When Lazar Franklin, who coaches youth football in the South End, heard about a game in central Massachusetts where five players sustained concussions, he could hardly contain his frustration.
“What were they thinking?” Franklin said of the coaches and officials, who did not stop the lopsided game even when the losing team could not field the required number of healthy players. “There was no reason for that game to keep going.”
Coaches and parents said they were aghast at the number of injuries in the September game, and the failure of adults to intervene on the children’s behalf during the 52-0 mismatch.
As evidence mounts that repetitive head injuries can have a cumulative effect, and leagues at all levels take steps to improve player safety, parents said games where one team is physically overmatched should be stopped right away. Football is tough enough when the sides are fair, some parents said.
“That’s terrible for the kids,” said Kew Sumpter, a South End resident whose 12-year-old son plays Pop Warner. “We’re the ones supposed to be teaching them right from wrong.”
The contest between Southbridge and rival Tantasqua got out of hand quickly, as several Tantasqua players were injured after hard collisions. Facing little resistance, Southbridge built a 28-point lead, but some mercy rules meant to prevent injuries were ignored.
At least one player had a concussion on a play that should have been stopped. The players, between 10 and 12 years old, were later diagnosed with concussions, and all missed time from school. Four of the five have since been medically cleared to return to the field.
After a hearing last week, league officials permanently banned the three game officials, and suspended both coaches for the season. Patrick Inderwish, president of the Central Massachusetts Pop Warner league, said the coaches “exhibited conduct unbecoming of a Pop Warner coach.”
Josh Pruce, a spokesman for the national Pop Warner group, said that he had never heard of a game where so many players suffered concussions, and that officials should have ended the game as soon as Tantasqua’s injuries began to mount.
Under regulations put into place two years ago, players who show symptoms of concussions must be removed from the game, and cannot return until they receive clearance from a doctor. Coaches receive training to recognize the signs of concussions, and this summer Pop Warner reduced the amount of practice time that can be devoted to contact drills. Teams are not required to have trainers or EMTs on the sidelines, but a growing number of teams do, Pruce said.
Parents say the issue is not that youth football lacks rules and safety precautions; the problem is when those rules and precautions are ignored. When they are followed, the game is reasonably safe, parents say.
“You always worry a little,” said Dian Tobin, whose 12-year-old son, Evan, plays Pop Warner in Franklin. “But I don’t feel like they [the coaches] push them too hard.”
Leo Marchese, president of Pop Warner in East Boston, said he makes sure someone with emergency training is on hand for every game. Marchese said he was mystified why such a one-sided game was allowed to continue. “I couldn’t believe it when I heard there were five concussions,” he said. “Even one is a lot. When you have a game like that, the coaches and officials need to think about stopping the game and calling it a day. We have to make sure these kids are safe.”
Three of his players, Marchese said, have suffered concussions this year. “I love the passion and the heart they have to want to keep playing,” he said. “But I tell them, ‘Listen, you only get one brain. The last thing you should do is go back out there.’ ”
At Carter Park in Boston, Franklin and other coaches worked groups of excited youngsters through some drills. Chauntae Robinson smiled as she watched her 9-year-old son, Andre Landrum, practice. Last month, he had a mild concussion during practice, and couldn’t play for a couple of weeks. He was so unhappy he slept in his helmet, Robinson said. “It was so sad,” she said. He complained for a while that the back of his head hurt, but eventually the symptoms subsided, and his doctor said he could play again. In his first game back Sunday, he scored four touchdowns, though after one score he was penalized for spiking the ball.
“Like Gronkowski,” she said.
Robinson said she was not too worried about letting him play. But the doctor had warned her that if he suffered another head injury, it might be worse, so she was keeping her fingers crossed.
To put her mind at ease, Franklin showed her the kind of helmet Andre was wearing. It was newer, with better padding than the older models, he said. More expensive, but worth it.
“We’re all about safety here,” he said. “Parents don’t want to worry, so they want to see that you’re being safe.”
Sumpter’s son, Kwest, 12, had a concussion a couple of weeks ago. At first he just seemed a bit groggy, but over the next few days it was clear something was seriously wrong. He could not remember his teacher’s name, or his locker combination. “That got me shook up,” she said.
His memory quickly returned, and on Sunday he returned to the field. Sumpter said she tries to push her worries aside. Football is good for her son, she said, and teaches him good lessons.
“It wouldn’t be right to make him stop because he got hurt just once,” she said. “It is football. Kids are going to get banged up.”