As both a father and the head football coach at Oconee County High School, Travis Noland understands the risk of concussion that comes with the game that has shaped him and his sons. Noland’s son Zeb, the graduate assistant turned starting quarterback at the University of South Carolina, was in concussion protocol a few weeks ago.
“With [concussions] there’s nothing you can see, nothing you can measure,” said Noland. “The thing that I learned a long time ago that’s helped me as a coach and a parent is that you have to be patient.”
As concussions have dominated headlines in recent years, participation in high school football nationwide continues to decline, likely as a result of increasing concussion awareness and widespread concern over the lasting effects of concussions. The rates of concussions in high school football games have also risen in recent years, according to a 2019 study by the American Academy of Pediatrics. Autopsies of former football players at all levels of the sport have revealed that repeated concussions can inhibit the brain.
Trends like this have prompted the GHSA and high school football programs like Oconee County to adopt rule changes and specific safety measures to reduce the risk of concussion during practices and games. While Oconee County finished 10-2 this season and advanced to the second round of state playoffs, as a result of these concussion safety measures, only one player suffered a concussion all season.
“We practice smart,” said Eric Prince, the athletic trainer at Oconee County. “We don’t do full contact practices, we’re not scrimmaging… We don’t tackle kids to the ground ever.”
As a state rule, contact at practice is limited and the team can’t have more than two consecutive days of contact. The defense does walkthroughs on trash cans rather than lining up against teammates. Instead of live-tackling, Oconee County utilizes tackle sleds so that players can practice proper tackling technique while still hitting the sled at full speed. Additionally, every player at every position wears a Guardian Cap during practice.
I believe in [Guardian Caps] 100%,” said Noland. “Over the last few years since we’ve started using them we’ve had maybe one concussion per year.”
According to Prince, Guardian Caps provide players with an extra cushion that softens helmet-to-helmet blows and makes collisions less drastic. However, with a high contact sport like football, the increased risk of concussion always looms.
“These kids are still developing and their brains are still developing,” said Prince. “We’ve seen that [concussions] can set off a cascade of events and can alter brain development, especially in younger athletes.”
Rule changes have also attempted to limit the amount of helmet-to-helmet collisions sustained during each game.
Rob Lynall, co-director of the University of Georgia Concussion Research Lab, points to the enforcement of targeting penalties as a key component that reduces the likelihood of sustaining a concussion during games. In high school, targeting results in a 15-yard penalty.
“With targeting penalties, hopefully as players become more aware of the rules and how they’re enforced, they’ll be less likely to use their head to hit somebody else’s head,” said Lynall.
At the quarterback position, Oconee County’s Jacob Wright knows that it’s better to sacrifice a few extra yards than to take a dangerous hit.
“Coach Johnson always says ‘get what you can get, but don’t take any stupid hits,’” said Wright. “If I’m running down the sideline and someone’s about to tackle me, I need to step out of bounds or slide—just to be safe and play another down.”
Lynall’s research also emphasizes the need to improve the culture of reporting concussions so that it’s more acceptable for athletes to come forward. Studies have suggested that nearly 50% of concussions go undiagnosed because people don’t report them. If that 50% can be reduced, while the number of diagnosed concussions will increase, that’s actually a good sign, says Lynall.
At Oconee County, as concussion awareness has increased, coaches and trainers alike have noticed that kids are looking out for their teammates and are now more likely to report a possible concussion.
We’re playing for December,” said Wright. “It’s a long season and we’re not trying to wear each other out week one. We just try to keep ourselves safe and protect each other.”
Though the spotlight often falls on the NFL, there are more kids playing football than professionals. Lynall believes that high school football can become safer by reducing the number of contact practices and focusing on tackling technique, which is exactly what Oconee County has done.
“There’s been a real effort made to reduce the number of head injuries in football,” said Lynall. “It’s not perfect, and we can keep getting better, but I do think that tangible steps have been taken to improve our ability to prevent the injury.”
Having these safety measures in place at Oconee County allows Wright to focus more on playing football to the best of his ability.
“It’s definitely taken a burden off my mind because I know that I don’t have to worry so much about my head getting hurt,” said Wright. “That’s a big thing—if you have a head injury that can mess you up for life.”
Prince echoes this sentiment.
“You only get one brain,” said Prince. “Ultimately, Coach Noland and his staff want the same thing I do and that’s to keep these kids safe and operate in their best interests.”
“If we didn’t practice the way we do, I anticipate that we’d have concussions in the double digits,” said Prince. “We keep our players safe throughout the week so they can be in a position to be healthy. I think that also contributes to the success that we have had on Friday nights.”
MeKayla Gough is majoring in journalism at the University of Georgia.
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