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Chris Nowinski is a former Harvard defensive tackle whose pro-wrestling career--he didn't want to sit in a cubicle--was derailed by concussions. He has since emerged as one of the country's most prominent advocates for football reform and has written a book, Head Games: Football's Concussion Crisis. To illustrate his points, he pulls up a YouTube clip titled "Big Football Hit--Helmet to Helmet." In a drill supervised by the coaches, two 8-year-olds charge toward each other, heads down, as a woman yells, "Go! Go!" The tiny helmets collide--pop! After one kid gets knocked back to the ground, you can hear his whimpers. "Who the hell is teaching this?" asks Nowinski.
Far too many of us, it turns out. To improve player safety, all youth coaches should be trained in a concussion-management program approved by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and be certified before strapping a whistle around their neck. Make coaches carry a concussion card that shows they're aware of the risks and aren't idiotic enough to unleash two 8-year-old heads on each other. "If you're going to coach football, you should be trained--like a lifeguard sitting over a swimming pool learning CPR," says Turley, the former NFL offensive lineman and concussion-prevention advocate. "Because that's what they are--they're lifeguards.
Youth coaches must also rethink tackling technique. One method that has received positive reviews is the "Dip 'n' Rip," taught by a former UCLA defensive back named Bobby Hosea. Hosea instructs kids to wind back their arms and explode up with their hips while going in for a hit. Such a movement causes the head to rock away from oncoming traffic. One convert to Hosea's method is Mike Kulow, a veteran youth coach who says his Murrieta, Calif., Pop Warner league, which has 450 players, witnessed only one whiplash injury this past season. "Man, do I wonder, if I had this education about the consequences in the past, could I have curbed injury?" asks Kulow. "Absolutely."
4. Change the culture.
Listen to the logic of A.J. Hatfield, a stud fullback from Port Angeles, Wash. During a practice in October, his head was knocked against the ground. Hatfield felt dizzy and developed a splitting headache. Did he tell his coaches about his condition? "Nah," Hatfield says. "I didn't want to seem like I was being a baby." He played the next day--and struggled to stay awake afterward. He received a concussion diagnosis. Oh yeah, Hatfield is in the eighth grade. Luckily, he swears he learned his lesson.
Bravery. Bravado. Machismo. These qualities create superior football players. But they can be poisonous. "You've got to change the culture, change the mentality," says Turley. "This whole archaic notion that football is everything, all these stupid things coaches go around saying, comparing football to the military ... It's not."
The euphemistic lexicon that pervades locker-room culture--calling punishing hits "dings" or being knocked unconscious "getting your bell rung"--has contributed to a perception that the problem isn't serious. "We need to use more medical terms here, as opposed to slang," says Tennessee Titans center Kevin Mawae, president of the NFL Players Association. "The language makes light of the situation."