Weighing the Risk

Across age groups, the conversation surrounding the gravity of concussions is changing.

"Coaches used to laugh at us and say 'oh you got your bell rung,' and you've got a headache and your world is spinning, and they're laughing at you," said Craft, the head coach at Parry McCluer.

"The kids and parents are so well-educated now," Craft said.

Coaches used to laugh at us and say, "oh you got your bell rung," and you've got a headache and your world is spinning, and they're laughing at you.

—Mike Craft, Parry McCluer Head Football Coach

With this new education comes calls for the sport to respond to research warning of the lasting impacts of concussions.

Craft said he doesn't see any need to have kids start playing tackle football before middle school, when most kids are at least 12 years old.

"In the last 8 to 10 years, we've been getting a lot more kids who enter the seventh grade and have never played football before," said Craft. "I'd rather start them right than have them learn a lot of bad stuff and have to change it."

RCHS's Rapoza, who said he started in a total of 33 games in high school and 39 games in college, attributes his late start in football as one reason he never had any diagnosed concussions.

Rapoza started playing in seventh grade, though his middle school team was so small that they rarely had the players and resources necessary to play. In high school, he suffered a knee injury and missed most of the junior varsity season, so Rapoza's football career was mostly limited to tenth to twelfth grade and college.

Paul Bright died in a reckless driving motorcycle accident in Los Angeles when he was 24. He was later diagnosed with CTE, which his mother attributes to his participation in football from the age of 7 to 17.

"I honestly wish that RARO was flag football," said Rapoza, who said he won't let his six-year-old son play tackle football with RARO. "For 8-year-olds to have a helmet on, their necks just aren't strong enough to support that...their brains are not developed...nothing is fully developed."

Kimberly Archie, who lives in Los Angeles and has served as a legal consultant or expert witness in more than 60 sports-injury lawsuits, including the case against the NFL, said she thinks tackle football should wait until a child is at least 14 years old.

Archie's son, Paul Bright, died in a reckless driving motorcycle accident in Los Angeles when he was 24 and was later found to have had CTE. She attributes the disease to Bright's participation in tackle football from the time he was 7 years old to when he was 17.

"You can't make tackle football reasonably safe for young kids," said Archie. "Kids are not developed enough as young children to play collision sports."

But for some parents, the risks of football are outweighed by its ability to build character.

Crystal Camden said RARO football keeps her 10-year-old son Parker active and away from video games.

"I think it's good for him," said Camden, whose husband, Mike, coaches Parker's team. She said the fact that her husband is Parker's coach eases some of her worries.

Robert Straughan and his son, Matthew, pose for a photo after Matthew's final game playing for Bridgewater College. Used with permission of Robert Straughan.

For others, the game is a family tradition.

"I grew up playing baseball and football," said Robert Straughan, dean of the Williams School of Commerce, Economics and Politics at Washington and Lee and a parent of two sons who played lacrosse and football at RCHS. "As a dad you're happy when they show interest in something you're interested in."

Straughan's oldest son, Matthew, was diagnosed with a concussion twice - once during a football practice and once during a lacrosse game - although Straughan thinks there was at least one other that was never diagnosed.

Both of Straughan's sons played RARO football. Straughan's younger son, Kevin, played from fourth to seventh grade, and Matthew played only one season in fifth grade. Matthew later went on to play football at Bridgewater College, where he graduated in May.

"There's a part of me that misses it a little bit, but there's a part of me that thinks, 'Whew, we got through it with no major knee injuries, no lingering concussion issues that I'm aware of,'" said Straughan.

The concussion conversation in the Rockbridge area is one taking place in football communities across the country. As American parents and coaches await research that clarifies the long-term consequences of youth football, will the sport see even more change?

Published May 27, 2016