions and the more we are pre­pared for them, it’s changed the level of awareness of our coaching staff as well as our trainers,” Pratt said. 

In 2017, there were over 1 million children who played youth football. The injury rate is 4.7% for every 1,000 expo­sures, which Nuekom said is low. 

Aside from injuries, one cause for the decline in football numbers Nuekom has noticed is early sports spe­cial­ization, espe­cially the increase of youth soccer.

“Every sport has injuries, but what people fail to remember is what sports offer: learning to win and lose, lead­ership, orga­ni­zation,” Nuekom said. “Injuries happen and we don’t want them to, but I think the good out­weighs the injury.”