Pop Warner parents say reward outweighs risk

Give consent for football despite head injury worries

Bonnie Raposo greeted her 7-year-old son Nicholas after he played for Somerville in a Pop Warner game against Newton at Dilboy Field. Bonnie Raposo greeted her 7-year-old son Nicholas after he played for Somerville in a Pop Warner game against Newton at Dilboy Field. (Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe)
By Beth Teitell
Globe Staff / November 9, 2010

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SOMERVILLE — It was early on a raw Sunday morning, but Dilboy Field was alive with joy. Somerville and Newton Pop Warner football squads were going at it — running, throwing, tackling — and in the stands, parents were drinking warm coffee, chatting, and cheering. “Go, Somerville!’’ “Beat ’em!’’

The news had been full of stories about head injuries caused by helmet-to-helmet hits and hard tackles in the NFL and college football. A week earlier, closer to home, a 12-year-old player from West Bridgewater was temporarily paralyzed after he suffered a severe concussion.

But even as some parents fret about letting their young children play such a rough sport, they are willing to let them do it.

Prisca Herrera, cheering from the sidelines for Somerville, is one of them. She admitted that she hopes her son does not catch balls passed to him, so that he is not tackled. “But I don’t tell him that.’’

Dorrie Cherry of Newton sat nearby. “I’m a nervous wreck,’’ she said, but not going to the game would be worse. “I feel like I’m a protector from the stands.’’

The children playing at Dilboy Field had happily gotten out of bed for games that started as early as 8 a.m., and parents said they don’t want to dampen that enthusiasm.

“You can be walking around feeling afraid you’ll be blown up [by terrorists] and then you stop living,’’ said Bonnie Raposo, of Somerville, the mother of second- and sixth-grade players, and an employee at Mount Auburn Hospital. “You don’t want your kids to stop living.’’

The weekend before the Somerville-Newton game had been particularly dangerous at the college and professional level. Eric LeGrand, a Rutgers University defensive lineman, was paralyzed from the neck down after making a tackle against Army. DeSean Jackson, a Philadelphia Eagles receiver, suffered a concussion, and several other NFL players also suffered head injuries.

Athletes are increasingly aware of the long-term health risks of concussions. In August, Boston University researchers linked sports-related head injuries to an ALS-like disease. Last month, , amid criticism of the violence, the NFL started cracking down on illegal hits.

Reliable data tracking concussion rates in youth football do not exist, said Dr. Robert Cantu, codirector of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University School of Medicine. At the high school and college level, however, the rate of recognized concussions in football is similar to those in ice hockey, lacrosse, and soccer, he said.

But, he added, “football has other injuries that are a lot more serious than concussion that you don’t find very frequently in soccer,’’ such as catastrophic head and neck injuries.

The number of reported concussions in organized sports is rising, said William Meehan, director of the sports concussion clinic at Children’s Hospital Boston. He pointed to a recent study published in the medical journal Pediatrics that found emergency department visits for concussions doubled between 1997 and 2007.

While some of this is probably the result of increased awareness of the potential for long-term effects after concussions, he said, the increased size and strength of athletes, and increased aggressiveness, are bigger reasons.

Meehan sees an escalation in concern among parents.

“They hear about professional athletes later in life that have dementia and say, ‘I don’t want this to happen to my child.’ ’’

Furthermore, said Meehan, medical evidence suggests that it takes longer for children to recover from sport-related concussions than it does for older athletes.

About 3 million children ages 6 to 14 play organized tackle football, said Steve Alic, director of communications for USA Football, the sport’s national governing body at the youth and amateur levels. USA Football does not have injury statistics, but Alic said there is a “sea change happening in all youth sports regarding the way concussion is perceived and managed.’’

He points to the “When in Doubt, Sit Them Out’’ campaign, and education for coaches about safety and concussions done in collaboration with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Many leagues are mandating that their coaches complete our online coaching course in order to coach in their league,’’ Alic said.

Local coaches emphasized that they teach young athletes proper technique.

“No one is going after your head in this league,’’ said Donald Barboza, a coach of one of the Newton Pop Warner squads, and the father of a second-grade player.

Barboza’s 15-year-old nephew recently suffered a concussion playing football, but Barboza said he is not worried about the game’s overall safety.

“I ran into a couple of brick walls in my life literally, in the school yard,’’ he said, laughing, “and I’m fine.’’

Mike Westgate, father of a second-grader at Dilboy Field, took his appreciation of the sport a step further: “He’s toughened up, the way boys should be,’’ he said of his son. “He’s not a crybaby.’’

John Regan, president of Newton Pop Warner, said the game is getting safer, in part because of improved equipment. The organization spent $5,500 on new helmets for the oldest players, the 14- and 15-year-olds.

“Concussions have become just one of the many areas that we have been focusing on,’’ he said

Dan Kraft, son of New England Patriots owner Bob Kraft and the father of a Newton third-grader who played against Somerville that recent Sunday morning, said he has seen more injuries in youth basketball. He added that the young players wear so much padding, “it’s like [they are] Sumo wrestlers.’’

Still, players get hurt. The threat of injury to young children was made more real at least to some parents when Nathan Hogrell, a 12-year-old West Bridgewater player, was airlifted to Children’s Hospital Oct. 17 after suffering a concussion in a game.

Nathan is home recovering and is eager to play again, said his mother. If he is cleared to play by a doctor, Wanda Hogrell will not stop Nathan from heading back onto the field. “That’s his passion,’’ she said, “and I wouldn’t take his passion away from him.’’

Beth Teitell can be reached at

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