The Norman Transcript

August 14, 2013

Newcastle mother champions effort to make high school football safer


The Norman Transcript

NORMAN — This is an example of the difference one person, with a fair amount of help, can make.

Because tonight, at 10, on PBS, an hour-long documentary will air detailing that difference.

In February of last year, Kerali Davis, from Newcastle, the mother of a young football player, sent an email to Brooke de Lynch.

Davis’ son had suffered a concussion playing football in 2011. de Lench is the author of “HOME TEAM ADVANTAGE: The critical role of mothers in youth sports,” and the editor in chief of MomsTEAM.com, which bills itself as “The Trusted Source for Sports Parents.”

The connection between the two women ultimately spawned what will air tonight. It’s called “The Smartest Team: Making High School Football Safer.”

The makers of the documentary claim “The Smartest Team begins where other concussion documentaries leave off, not simply identifying the risks of long-term brain injury in football, but offering youth and high school programs across the country specific ways to minimize those risks, through a focus on what de Lench calls the ‘Six Pillars’ of a comprehensive concussion risk management program.”

So you know, the six pillars are as follows: education, protection, early identification, conservative treatment, cautious return to play and retirement.

It may sound like jargon, but there’s more to it, from not simply throwing a flag for helmet-to-helmet hits or reinforcing how not to tackle, but to specifically training players in “heads-up” tackling; from not simply instructing a trainer to ask a player what day of the week it is, but to employ new technology to track the force of hits; to really waiting until an athlete has returned to his pre-concussion health before letting him back on the field.

It may sound simple in a small story like this, but it’s not. 

Many sports writers, at least once, have seen a player return to a game after appearing to suffer a concussion.

As a young sports writer covering a high school game, I once witnessed a player fall while jogging off the field for no apparent reason, get up after a beat or two and shuffle gingerly off the field, seemingly unnoticed by officials or coaches, though not teammates. Two quarters later, I saw that player return to the game.

Heck, the Sooner Nation watched Eduardo Najera return to an NCAA tournament game after a head-to-head collision with Michigan State’s Mateen Cleaves in 1999. You can watch it on YouTube: Najera completely out, lying face down on the floor immobile in the second half. Then you can watch Najera watch from the locker room, return to the game and, if you remember it well, you can hear Billy Packer telling everybody on TV how tough Najera was.

He was tough.

Reckless, too.

I haven’t been writing sports forever and Najera was knocked out only 14 years ago. Clearly, it’s taken a long time for folks to come to understand the seriousness of concussions.

Davis deserves all kinds of credit for thinking beyond her own child after, as she told the Daily Oklahoman’s Jenny Carlson, she knew something was wrong when her son, then an eighth grader, told her he “couldn’t remember how to do math.” 

It was a conversation, Carlson reported, that took place not only after Davis’ son’s concussion appeared to be light — he never lost consciousness — but also days after it appeared clear he was recovering in fine form.

Of course, a mother’s love for her son and concern for others like her son is not so shocking. What might be a surprise is an entire school district rallying to the cause to do something revolutionarily serious about concussions.

For that, Newcastle’s football program and entire school district deserve long applause.

“We couldn’t have done this without the entire Newcastle community, from the school superintendent to the athletic director to the head football coach, from the athletic trainer to the parents and the athletes,” de Lynch said. “I think the film shows what can happen when all stakeholders, especially moms, work together as a team to make the sport … safer, not just for their kids, but for all kids.”

The NFL knows it was late to the party, but to its credit is cracking down on the kinds of hits that may well have played a role in a rash of ex-player suicides. The NCAA is in much the same boat, doing its best to make up for a lax past with a stringent present when it comes to protecting players.

But a high school football program in Oklahoma, a few miles from Norman, may be at the forefront of creating an entirely new cycle of safety in the sport this state craves most.

Bully for all of them.

It begins at 10.

You might want to watch.

Clay Horning

Follow me @clayhorning

cfhorning@normantranscript.com