Nick Kurtz doesn’t remember the first time he was concussed.
But after a second one, his heart broke as he came to the somber realization that he had to quit.
“It was time,” he said. “I had to man up and accept it.”
Kurtz was a quarterback for Belen High School who played in 2011 and 2012. He is one of thousands of teenagers in this country who have abandoned football, likely because of concussions.
“I was just afraid of long-term injuries, like would there be any chance of brain damage?” said the 19-year-old Kurtz, who is attending a firefighter academy in Pueblo, Colo.
Kurtz’s case is not unusual. Not in New Mexico. Not in the U.S.
And cases like his lead back to a familiar question:
Are concussions, or at least the risk of concussions, having an adverse impact on the number of kids playing youth football in the United States?
It’s a question that gets bandied about like one of those rogue beach balls at a stadium. It has spawned a hundred theories, most of them leading to the same conclusion.
The Journal looked at participation levels in the local Young America Football League organization, Albuquerque Public Schools and also on a statewide basis.
There are fewer football players in the state than there were five years ago, nearly across the board. But explaining why, and if health concerns are a reason, isn’t so easy.
By the numbers
The information collected by the Journal somewhat clouds, rather than crystallizes, the relationship between concussions and the reduction in participations at youth levels.
The New Mexico Activities Association, which governs high school athletics in the state, supplied football participation numbers in the state from 2009-2013. They haven’t gone down every year.
The number of football players at New Mexico high schools for the 2013 season was 7,323 – a 7.7 percent dropoff from 2009, when the NMAA reported 7,888 athletes involved in football.
However, the 7,323 was a 6.7 percent increase from 2012, when the NMAA reports only 6,862 football players competed.
NMAA associate director Dusty Young said the organization couldn’t pinpoint the reason for the up-and-down nature of their data.
The Journal also obtained the participation numbers from Albuquerque Public Schools for that same five-year period, 2009-13, and APS’ information does not reflect the same reduction as that seen in the state-wide numbers supplied by the NMAA.
APS’ reporting indicates that while there were 1,395 football players in the city’s high school ranks, grades 9-12, during 2009, that number swelled to 1,510 last fall. That’s an increase of 8.2 percent over the last five seasons.
It is important to note that APS opened a new high school, Atrisco Heritage, in 2010, which could account for the increase. Atrisco is one of the state’s largest schools in enrollment.
As with the NMAA data, there is some ebb and flow within each individual season. Participation levels shot up from 2009 to 2010 (1,527), then fell by nearly 80 players, then rose again by nearly 90 athletes.
The variance from 2012 to 2013 was minimal. APS reports that it had 1,532 football players in the system during 2012, meaning the dropoff from 2012 to 2013 was 1.4 percent.
At Rio Rancho High, one of the biggest schools in New Mexico, the football program generally has had more players than almost anywhere else in the state.
Since David Howes became coach in 2009, those numbers have increased each year, he said. But there are 20 fewer players (180 last year to 160 this summer) in the pipeline over the last 12 months.
“I don’t have any data as to why,” Howes said. “I don’t know if other sports are gaining interest; I don’t know if football has less interest.”
YAFL, the most popular form of youth football in the metro area, has also seen its ranks go down.
According to Larry Yuma, YAFL’s football operations manager for the metro area, the organization signed up about 4,500 players as recently as eight years ago.
For this fall, Yuma said, there are roughly 2,900 players in YAFL uniforms.
Yuma is convinced concussions are largely responsible.
“You hear a lot about concussions in football,” he said, “and that trickles down to parents worrying about their kids (at a young age).”
The YAFL programs feeding Rio Rancho’s two high schools have not been as severely affected, it would appear. There are, Yuma said, 292 football players between Rio Rancho and Cleveland, and a total of just over 1,200 over the last four years.
There are a litany of national reports and surveys that have addressed this issue, as well.
ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” reported last winter that the largest youth football organization in the country, Pop Warner, saw a dramatic drop of 9.5 percent between 2010 and 2012, and suggested that it was directly related to the issue of concussions. The decline of over 23,000 players was the largest two-year drop since Pop Warner started tracking those numbers nearly 20 years ago, according to the ESPN report.
