Youth football injuries can stay with children well after wins and losses

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As a football player, Ed Stansbury led El Paso’s Irvin High School to four district championships, was named MVP by the El Paso Times and the El Paso Herald-Post, won a bowl game with UCLA and then went on to play three years in the NFL for the Houston Texans and Seattle Seahawks.

But he said if he had the choice to do it all over again and relive his glory days on the field, he probably wouldn’t.

“I’ve been 10 years away from football, but it’s now that I’m feeling all the effects,” Stansbury said. “I read about the symptoms that I’m suffering from now—loss of memory, short-term memory, things aren’t coming to me as quick anymore and I blank out sometimes.”

Now, Stansbury is the director of operations for the Greater El Paso Football Showcase, where he gives speeches to El Paso football players and helps them along the way in their careers. He also provides expert analysis for high school football on KTSM Channel 9’s Overtime show.

Stansbury is the father of two young boys, West and Shaw. Stansbury’s children play a variety of sports, but football is not one.

 “I wish the research and science that’s coming out now about football came out back when I played,” Stansbury said.

youth football gear

Photo by Mike Flores, Borderzine.com

Given the latest evidence on youth football and the troubles it can cause later down the road, Stansbury will have a serious conversation with his children and his wife if football is ever the right choice to play.

 “Parents just need to know that they’re putting their child at risk when they’re playing contact sports,” said Anthony Salvatore, the former director of the Concussion Management Clinic at the University of Texas at El Paso. Salvatore, now at the University of Louisiana Lafayette, explained that the long-term consequences of contact sports may not be seen within a year or two of the injury.

 “But we know enough to know that a number of sub-concussive hits will have bad outcomes in the long run,” he said.

 He went on to say that parents can do a lot of things to protect their children before the age of 12, including having them stop playing the game.

 According to a new study done by the Boston University School of Medicine, children who play tackle football before the age of 12 increase the risk of many problems down the line, such as behavior problems, apathy, depression, memory loss, worse mental flexibility and structural brain changes. Other problems that follow youth football players later in life are poor problem solving, planning and organization.

 In the history of football, there’s always been much emphasis on winning at any cost, from Pop Warner leagues all the way to professional leagues. Also, much of the advertisement for football over its history revolves around the big hit highlights and tackling another player so hard that they struggle to get up afterward.

Now, there’s a lot more for parents to look out for when searching for teams and programs they want to put their children in. Not just which team is the best.

“Parents need to be very in-tune to the practices, to the coaches and to the equipment that the kids are wearing,” Stansbury said. “A lot of the searching process for the right team goes down to the coach, and their background and their experience. You want to have a coach that knows the proper way of teaching the right fundamentals—tackling, blocking and how to protect yourself on the field.”

Although no helmet is concussion-proof, in 2011, a 10-year research project was completed on the safety of helmets done by Virginia Tech researchers.

The worst-rated helmets received a 1-star rating, while the best-rated helmets earned a 5-star. The ratings of the helmets tested in the research revealed that cost is not related to performance. The higher-rated helmets don’t necessarily mean they’re always more expensive than lower-rated helmets. Some of the best-rated helmets are cheaper.

 However, Salvatore doesn’t believe the improvement of helmets will eliminate dangers of football, especially in youth tackle leagues.

 “Head injuries aren’t necessarily just hits to the head, but any hit to the body that’s strong enough to put the brain in motion. That’s what’s causing the issues—anything that physically disrupts the brain,” Salvatore said. “There’s no magical piece of equipment that’s going to reduce the risk of head injuries.”

When a football game comes to an end and there were no apparent injuries throughout play, it doesn’t mean the children’s health is not to be questioned anymore. There are many signs and symptoms to keep an eye out for.

“Parents need to be looking at whether their child has any small changes in personality, if sleeping patterns are disrupted, if their kid’s appetite has been disrupted, or if their child seems more fatigued and is taking longer naps,” Salvatore said.

 Laura Parga, a parent of a youth football player, Jake, was not aware at first that football could cause so much harm well after the hits are over.

“My whole family has played football since they were really young, and I never thought that it could cause so much damage. I thought the equipment, like helmets and pads I would buy Jake, were keeping him safe,” Parga said. “Sometimes after games, Jake would complain about hurting. But growing up, my parents would tell my brothers to just tough it out and that pain is just part of the game. I wish they knew what was coming out now.”

Football is one of the most popular sports in the country and many kids grow up looking up to NFL players, with dreams of getting there or being like them. But there are other options for playing the beloved game.

A substitute for tackle football that many parents have already started moving to is flag football. Flag football allows kids to learn the skills of game, improve their health and still be able to play football, but in a safer environment.

“Football is a fun sport, but let’s take the contact away,” Stansbury said. “Myself, including my brothers, we all played Division 1 football But, football was the last sport we played. We started off with soccer to improve our footwork, baseball for hand-eye coordination and basketball for quickness. That’s the route I would take. That’s the safest way to go.”

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