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Michael Phelan
Michael Phelan
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Local Football Coaches Strive to Reduce Richmond Traumatic Brain Injuries

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A number of recent, local football-related tragedies have resulted in former football players, Richmond doctors, Richmond coaches, and others  pushing for football safety measures, including rule changes, better equipment, and a different approach to practice.  As  many people know, there have been a rssh of suicides among former NFL players who were suffering from depression, memory loss, personality changes, dementia, and headaches, among other symptoms of traumatic brain injury, as a result of chronic traumatic enchephlopathy, or CTE, which is a degenerative brain disease caused by multiple concussions.  One such player was Ray Esterling, who played his high school football at Collegiate School in Richmond and went on to play for the Atlanta Falcons.  Mr. Easterling committed suicide in April 2012.  An autopsy of his brain revealed that he had CTE.  In October 2013, a local high school football player for New Kent High School collapsed and died at practiee after having just come back from a concusion.

The December 14, 2013 edition of the Richmond Times-Dispatch has an excellent article authored by Eric Kolenich regarding local efforts to curb football concussions.  Mr. Kolenich interviewed local high school football coaches and investigated a couple of advances in equipment design.  Two such advances include a padded protective helmet covering called the Guardian Cap, which is made of a gell-foam hybrid and is affixed on to the helmet.  Trinity Episcopal High School currently uses Guardian Caps during practice, but not during games.  The Trinity coach said that the number of concussions his team suffered during practice dropped dramatically.  This past season, one Trinity player suffered a concussion during practice.  The national average for a high school team with 60 to 80 footbll players is 8 to 10 concussions per season.  Unfortunately, only about 22,000 Guardian Caps are useed in all of the United States and Canada.

Another product cited in Mr. Kolenich’s article is the Xenith football helmet.  Unlike traditional football helmets that have an outside shell with foam cushions or airbags affixed to the inside, the Xenith has a bonnet inside.  On the bonnet are shock absorbers, and the outside shell is a completely separate piece.  Reportedy, when a player wearing a Xenith helmet gets hit at an angle, the helmet moves with the collision, but his  head and brain do not.  Baltimore Ravens’ running back Ray Rice and tight end Dallas Clark wear Xenith helmets.  Locally, Mills Godwin High School and Deep Run High School in Henrico County and Thomas Jefferson High School in Richmond wear Xenith helmets.  Another piece of equipment merits discussion is the mouth guard.  I’ve read about a specialty mouth guard designed by a dentist who was the dentist for the New England Patriots. This mouth guard is designed to absorb more shock, and thus provide more protetion to the brain.  Mouthguards should be mandated at all levels of football.  This needs to start with the NFL.  Every week, I see NFL players not wearing mouth guards.  The NFL should change the rules so that a player is penalized for not wearing a mouth guard.

In addition to utilizing the new safety equipment, local coaches are changing the way they teach players to tackle.  The Trinity coach said that he might spend 45 minutes per summer practice teaching the five steps to proper tackling: “see what you’re tackling, step in, wrap up, follow through, and see what you hit.”  The idea is to “[n]ever lead with your head.  Keep your face up.”  The NFL has instituted rule changes prohibiting a defensive player from striking another player with his helmet.  The rule needs to be expanded to prohibit offensive players, particularly running backs, from initiating contact with their helmets.  Many  running backs lowere their heads at the point of impact and use their helmet as a battering ram.  This is the way most of us were taught to play.  Indeed, on my high school and college team, it was a badge of honor to have one’s helmet chipped and scraped up from multiple helmet-to-helmet hits.  Through reading brain injury literature and speaking with brain injury experts in the context of representing  people who have suffered traumatic brain injury, I now understand how dangerous our former techniques were.