Spring sports aren’t even over yet, but it’s already time to sign up for fall Buccaneers football, the program for youth players in Charlotte, Hinesburg, Shelburne, St. George, and Williston. Some parents worry about their children playing football because of recent discoveries about the long-term mental and physical consequences of concussions; because of this attention, though, football could be safer now than it ever was before.
Buccaneers board Vice President Chris Boffa recognizes the inherent risk of playing a contact sport and acknowledges the importance of minimizing concussions in young athletes. He said that awareness of the issue has led to great changes in the way the Buccaneers program is run and coached. “We know so much more today than we did years ago,” he said, “and it has changed how the game is instructed on the practice field coached in games and played by the players.”
The Buccaneers program is part of the Northern Vermont Youth Football League, a nationwide organization affiliated with the NFL. These organizations promote and support the use of Heads Up Football Tackling and Blocking methods. These protocols are step-by-step instructions and a certification program for coaches to teach athletes a new way to tackle and block that significantly reduces the instances of head injury and concussion.
Boffa played football from age 10 through college, and said he and his teammates were “taught to lower and lead with our heads when tackling, blocking and running with the ball. Today with the Heads Up program, players are taught to keep their heads up and tackle with wrapping arms, and block with hands and arms making contact.”
Another component of the Heads Up program is coach education and intensive training. They are taught how to recognize and respond to concussions, dehydration, and sudden cardiac arrest, and are well-versed in what measures coaches should take to avoid these problems in the first place. Player-to-player contact during practices is also limited to reduce the potential for injury.
Becky Hanson of Shelburne has four boys, ages 14 and under, and three of them have played Buccaneers football in the past. Her oldest son, Jacob, suffered a concussion a few years ago, and she said the coaches responded exactly how a parent would hope—and that she was happy to let Jacob continue playing.
“They worked with us the whole season and really were receptive to having him start slowly,” she said. “If he showed any signs [of concussion], even though it was two months afterward, they would not let him play.”
Despite her son’s injury, Hanson said she is fine with her sons continuing to play football as long as they enjoy it, and adds that she double-checked with their pediatrician about the safety of playing football. She credits the Buccaneers program with easing some of her concerns. “While they are competitive, most of the coaches are also trying to teach a love of the game,” she said, a factor that leads her to believe the benefits outweigh the risks.
Along with the in-depth training that coaches receive, Mike Dee of Dee PT provides the league with medical staff for games. Boffa said these factors have led to a decrease in concussions and a confidence for players, coaches, and parents that athletes who are injured will be cared for properly. He said, “In the last two years I believe we have seen just one or two concussions through the entire season, with over 125 kids participating…more importantly, risk was not taken, with any potentially injured players being removed from the field of play.”
A plethora of information is available online for parents who are concerned about concussions, and who want to find out if football is an appropriate sport for their children. The USA Football Heads Up Football web site is a good place to start for information about the program the Buccaneers use, and the American Academy of Pediatrics web site lists their recommendations for youth football programs—guidelines that the Buccaneer program follows.
Boffa wants parents to know that the organization is aware of their concerns, and that coaches and the board are available to them at any time. He said, “We want to get the word out on how much has changed, and allow parents to make their best educated decisions about having their children participate. We hope they get a better understanding and decide to give it a try, because it is the greatest team sport!”