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Brain injury risks deter parents from contact sports for kids

10:09 PM, Nov 4, 2012   |    comments
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"He was 4 or 5 years old and wanted to play full pads," Schmitzer said.

Schmitzer helps coach his son's Carrollwood Hurricanes Pop Warner team and as good as the experience has been for them, the Schmitzers are re-thinking next season.

"You know, it is scary....there are hard tackles at this age, believe it or not; 7- or 8-year-old kids, and when they do hit head-to-head, you get concerned about it," he said.

Pop Warner recently instituted new rules designed to educate coaches and players on how to hit safely. But as quickly as youth leagues adjust, the catalyst for those changes - research about hard hits to the head - is providing new reasons for parents to re-think contact sports.

"There is more brain trauma going on at the youth level in contact sports than anybody conceived of," Lisa McHale said.

Lisa McHale pulled her kids out of Pop Warner after the death of her husband, former Buccaneers lineman Tom McHale.

The nine-year NFL vet quit football in 1995 so he could spend more time with his three kids. But in 2008, after dealing with years of depression and Oxycodone addiction, he died at age 45 of a drug overdose.

"The hardest day of my life was having to tell them that daddy was gone; that he wasn't coming back," she said.

Lisa got another shock after she donated Tom's brain to researchers at Boston University.

"What did you see in his brain?" she was asked.

"I saw a lot of disease. I saw a lot of cell death. And I saw the cause of why I lost my best friend," McHale said.

He was diagnosed post-mortem with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or "CTE." It's a rare degenerative disease that's associated with confusion, aggression, depression and dementia.
It's also been found in the brains of 18 of the 19 football players BU has studied.

"In a disease that absolutely does not occur in the regular brain, that's nearly 100 percent correlation; there's something to this," McHale said.

The findings also changed the course of concussion research since McHale was never diagnosed with a concussion while playing.

In the four years since, BU Medical and the Sports Legacy Institute have studied dozens of former athletes' brains - from NFL stars to hockey players to former wrestlers to high schoolers. And their research indicates it's not just concussions causing brain disease, but cumulative hits to the head and it's even more damaging at a young age.

It's led to a drastic new suggestion:

"We believe kids under the age of 14 should not be playing contact sports the way they are currently played," Dr. Robert Cantu of Boston University Medical.

Leading researcher Dr. Robert Cantu wrote "Concussions and Our Kids," and recommends ending tackle football; checking in hockey; and heading the ball in soccer for anyone under 14.

"They shouldn't be playing tackle football, they should be playing flag football. They should be learning the skills of tackling, but tackling dummies - not bashing bodies and bashing heads," Cantu said.

Kids are particularly vulnerable because their brains aren't fully protected by a coating called "myelin" yet - it's like a wire without insulation. And because their necks aren't proportional to the size of their heads yet, contact can rattle their brains around like a bobblehead.

Lisa McHale has spent the last few years working with the BU researchers to reshape attitudes toward youth sports.

"I would say to parents that 'I think you're being foolish and very unfair to your kids if you aren't taking a really hard, long look at the programs you're allowing your kids to be in," she said.

And even though Pop Warner now requires concussed kids to get medical clearance before they can return to the field league organizers say technique is the most important safety measure.

"If you sit out here and you listen, you'll hear the coaches stressing those things over and over and over again - how to get your head out of the way, how to not to lower your head when you're coming in for a tackle - you've got to be the 'hammer' out here, because if you're not the 'hammer,' and you're the 'nail,' and you're the one constantly getting hit, that's when you're going to get hurt," Joe Ludovici said.

The Schmitzers don't want to wait for a concussion. They're considering telling their son, 'no tackle football next year.'

(Copyright © 2012 NBC Universal, All Rights Reserved)

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