President Obama made headlines early in 2014 when he said if he had a son, he wouldn't let him play professional football.
It was another hit to the NFL in a concussion discussion that already included lawsuits, research into long-term effects of head injuries and the study of the progressive degenerative disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
In April, a concussion lawsuit brought against the NFL by more than 5,000 former players was settled with an agreement providing up to $5 million per retired player.
The issue never hit more close to home than when Chris Borland retired from the NFL in March. The former UW-Madison standout was one of the league's top rookies last season with the San Francisco 49ers but decided it was best for his long-term health to step away from the game.
But what has the increased awareness about head trauma meant for young players locally?
Local youth organizers say their numbers have taken a small hit in recent years, but they don't believe that's solely tied to concussion worries.
Leaders, coaches and parents say they have taken a proactive approach, exploring every avenue to protect young football players.
For now, at least, players are still funneling into the high school programs at the same rate.
YOUTH NUMBERS DOWN
Young kids in the area are still playing football, but numbers have slid.
Janesville Youth Football President Trever Brandenburg said his league lost 10 to 20 players per year the past few years. This year, the number of registrants remained steady from 2014, totaling about 350 players between youth football's two divisions—one for fourth- and fifth-graders and one for sixth- and seventh-graders.
“I've been in contact with some of the other youth organizations throughout the state, and it's not just us. It's all youth football programs,” Brandenburg said. “You get a lot of people that think about how concussions have impacted the game of football, but you have others … that choose to do other things.
“I think it's a combination of things.”
Organizers point to kids choosing to play different sports, including soccer, which is gaining popularity nationwide, as another contributing factor.
Milton Youth Football has bucked the trend. It offers tackle football for students in first through eighth grades, and registration numbers have held steady at just under 400 the past few years. This year, the number fell to about 360, said Dan Weitzel, who has been part of the league for eight years and president for the past three.
Weitzel said he often hears questions and comments about whether it's right for first-graders to play tackle football. The Milton program has been around since 1974, and the first- and second-grade program dates back to the mid-1980s.
“It's more about teaching them the fundamentals of football, teamwork and fundamentals of being coached on the field,” Weitzel said. “We've been successful at it for a very long time. Our coaches have been very well picked. So there is no talk of steering away from that.”
Brandenburg said the youth football board has discussed adding flag-football leagues for younger or first-time players, but Janesville is unusual among area youth leagues because it waits until fourth grade to offer tackle programs.
RULES, EQUIPMENT EVOLVE
Like football at the professional, collegiate and high school levels, youth football is ever-evolving.
“This is not the same sport it was five or 10 years ago,” Weitzel said. “We all know what that was—just toughen up and go play. Everybody is past that in our league, and I think in most leagues, too. It's not to be taken lightly.”
For the local leagues, the changes have included more training for coaches, added focus on keeping up-to-date with equipment and rule changes within the game.
Both the Janesville and Milton programs require their coaches to go through training that teaches what to look for after a possible concussion and the effects of head trauma. Both use the nationally renowned Heads Up Football program through USA Football.
“Our big thing is education—educating the parents, the players, the coaches and the community,” Weitzel said.
The Janesville Youth Football board includes Dr. Darin Rutherford, a sports medicine physician at Mercy Hospital, who has worked to further educate the league's coaches.
Janesville and Milton officials said they meet and even exceed standards for helmet technology.
“I try to reassure the parents and tell them that part of our registration fee is that we do keep up with helmets,” Brandenburg said. “We rotate them out probably more than we need to. We rotate them out before the certification is up.”
Specialized rules also help promote player safety.
In both Janesville and Milton, any player who carries the ball in the first half of a game may not be a ball carrier again in the second half. It keeps teams from letting one standout player dictate the game, but it also avoids excessive hits to that same player in one day.
Janesville Youth Football also is unusual in that it limits the weight of players who carry the ball. For each division, the league determines the players' average weight. Ball carriers cannot weigh more than five pounds above the average.
“If we have kids out there getting run over and not having fun,” Brandenburg said, “obviously our numbers go down, and we don't feed the high schools.”
FEW CONCUSSIONS IN 2014
Weitzel said he hadn't heard of any players who had gone through the Milton program but stopped playing because of concussion fears. But he admitted, “You don't always hear every story.”
The Gazette received no responses after reaching out to readers through the newspaper and social media to find parents leery about their kids playing football.
Local youth leagues appear to be doing all they can to take the most necessary, up-to-date safety precautions.
Brandenburg didn't have a concussion total from last season in Janesville Youth Football, but he said the league might have gone without having any diagnosed.
“Honestly, I don't think we had a single one last year,” Brandenburg said. “Most of the concussions are going to come from a kid … where he bounces his head off the ground.
“Don't get me wrong, there are definitely some collisions, but that's where the majority of concussions probably come from.”
Weitzel estimated Milton Youth Football had two diagnosed concussions in 2014.
“It's really infrequent,” Weitzel said. “At these younger ages, these bodies are so small that they're not generating the energy of the hits of older players.”
SEARCHING FOR SAFER METHODS
Brandenburg has a personal stake in ensuring the safety of the players in Janesville Youth Football. His son Kayden plays in the league.
With that in mind, Brandenburg has made it a personal mission to stay on top of any new technology that could reduce the potential for head trauma.
During his studies, he came across the Guardian Cap. According to the product website, the Guardian is a one-size-fits-all soft urethane helmet cover that can be worn on any helmet. It is designed to reduce the impact to the head.
Brandenburg said his research showed some colleges had tested the Guardian. But the NCAA and some state high school sanctioning bodies around the country do not allow the use of the cap during games.
“It looks like a big bubble wrap on top of your helmet,” Brandenburg said. “It looked kind of strange out on the field, but the talk was that it has to work.
“My son will continue to wear it. He doesn't like it because it looks a little strange, but he'll wear it.”
Brandenburg figured if worries about concussions were keeping parents from allowing their kids to play, they might be interested in the cap, as well. He bought a number of them for Janesville Youth Football and advertised them during registration, noting that they are $55 but can last the life of a football career.
Just two other families bought the Guardian for their young players.
“That was a little frustrating,” Brandenburg said. “If concussions are the problem, I gave you something that (is designed to help), and they never took advantage of that.”