Pop Warner officials told ESPN they believe there were several factors contributing, including young athletes focusing on just one sport. The organization’s chief medical officer said head injury concerns was the top cause for the decline.
An Ohio State study published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine was quite revealing – the rate of concussions in high school athletes more than doubled between 2005 and 2012. Although, that study concluded that this reflected an increased awareness and more legislation governing concussions, and not necessarily a higher risk within the sports themselves.
The National Federation of State High School Associations said that football participation at U.S. high schools dipped by 2.3 percent from the 2008 season to the 2012 season. But that same survey doesn’t only cite a drop in football; participation in basketball fell by 1.8 percent during the same span.
The Sports & Fitness Industry Association commissioned a survey recently showing that combined participation in the country’s most popular team sports – basketball, soccer, baseball and football – dropped among both genders, ages 6-17, by roughly 4 percent from 2008 to 2012.
The Institute of Medicine last year released a study that found concussions rates among high school athletes are higher than college athletes.
The Orthopeadic Journal of Sports Medicine did an 11-year study, from January 2002-December 2012, reviewing concussions sustained by football players ages 5-13. The results were eye-opening: the number of concussions increased with age, and by year.
Meanwhile, another organization, Indianapolis-based USA Football, which receives some funding from the NFL, reported that among players in the 6-14 age group, there was a 6.7 percent decline in football participation – from 3 million to 2.8 million – in 2011.
Eric Jack, a former New Mexico Lobo and NFL cornerback with the Atlanta Falcons, believes concussions were absolutely the reason for players opting out.
“I think it’s the nature of the game,” said Jack, currently the defensive coordinator at Cibola High. “The guys are bigger, they’re stronger, and they’re a lot faster.”
Mark Diaz, a Heads-Up master trainer with USA Football who puts on clinics for youth coaches around the country, said coaches must begin to reach kids at a young age and teach them how to tackle properly. It will, he said, help to reduce – although certainly not eliminate – the number of concussions being suffered by the next generation of players in pads.
“We can’t have another generation like that,” he said, a direct reference to former NFL players like Junior Seau and Dave Duerson, both of whom suffered extreme wear and tear from their years in pro football. Both committed suicide by shooting themselves in the chest, thereby preserving their brains for research purposes.
“Concussions are a part of sports,” Diaz said. “Your brain moves inside the liquid in your head, and you are not going to stop that from happening.”
If the kids in the aforementioned age group are given the proper techniques, Diaz said, it could lessen the long-term effects for people afflicted with concussions.
“I think proper technique and form and tackling should be more emphasized,” added Jack. “Kids are being driven away from football by their parents because they’re afraid of that.”
Most of the coaches the Journal interviewed on this subject say they already are strong proponents of teaching players to keep their heads up during a tackle, and discourage the use of the helmet when they initiate contact.
“I’m a technician guy,” Jack said. “But there are still a great number of (coaches) that have not realized how important it is to teach proper technique.”
Cause and effect
Beyond the studies that show youth participation levels are down, there is very little scientifically that makes a direct correlation, although anecdotally it appears that concussions, or the fear of them, have spawned an exodus from football.
“From our standpoint, we look at it as more of a fear of concussions,” said Michael Haynes, the manager of USAFootball’s Heads-Up program and himself a first-round draft pick of the Chicago Bears, selected No. 14 overall in the 2003 NFL Draft after a career at Penn State. “I personally think there are a lot of issues that parents have a valid concern about, not just concussions.”
Many believe the ways in which coaching staffs are now educated in concussions has been important in identifying symptoms in the early stages and helping to prevent major injury to an athlete.
“I don’t think there are any more concussions now than there were 25 years ago,” longtime Clovis High School football coach Eric Roanhaus said. “We’re just doing a better job of reporting them.”
USA Football’s Diaz, who played collegiately at Stephen F. Austin and is a longtime high school coach, said that may be true, but it shouldn’t be a hindrance.
“We probably do have the same amount,” he said. “But here’s what I would add: What does that matter? That doesn’t make everything OK.”
Earlier this summer, the NMAA added a bylaw that limits the amount of full contact during practices for the preseason and the regular season.
“I think it’s a good thing for the safety of the kids,” longtime Sandia coach Kevin Barker said. “(But) I don’t think it’s much of a change.”
