Long before Gov. Jan Brewer signed SB 1521, a piece of legislation addressing prevention, risk and treatment of sports-related concussions, the Payson High School football coaching staff was taking strides to protect Longhorn players from such injures.
The efforts begin before the start of the season when coaches are required to successfully compete two courses that deal with “concussion injuries and related coaching techniques,” said PHS head coach Byron Quinlan. “All our staff, including assistants, are mandated to take the courses through the National Federation of State High School Associations.”
In addition to the courses, Quinlan believes recent improvements in helmets help protect young players.
“Football helmets have come a long way, even from my era,” said Quinlan, who starred as a Longhorn running back from 1991 to 1995.
“We spent approximately $2,800 reconditioning our helmets, which is done each year.”
Also, Quinlan has spearheaded an effort to purchase new, state-of-the-art helmets that offer maximum protection.
“We are continuing to strive to get the best technology available for our athletes when fund-raising money comes available,” he said.
SB 1521 was sponsored by Mesa Senator Rich Crandall and makes Arizona the 15th state to pass a youth concussion law.
The law requires athletes to sign a form saying they received education information regarding concussions, requires the removal of athletes from play after a head injury and mandates the athlete be fully cleared by a medical professional before returning to play.
Since the introduction of the bill, which Brewer signed on April 18, the medical community and several professional athletes, including Cardinals kicker Jay Feely, have rallied behind the new law.
Feely testified in front of the Legislature in support of the bill.
Around Arizona there are those, including some in the coaching profession, who argue the legislation was needed because high school athletes often ignore concussion symptoms in support of their teams.
Medical studies show underestimating the serious consequences of brain trauma can be extremely detrimental to athletes.
The bill, legislators say, will remedy underestimating by educating players and parents about the dangers of concussions.
The type of helmet, how it is fitted, its condition, cushion and ability to reduce force of impact coupled with coaching techniques are important in protecting high school players from brain injuries.
Currently, there are three major manufacturers of high school helmets — Schutt, Riddell and Adams.
Around the state, every football coach has his own personal preference of helmet brand he wants his players to wear and most will argue vehemently their choice is best.
At Payson High, Quinlan’s first choice is the Riddell Revo Speed Helmet, which he believes, offers maximum comfort, protection, durability and cushioning.
The Riddell helmets cost about $240 each and Quinlan sometimes has to purchase them through team fund-raising money due to the tight athletic budget.
“We have 59 of them right now and hope to get more,” Quinlan said.
Payson High is not the only Longhorn team wearing the helmets — the University of Texas also dons the Riddell. So do several other D1 football teams.
Riddell also manufactures one helmet, called “IQ Hits.” Through a tiny computer, it monitors and records every significant incidence of head impact during games and practices.
Unfortunately, with a $1,000-plus price tag, most public high schools cannot afford the high-tech headgear.
Once a coach settles on the helmets he wants to outfit on his players, he then focuses on teaching proper techniques to avoid head injuries.
At PHS and almost every high school in America, coaches teach players to not use the top of their helmets to tackle, block or strike opponents.
Coaches stress contact should always be made with the head up and never with the top of the head/helmet or face mask.
Coaches emphasize that most catastrophic spine injuries occur when initial contact is made with the top of the helmet, which is known as “spearing.”
If the tackler has his head down, the risk of injury is even greater.
The task of eliminating spearing, which carries a 15-yard penalty in the NFL, falls on the shoulders of both coaches and officials.
Coaches must properly train their players not to make first contact with the helmet and officials must make the calls to penalize the infraction.
Another effort to reduce the risk of spinal injuries and concussions is for coaches to make sure athletes go through football-specific shoulder, upper back and neck flexibility and strengthening exercises. That enables players to hold their heads firmly while blocking and tackling.
A final component in preventing spinal injuries is for coaches to take precautions to ensure players are not competing beyond their fatigue level.
Tired players make fundamental errors that can have dire consequences.
For Quinlan and other coaches around the state, football is the greatest game in the world, but there’s no place in the sport for preventable head and neck injuries.
After all, spinal cord injuries can be lifetime penalties.