The findings were sobering, but not surprising to Lili Lopez Smith.
Research on 202 former football players — including those in high school — conducted by neuropathologist Dr. Ann McKee and published in The Journal of the American Medical Association last month found evidence of a debilitating brain disease consistent with repeated blows to the head.
Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which can cause a variety of symptoms, including memory loss, impaired judgment and depression, was detected in the brains of 177 players, or nearly 90 percent of those studied.
That includes 110 of 111 brains from former NFL players, 48 of 53 college players, nine of 14 semi-professional players, seven of eight Canadian Football league players and three of 14 high school players.
That last number worries Smith, a longtime football mom whose son, John, is the starting quarterback for the Park Vista varsity football team.
“This is absolutely a concern,” she said. “I’m a parent. This study sheds light, but sometimes playing football and being fearful will only make things worse. Anything can happen at any given time in football.”
Smith said the amount of contact in high school football makes her cringe. Her son, on the other hand, isn’t concerned about being hit, nor does he fear head injuries.
“You can’t play worrying about that,” said Smith, a senior who has committed to Holy Cross. “Especially for me playing both sides of the ball. As a quarterback, I do my best to avoid unnecessary hits to the head. However on defense, we are taught to tackle the proper way, and that’s what I try to execute on the field.”
A handful of area high school players were asked about the CTE study and their concerns about head injuries. Their responses varied.
Wellington quarterback Connor Rogers, a first-year starter at the position, said he would quit football if he sustained three concussions at any level of the sport.
“I do take concussions seriously,” he said. “I haven’t gotten a concussion yet in my short career. But at the end of the day, you have to look at it when you are in your 50s and 60s, you want to be healthy and not waking up every morning forgetting to brush your teeth or your kids’ names.”
Benjamin lineman Martin Weisz said he also is concerned about the long-term effects of playing football, though he’s confident in current — and future — safety measures that are designed to protect players.
“As a football player at any level, one must understand the risks associated with the game,” he said. “While most people find this study troubling, as do I, I have confidence that in the future, things will be different. Helmet companies and independent head protection products will become safer and then more popular.”
High school coaches already have taken steps to limit injuries in practice.
At St. Andrew’s, coach Jimmy Robertson and his staff rarely allow live contact, while Park Vista’s Brian Dodds restricts it.
“I believe that the state of football has changed across the board with regards to how much contact coaches allow in practice,” Dodds said. “I am not concerned overall about the state of football. However, the new methods must be instituted across the board.”
That includes extending contact limits to youth football, Dodds said, as well as raising age requirements for tackle football.
“I really like flag football league competition to develop young men before they play full contact,” Dodds said. “There are so many factors that go into the contact of football. There must be many more studies done before concrete determinations are made.”