A Jarring Truth

Used with permission of The News-Gazette. Photo by Stephanie Mikels Blevins.

In many cases, RARO serves as a feeder program for the two high schools, where players are bigger and hits are harder.

Rockbridge County High School's opening game against Parry McCluer packs the stands with fans from both communities, many of whom played for one of the teams back when they were in high school. In the past two years, more than 3,000 people have turned out for the game.

"We're the biggest thing on Friday night," said Mike Craft, head football coach at Parry McCluer.

Although the Buena Vista school has an enrollment of just 401 students - less than half that of RCHS - the football team has won a total of five state championships and has been in the playoffs for the last five years. RCHS finished last season with just one win.

"It's not an easy job to be the head coach in Buena Vista," said Craft. "The expectations are high."

Craft said his team's program has changed in the past several years in response to safety questions across the country.

Parry McCluer beat RCHS 12-7 early in last year's season. More than 3,000 fans typically attend the rivalry game. With permission from The News-Gazette. Photo by Stephanie Mikels Blevins.

"We're concerned," he said. "Things are changing in football."

Craft, who played at Lexington High School, which closed in 1992 when the consolidated high school opened, knows the risk of injury from football all too well. Almost four years ago, when his oldest son, Zach, was in eighth grade, he was flown by helicopter to Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital after a particularly hard hit during a junior varsity game in which he broke several vertebrae and suffered a concussion that caused him to briefly lose consciousness.

"We all love football in our family, but there's a limit to how much you're willing to sacrifice for football," said Craft.

Zach was out for the rest of the season after that injury. Last year, he got a less serious concussion when playing varsity at Parry McCluer and was not allowed to return to play for two weeks.

At the beginning of each season, Craft said coaches show parents a video on how to prevent and recognize concussions. Afterward, parents sign off to acknowledge they understand the risk of concussions.

Craft said he and the team's assistant coaches are pushing for a full-time trainer. Right now, the team has a trainer present at games but not at practices.

"Even though we're trained in first aid, etc., we are not doctors," said Craft. "We don't test for concussion. We just don't feel qualified."

When a player has a suspected concussion, coaches contact parents and take the player out of practice and games until he presents a note from a doctor authorizing him to play again.

Craft said he wishes the team did baseline testing so they could more accurately compare a player's functioning after a hit.

"That's something we did one year, and it's kind of fallen through the cracks," he said. "We don't have the personnel to do it."

According to Craft, the Parry McCluer team has altered practice to limit full-contact tackling. During the regular season, players are in pads for no longer than two hours a week, and he said most drills are either non-contact or involve tackle dummies.

Still, Craft said, it's important for players to know what it's like to get hit. That's why he has his players run a drill called "bull in the ring" before every game. In the drill, the team circles up and one player steps into the middle of the "ring." That player then points to another player on the perimeter. Both players step into the circle and perform a "form tackle," meaning neither player is taken completely to the ground. At the end, the player from the perimeter becomes the person in the middle, and the drill repeats.

At RCHS, the football team has abandoned drills like "bull in the ring" and adopted Seattle Seahawks Coach Pete Carroll's "hawk tackling" - the same style used by RARO.

It's a change the team is still getting used to, said Mat Rapoza, defensive coordinator at RCHS, who played football at his high school in eastern North Carolina and later in college, first at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania and then at Washington and Lee when Swarthmore eliminated its football program in 2000.

"It takes the head out of the tackle," said Rapoza of hawk tackling. "We never want them looking at the ground" when making a tackle.

But the school won just one game last season, and Rapoza said players have to compensate in strength, size and speed for the less aggressive tackle technique. Until then, he said he feels pressure from parents and the rest of the community to get more W's on the record in the upcoming season.

"The Shenandoah Valley is huge for football," said Rapoza. "This is a great place to be when you're winning, and it's a hard place to be when you're losing."

In addition to what he said is a safer tackling form, Rapoza said the team limits full defensive tackle to 10 to 15 minutes during a two-hour practice, and even then most of that time is not spent making full-contact hits.

Although the team's performance on the field was mediocre, it has succeeded in limiting concussions, Rapoza said.

The most serious concussion Rapoza can recall occurred while coaching a 2014 game against Amherst County High School, when John Colliton, then a junior at RCHS, took a hit that caused his helmet to come off and ultimately kept him from playing in games for six weeks.

Immediately following his injury, Colliton had to stay in a dark room because he was sensitive to light, said his mother, Patti Colliton, a former athletic trainer and current fitness coordinator at Washington and Lee.

"It was a slow recovery," said Patti Colliton. "After about a week he tried to watch Star Trek, and it gave him a headache."

John Colliton, who just finished his first year at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, also missed a week of school. Even after he was allowed to go back, Patti Colliton said, he left for school only after he woke up on his own and he wasn't expected to turn in any work.

Rapoza can recall few other serious concussions, and he said the coaching staff is particularly sensitive when players complain of headache or other symptoms common with a concussion.

Courtney Simpkins, RCHS's full-time athletic trainer, said sometimes players will attempt to hide their concussions from her and the coaches so they won't be pulled out of practice or a game.

"It gradually gets to the point where they're like, 'something's wrong. I'm not OK anymore,'" said Simpkins, who occasionally serves as a trainer for Parry McCluer as well.

"As much as that kid might want to get back in...you need to keep him off the field," said Rapoza. "The fans can hate you, the parents can hate you, the kids can hate you, but you've got to do it...you can't take chances."

It's a tough call in high school football, but perhaps an even tougher one in college ball, where players at Division I schools like the Virginia Military Institute are often on athletic scholarships.

Scott Wachenheim, head football coach at VMI, said the program looks at the number of concussions high school recruits have already had when deciding whether to award someone a scholarship.

"If they've had three concussions in high school, it's not a good idea to recruit them," said Wachenheim. "Because the likelihood of him having another is high, and the likelihood of him not being able to play is high."

Football training room at VMI.

When it comes to diagnosing concussions for VMI players, Wachenheim said the school's trainers, who are under the athletic director, make the calls on whether a player can play.

"My motto is 'trainer is always right,'" said Wachenheim. "If you can play him, generally I'll put him back in the game, and I'll look at him and if he's not playing at 100 percent...we'll pull him out regardless of what the trainer says."

At Washington and Lee, which is Division III and therefore does not offer athletic scholarships, full contact in practice is almost non-existent, said Washington and Lee Head Football Coach Scott Abell.

"When we start [training] camp, there might be one day where we have a live scrimmage, but at our practices, no one is being tackled. No one is really being taken to the ground," said Abell. "Probably 80 to 90 percent of practices we're not even in full pads. And it's because of this research. And it's for the better."

In its 2015 season, the Washington and Lee football team won the ODAC and went 10-0, which is the first time a team has gone undefeated in the history of the school's program.

Abell, whose son started playing football when he was 7 and now plays wide receiver for the University of Richmond, said that he welcomes the latest concussion research because it will make the sport safer.

"[The research] is making me a better coach," he said. "As a dad of a football player, it's making me better prepared for if I were to see him take a shot in the game."

Southern Virginia University in Buena Vista also has a Division III football team. Head Coach Joe DuPaix was on a recruiting trip and could not be reached for comment.

Published May 27, 2016