Tackling concussions on and off the football field

We continue the concussion conversation by looking into safety measures put in place to combat the issue.

Combating concussions on and off the field None

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (KTHV) - Three years ago, we launched an investigation into the growing concerns of concussions by taking an in-depth look into helmet safety in the state. On Tuesday, we continued that conversation by looking into safety measures put in place to combat the concussion issue.

Football is America's favorite sport. From the tackling to the catching, most of the nation is enthralled by the game's flashy play and hard hitting players.

But, athletes put their body on the line on nearly every play and when they do, injuries are sure to follow.

"My greatest fear is that he's going to be paralyzed," said Yvette Freeman, a worried mother whose two sons have played youth football since the age of three.

Over the years, she's seen it all, saying that some of the hit she saw were too hard. She recalled a frightening moment in a game where two players on one of her son's team suffered concussions.

"You have some that's going to follow the rules and some that won't," Freeman said.

Yet, as team mother and president of the Little Rock Bills youth football team, she said she finds comfort in letting her own kids play because of the coaching staff.

"We teach our kids what it means to protect yourself and don't use your head first," she said of their coaching philosophy.

At North Little Rock High School, head coach Jamie Mitchell is hoping to take the head out of the game altogether. A new NFL-back program, Heads Up Football, is designed to promote shoulder tackling and aiming below the waist.

"It's a roll technique that's taught completely different than the old school type of tackling," Mitchell said. "Much safer and absolutely no head use in this tackling program."

Though Coach Mitchell doesn't expect concussions to go away entirely, data shows the programs reduces concussions. According to USAFootball.com, an independent study showed the program reduced injuries by 76 percent and concussions by about 30 percent. Mitchell said during the 2016 the North Little Rock Wildcats went concussion free which he said is almost unheard of in high school football.

Beyond the program, Mitchell credits continued education, baseline testing, and helmet sensors that alert trainers when a hit is too hard.

"Ongoing studies are still taking place and people are still learning and developing new technology," he said.

But, Dr. Darrell Nesmith, director of the Sports Concussion Clinic at Arkansas Children's Hospital, said there's always more work to be done. He said that the number of concussion injuries during the football season is at its peak.

"We probably see 15 or so concussed athletes from football each week," Nesmith said.

And it's the recovery process that he said is most vital.

"We do want to monitor that progress until the athlete is completely back to normal because we don't want them to receive a second injury before the recent concussion was healed," he said.

Nesmith's advice to parents is to check into the league and the coaches and see if they have a concussion protocol and how educated they are on concussions. However, Nesmith does believe football has gotten safer throughout the years and said the biggest milestone is that everyone is more aware of what to watch for.

Through more studies and education, coaches like Mitchell hope that the love of the sport will prevail through concussions as they work to teach the next generation of players proper ways to stay safe.

A group of local researchers started a concussion study in 2016, collecting data from three high school football teams. They recently received additional funding to expand their research for another year. We'll make sure to update you once their findings are complete.

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