The guidelines mirror what Texas already had in place. During the season, full contact is permissible for no more than 90 minutes per player, per week.
“We don’t go full-out; we never have,” said Las Cruces High coach Jim Miller, coach of last year’s Class 5A state champion Bulldawgs. “Tackling-wise, we’ll blow the whistle as soon as you get popped. It’s not a real big issue for us.”
The NMAA’s bylaw comes four years after then-Governor Bill Richardson signed a youth sports concussion safety law.
One of the key pieces of terminology in that law was that they be referred to as brain injuries, rather than concussions.
Educational efforts have certainly helped increase the number of reported cases.
As for the actual injury itself, theories vary as to why there has been a spike. This includes more artificial playing surfaces, equipment not being fitted properly, dangerous tackling methods, the size and speed of today’s athlete, and even the nature of the sport itself.
Eldorado football coach Charlie Dotson offered this posit: the evolution of the sport, i.e. the growing popularity of the spread offense, creates a dramatic increase in open space between offensive players and defenders, thus leading to more jarring hits.
“There’s a lot more open-field tackling where there can be more collisions,” said Dotson. “There are more KO-type situations.”
Dotson says the larger, more physical frame of today’s athlete only minimally impacts the volume of concussions.
“Back in the day, it was more of a run emphasis, and you got more collisions,” he said. “Now it’s more of a passing game, with the pistol and spread and things of that nature. (The style of offense) is not the issue at all.”
Belen coach John Lerma worries that today’s helmet designs are not up to snuff, that they are not providing players enough protection, that the padding inside the helmet does not properly disperse a blow to the head.
“I’ve had more concussions while I’ve been here in New Mexico than I’ve ever had anywhere else,” said Lerma, who is a member of the Texas High School Coaches Association Hall of Honor.
Diaz said he had been fitting helmets and shoulder pads improperly for years before he joined USA Football and was shocked at how wrong he had been doing it.
A high school player in APS who is diagnosed with a concussion cannot return to their sport until he or she – on average, more girls soccer players suffer concussions then even football players – is symptom free for seven days.
Sandia High trainer Melissa Loiacono, and all athletic trainers within APS, have a series of questions and tests that must be administered to an athlete who has suffered a blow to the head.
This includes a numerical rating system to gauge symptoms like headaches, nausea and vomiting. It also includes a balance scoring system, and also a test of memory, both of words and numbers.
An athlete can return to competition seven days after they are symptom free, but, Loiacono said, that seven-day clock can reset to zero if any of those symptoms resurface. And often, athletes with head trauma follow a “gradual return to participation” guideline sheet, with trainers monitoring. It begins with low levels of physical activity, like walking and light jogging, and eventually reaches full contact in game situations.
Despite the legislative initiatives by the state and the NMAA, the concussion stigma remains a volatile talking point.
One of Diaz’s most depressing stories revolves around one of his heroes, former Dallas Cowboys running back Tony Dorsett, who would get lost driving his daughter to school if she weren’t giving him directions.
Diaz dreams of a day when “guys like me won’t have to read about their heroes not being able to take their kids to school.”
Of course, not every football player is following the rules as they pertain to hitting other human beings in the head. Still, in a game played at a high speed, it is sometimes impossible to avoid helmet-to-helmet contact. It is estimated that there are approximately 300,000 sports-related concussions occur annually.
Diego Garcia of Las Cruces was proactive, although like former Belen quarterback Kurtz, he took his share of blows to the head. Garcia was to be a senior with the Bulldawgs this season. But he’s not playing anymore, either.
When he told his coach, Miller, that he decided to quit, he mentioned that he was already having headache issues, which are probably the first and arguably most lingering side effect that result from head trauma/concussions.
Kurtz said headaches and memory loss were both side effects of his concussions.
Once, he was hit in the back of the helmet by a defender’s helmet – which knocked him unconscious. On the second one, his head fell violently to the artificial turf.
“I just didn’t want to risk hurting my head in the long run, so I decided it was better for me to stop,” Kurtz said. “It was probably the hardest decision of my life. Football was my passion. But in the end, it was the right thing for me.”
He is far from alone.