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Pop Warner seeks to stem concussions

By Lenny Megliola
Globe Correspondent / June 24, 2012
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Youth football leagues in Greater Boston will sharply limit head-to-head contact during practices this year, following new rules by the national Pop Warner organization designed to cut the chance of concussions.

Beginning in August, Pop Warner teams will only be allowed to have contact for one-third of practice time. Also, to limit a running start for blocking and tackling, drills that involve full-speed, head-on blocking that begins with players more than 3 yards apart will not be permitted.

Pop Warner, the country’s largest youth football organization, is taking the steps after research showed that most of the hardest hits in youth football occur during practice, not in games. The rule change represents a big change for youth football leagues, which have roughly 80 franchises in the Boston area, and comes amid mounting concern about concussions and other head injuries all the way up to the professional level, especially in football.

“Everybody’s got to be more aware of what’s going on,” said Joe Panniello, of Everett, president of Eastern Massachusetts Pop Warner. “Coaches, administrators, players, and parents all need to be more educated about concussions. I think Pop Warner is starting to get there.’’

Panniello and other officials interviewed said that parents will be key to enforcing the new rules. “We’re stressing to coaches that parents will be watching. They’re the ones who drop the kids off and pick them up at 8 o’clock,” he said.

He is particularly concerned about contact among teams with older, bigger players 14 and 15 years old. “I’ve seen some pretty hard hits, especially at the older levels,” he added. “They’re 14 and 15. That is high school football. You don’t see many 12-year-olds on those teams.”

Jon Butler, the national executive director of Pop Warner, sent out 115,000 e-mails with the new rules to coaches, administrators, and parents, and expects the organization’s “incredible grapevine” to spread the word.

“Parents are very vigilant,” he said in an phone interview from his office outside Philadelphia. Coaches not adhering to the new rules will be “put on probation or suspended,” Butler warned.

In addition, he said, Pop Warner has a strict rule when a player has been diagnosed with a concussion. “Any player who suffers a head or neck injury has to be signed off in writing by a medical professional trained in concussion recognition” before being permitted to play again, said Butler.

Dr. Julian Bailes, chairman of Pop Warner’s medical advisory board, said the new rules can “eliminate 60-plus percent of the brain impacts or concussions.”

“If proper techniques are taught, it’s going to bring down the number of injuries,” said Ken Nally, who has coached Pop Warner in North Attleborough for six years and been an assistant coach at the high school for over 20 years.

Vince Ferrara, the starting quarterback at Harvard in 1994 and 1995, said he suffered his first concussion in the seventh grade. “I missed almost an entire season,” said the Wellesley resident.

The new safety rules are “the right thing to do,” said Ferrara, who founded his own football helmet company, Xenith, in 2004. “Pop Warner carries a lot of weight. If they make substantive changes, it means change is coming.’’,” he noted.

Sometimes young players won’t know, or reveal, they’re suffering concussion symptoms. “The kid is often the quiet voice,” said Ferrara, who has a 10-year-old son that plays in the Wellesley Youth Football program. “Now we see more parents and players involved in buying helmets together.”

This year, the increased attention to concussions prompted Massachusetts to require middle and high schools to report head injuries and suspected concussions to the state Department of Public Health. Two Globe surveys this school year found more than 300 head injuries among football and soccer players at 26 area high schools, and 72 head injuries among hockey and basketball players in 44 programs.

This year, the increased attention to concussions prompted Massachusetts to require middle and high schools to report head injuries and suspected concussions to the state Department of Public Health.

Two Globe surveys this school year found more than 300 head injuries among football and soccer players at 26 area high schools, and 72 head injuries among hockey and basketball players in 44 programs.

Nationwide, approximately 285,000 youths ages 5 to 15 play Pop Warner football.

The American Youth Football Association has also taken note of the new Pop Warner rules.

“We’re constantly talking to medical people and equipment manufacturers,’’ said Ron Vallely, who runs Framingham Youth Football, which, like Wellesley, is affiliated with the AYFA. “We haven’t made a statement like Pop Warner, but we’re always talking about’’ safety.

Coaches and parents have talked for some time about “getting the head out of football” to reduce injuries. Now, the Pop Warner rule changes may spread to other sports, says one area coach.

“It’s a positive thing that could filter into lacrosse and hockey,” said Nally.

“There shouldn’t be any head-to-head contact anyway. Some coaches will say ‘You’re taking the game out of the sport.’ But that’s not the game anymore,’’ he said.

“Coaches should be educated not only in x’s and o’s, but in proper technique.”

Lenny Megliola can be reached at lennymegs@aol.com.

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