“Football by nature is a violent sport, but if you play it right you are not going to have the head injuries. It’s about fundamentals. A lot of the injuries you see take place when you forget what you are taught and go for the kill shot."
— Craig resident Chris Jones about why teaching the fundamentals of football is important
Pig skins were flying, whistles were blowing and athletes were hitting the tackle bags as members of the Moffat County High School football team broke camp Wednesday.
But the action on the MCHS practice field wasn’t in preparation for the upcoming season. Rather, it was designed to teach Craig’s budding grid stars basics of the sport.
More than 50 local children in kindergarten through fifth grade participated in the Eighth Annual Big Blue Football Camp at MCHS this week.
The two-day camp provided Craig and Moffat County youth with the opportunity to learn skills such as throwing, catching, blocking, kicking and tackling in a non-contact environment from more than 20 current MCHS players and coaches.
“It’s not just good for our elementary kids, it’s also really good for our high school kids,” MCHS head coach Kip Hafey said. “As a teacher, one of the best ways to get kids to learn is to make them the teacher. It’s great having our high school kids out here teaching the fundamentals … that’s exciting.”
Although the camp is simply an introduction to the game, a swirl of recent news from the sports world continues to raise questions for some parents: is the game safe enough, and do I want my child to play?
Earlier this month, retired NFL great and former San Diego Chargers linebacker Junior Seau was found dead from a self-inflicted gunshot in Oceanside, Calif. He was 43.
Seau, who led the Chargers and Patriots to berths in the Super Bowl, reportedly struggled with short-term memory loss, dementia, and fits of rage in the years leading up to his death, ESPN reported.
His death and the circumstances surrounding it aren't an isolated case.
Last year, 10-year NFL veteran Dave Duerson killed himself at his home in Sunny Isles Beach, Fla. He was 50.
Duerson played safety and won two Super Bowl rings, one with the 1985 Chicago Bears and another with the 1990 New York Giants.
Like Seau, Duerson struggled to control his anger and complained of memory loss in the years following his football career, ESPN reported.
He suspected he was suffering from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, a neurodegenerative disease recently linked to concussions.
In a suicide note, Duerson asked family members to donate his brain to Boston University School of Medicine.
Last year, BU confirmed the late player's suspicions, naming him one of more than 20 deceased football players now known to have suffered from CTE, according to ESPN.
Coincidentally, Seau’s tragic end came on the one-year anniversary of Duerson’s diagnosis, and the late linebacker's family is considering whether to donate his brain to the university for additional research into CTE.
CTE, concussions and a variety of other violent injuries have officials at every level of the game reevaluating player safety. Making the game safer, however, without taking away from the spirit of the sport, isn't an easy prospect as each year players from youth leagues to the professional ranks seem to get bigger, stronger and faster.
The game has gotten so rough, retired NFL quarterbacks Kurt Warner and Troy Aikman recently stated in a broadcast interviews that they’re uncertain whether they’d allow their children to play.
But, he might be in the minority.
There doesn't seem to be any slowdown in the number of kids going out for football, even in the face of rapid changes.
“When I think back to my (high school) playing days, our biggest lineman was 190 pounds and he was huge,” Hafey said. “Most of our lineman averaged at 160 pounds and now it is not uncommon to play teams where every lineman is 220 pounds and bigger.
“Everyone is out there trying to make equipment lighter to make athletes even faster, and you would hope they would keep in mind their job is to make sure kids don’t leave the game with a concussion or another severe injury.”
Craig resident Chris Jones played high school football at MCHS, and later safety for Colorado College. His 6-year-old son, Hudson, participated in his first Big Blue camp this week.
“From my experience, it’s a concern, but I think this is a good age for doing what they’re doing, which is learning skills and fundamentals,” Jones said. “Everyone is concerned with head injuries these days and it's not just football — it can happen in soccer with the headers, but we still have the tendency to get kids tackling long before they’re ready.”
Jones didn’t start playing contact football until he was in seventh grade, two years later than the youth league in Craig currently begins.
Jones said he firmly believes in the value team sports can have in a child’s development and although he plans to support Hudson if he wants to play football as he gets older, Jones won’t allow his son to play full contact until seventh grade, just as he did.
“Football by nature is a violent sport, but if you play it right you are not going to have the head injuries,” Jones said. “It’s about fundamentals. A lot of the injuries you see take place when you forget what you are taught and go for the kill shot.
“My injuries were always self-inflicted.”
Teaching young players the fundamentals is what Big Blue is all about, Hafey said.
He encourages safety through repetition and keeping drills simple.
“When you’re dealing with elementary school kids, you have to focus on key words,” Hafey said. “When they’re tackling the bags we say, 'Head up, shoulder first,' because we don’t want them leading with their head.
“Keeping these kids safe is our first and foremost responsibility, but we also want to make sure the kids have fun…and this year’s camp was a lot of fun.”
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