Every fall, 180 kids aged 8 to 12 in the Rockbridge area suit up and head to Brewbaker Field to play tackle football.
The Rockbridge Area Recreation Organization (RARO) divides participants into three age groups for tackle football: one for 8-year-olds, one for 9- and 10-year-olds and one for 11- and 12-year-olds. The nonprofit organization, with four full-time staff members and about 40 half-time workers, has an operating budget of $350,000 and is supported with allocations from Lexington, Buena Vista and Rockbridge County.
The group for 8-year-olds is new -- an outgrowth of concern about the sport's impact on its smallest players. In early May, the organization's board of directors voted to separate 8-year-olds in the tackle program from the other two age groups.
"There have been several instances where we see those younger kids getting hurt by older kids, and we have to do something about their safety," said Joey Jones, a RARO board member from Raphine, during a meeting on May 4.
RARO also sponsors cheerleading, soccer, basketball, wrestling and baseball.
Previously, 8-year-olds played on teams with 9- and 10-year-olds. A separate group included 11-, 12- and 13-year-olds. Under the new age groups, 13-year-olds who want to play will have to try out for junior varsity at Rockbridge County or Parry McCluer High School, since none of the area middle schools have football teams.
The organization's concern for young players' safety is a sentiment felt across the country. As research points to dangers in tackle football at the youth level, programs like Pop Warner, as well as independent leagues like RARO, are facing scrutiny for their safety procedures, particularly those that deal with concussions.
Pop Warner, the nation's largest nonprofit youth football league, accounts for 10 percent of youth football teams across the country, according to USA Football, the national governing body for youth football in the U.S. Most leagues are run by local organizations, like RARO.
In March, Pop Warner settled a lawsuit brought by a family whose 25-year-old son committed suicide and was later diagnosed with CTE. Debra Pyka, the mother who filed the suit, cited her son's participation in Pop Warner football as a contributing factor in his death.
Joseph Chernach, Pyka's son, played football in the league from 1997 to 2000. On June 7, 2012, he hanged himself in his mother's shed.
Though the Rockbridge area hasn't had a tragedy of this kind, head injuries are a growing worry for local parents.
"Concussions are probably my biggest concern about football," said Linda Hooks, a Rockbridge County resident who said she doesn't let her 9- and 12-year-old sons play. "In fourth grade RARO will put those kids in full pads and will play tackle football with them, and that strikes me as way too early and of course a danger for concussions at a really young age."
Hooks, an economics professor at Washington and Lee University, said she has seen the effect concussions have on her students, many of whom play intercollegiate sports.
"I can see that it has a true impact on their brains' ability to function." Hooks said students exhibit "a slowdown in their ability to process information, a need to have information repeated, problems retaining some of the factual information," as well as headaches and an inability to focus or stay alert in class.
Hooks said her younger son, Will, has expressed interest in playing football with his friends.
"There is a lot of pressure to play football," she acknowledged. "Football is considered a big sport here."
Earlier this year, coaches from Rockbridge County High School asked Talmage, Hooks' 12-year-old son, to try out for the junior varsity team, which she said is common among larger seventh graders.
The quality of youth football coaches varies nationwide. Hanratty, who coached a youth team in New Canaan, Conn., after leaving the Steelers, worries that competition trumps safety for many amateur coaches.
"It's difficult to find [youth football coaches] who are committed to safety and couldn't care less about winning," he said.
Adults in the Rockbridge area who want to coach a RARO team must pass a background check, watch videos about the sport and attend coaches' meetings, according to John Trudgeon, executive director of RARO.
"We have coaches that have been with RARO football for 15 to 20 years," said Trudgeon. "We have a pretty experienced coaching staff."
Trudgeon said RARO coaches teach a form of tackling used by the Seattle Seahawks that promotes tackling similar to that found in rugby. Rather than leading with the head, players are taught to use their shoulders and chests.
"We're doing all we can to stay up on proper techniques," said Trudgeon.
USA Football promotes safer play through the "Heads Up Football" program. It includes a component specific to concussion education, as well as online lessons on heat preparedness and hydration, sudden cardiac arrest, proper equipment fitting, "Heads Up Tackling" and "Heads Up Blocking."
"Education changes things for the better," said Steve Alic, a spokesman for USA Football. "It's something that the medical community has said for some time."
Coaches can attain "Heads Up" certification via an online course. In Fairfax County, concussions in high school football decreased 28 percent after the school district required all 25 high schools to become certified in Heads Up Football, according to a September 2015 press release from Fairfax County Public Schools.
"Back when I played, the mentality was to shake it off, suck it up and get back on the field... With today's athletes, parents understand that you have to be more cautious."
—Robert Foresman, EMT
Despite updated coaching practices, concussions still occur. During the last season, 12 RARO football players were diagnosed with concussions, according to Robert Foresman, a trained EMT present at all games.
Foresman uses an iPad application to diagnose concussions after a player receives a particularly hard hit or complains of symptoms associated with concussions. The app prompts a series of questions and a few tests. The administrator can then take a photo of the athlete to be later shown to a doctor during a follow-up appointment, Foresman said.
"It's not 100 percent reliable, but it gives us an indication of a suspected concussion," he said. "I think this really helps us err on the side of caution."
Foresman said his eyes were opened to the issue after he watched "Concussion." A center in the mid-70s for what was then Lexington High School, he said the beginning scenes depicting former Steelers center Mike Webster were particularly harrowing.
"Back when I played, the mentality was to shake it off, suck it up and get back on the field," he said. "With today's athletes, parents understand that you have to be more cautious."
Published May 27, 2016