TOPICS > Health

A Hard-Hitting Story: Young Football Players Take Big-League Hits to Head

April 2, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Virginia Tech researchers placed helmets with sensors on 7- and 8-year-old football players and collected data on more than 750 hits to the head over a season. The findings are the first quantitative study of the acceleration and risk that young brains face in youth football. Special correspondent Stone Phillips reports.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, little kids and the danger of hard hits in youth football.

There’s been growing awareness of the risks of head injury for those who play football at the high school and higher — particularly at the professional level.

But new research shows that young children may be knocking each other down with more force than many realize.

Special correspondent Stone Phillips has the story.

STONE PHILLIPS: Growing concern about head injury in America’s favorite sport have focused a lot of attention on professional, college and high school football.

But what about the estimated 3.5 million kids playing below the high school level? How much are they exposed to? How hard are they hitting?

It’s easy to assume collisions involving the games’ youngest players aren’t that powerful. But last fall, a top researcher at Virginia Tech teamed up with a volunteer coach for the first study ever conducted of head impacts in youth football.

The results, reported here for the first time — information parents need to know.

These 7- and 8-year-old boys played football for the Auburn Eagles, a rec-league team in Montgomery County, Va.  They’re watching highlights from a memorable season.

Memorable, because last fall their team took part in a groundbreaking study — the first of its kind on head impact in youth football, which accounts for 70 percent of those playing tackle football in this country. 

STEFAN DUMA, professor, Virginia Tech: If you look at the NFL you’re talking about 2,000 players, college 100,000, 1.3 million in high school, but 3.5 million youth 6- to 13-year olds. We know a lot about the adult.

We don’t know much at all about this youth population.

STONE PHILLIPS: Stefan Duma conducted the study.  He’s a professor of Biomedical Engineering at Virginia Tech and a leading researcher in the field of injury biomechanics.  The testing he does is aimed at engineering better, safer designs for the auto industry, the military, even toy companies learning about the limits of human tolerance for impact, and injury. For years, Duma has also been focused on football helmets and player safety. His youth study with the Auburn Eagles began by providing the team with new helmets, seven of them outfitted with sensors to measure hits to the head. The technology isn’t new but applying it to kids as young as 7 and 8, is.

So, how does the helmet system work?

STEFAN DUMA: What we do is take a series of 6 accelerometers, a battery and a wireless transmitter . . .

STONE PHILLIPS: These are the sensors right here.

STEFAN DUMA: These are the red accelerometers. And we put it in the crown, or the top part of the helmet. Here for the youth it’s shown in black. So these accelerometers measure the head motion and the transmitter transmits to the computer on the sidelines so we record every impact, every practice and game.

STONE PHILLIPS: So, if I hit this helmet right here, we’ll see it on the computer.

STEFAN DUMA: That’s right. So there you go. Top impact, 27.4gs.

STONE PHILLIPS: You’re going to hear a lot about g in this report. It’s the unit for measuring acceleration, in this case, acceleration of the brain caused by sudden impact from a hit on a football field. Duma says you can reach 5g by jogging or doing jumping jacks, 15 to 20g in a really aggressive pillow fight and 40g heading a soccer ball. Using this helmet testing device, he demonstrated what an 80g impact is like.

Duma says 80g is a big hit in college football. And he knows because, over nine seasons, he has wired helmets and recorded more than 150,000 head impacts among players at Virginia Tech, the first college to use the system. The data help Duma understand what makes a safer helmet.

For Virginia Tech’s team doctor, the instant read-out on the sideline is an invaluable tool.

GUNNAR BROLINSON, team doctor, Virginia Tech: I kind of think of it almost like a little bit of an early warning system.

STONE PHILLIPS: Gunnar Brolinson’s beeper goes off any time there’s a hit of 98g or above. That’s a red flag for possible concussion.

GUNNAR BROLINSON: Then that’s somebody that I could potentially pull off the field, bring him to the sideline right away and get an evaluation.

STONE PHILLIPS: Brolinson, who works closely with Duma, says taking their college research model to youth football was overdue.

GUNNAR BROLINSON: Sort of the standard thought process was that, well, gee whiz, they’re small, they don’t weigh very much, they don’t run very fast, and so, you know, it’s kind of like, you know, beehive football, everybody kind of runs around the ball, some of the kids fall over. Not a big deal. But we needed to know, is it a big deal or not?

STONE PHILLIPS: So, Duma’s research team spent a season — every practice and all eight games — with the Eagles, collecting impact data from the seven players wearing the special helmets. The Eagles’ coach welcomed the Virginia Tech study.

JOHN CLARK, coach, Auburn Eagles: I was very excited about it when Stefan let me know that it was the first time that anything had been done to evaluate the hits that these kids are seeing on an everyday basis, whether in practice or in games.

STONE PHILLIPS: In college, John Clark was old school — a tough guy who played through injury and he thinks possibly concussion. He says that’s not an option for his players.

Do you think about concussion differently with your son playing?

JOHN CLARK: I do. I do. I’m not thinking about myself anymore. My son Tre, if he would have received a hard hit and he felt foggy or was acting a little bit differently, obviously I would pull him off the field .

STONE PHILLIPS: He wouldn’t get the “Son, you play through this,” routine?

JOHN CLARK: Absolutely not. And none of the coaches on my team would ever do that.

STONE PHILLIPS: So what did the study find? The research documented a total of 753 impacts.

STEFAN DUMA: If you look at the course of the season, the average player in this youth football from 6-to 8-years-old sustains about 107 impacts over the course of that season. And you can compare that to high school, which is about 500 and then college which is about a 1,000 a season.

STONE PHILLIPS: What kind of magnitudes did you see?

STEFAN DUMA: Well the magnitudes are very interesting . . . the median impact is 15gs. So that means half the impacts are above 15gs and half are below 15gs.

STONE PHILLIPS: Remember, Duma says 15g is like an aggressive pillow fight and in the same range where the vast majority of youth hits occurred.

STEFAN DUMA: I’m not really concerned about the 10 to 20g range. I think people see that in their everyday life. But when you start to get into the 30, 40, you start to think that maybe these add up over time. We don’t know but that’s sort of the cumulative risk of injury. When you talk about acute injury, now you’re talking into the 80, 90, 100g range.

STONE PHILLIPS: Those higher level hits are the ones that really interest Duma because they carry greater risk. The study recorded 38 impacts of 40g or greater. Significantly, almost every one of those hits happened during practice.

STEFAN DUMA: The impacts, the number of impacts that were into the 40, 50, 60g range were more than I would have expected.

STONE PHILLIPS: How do these compare with what you see with the Virginia Tech players?

STEFAN DUMA: Some of the impacts that we collected in youth are similar to the big impacts you’ll see on a college field.

We saw, for example, six impacts over 80gs.

STEFAN DUMA: 80gs start to get into the lower range of what we would consider to be a risk of concussion. That’s a very high level acceleration, even in the college football you’re into the 95th percentile range. We’ll see five or six or seven impacts of that level through the whole game. So you see it, but not very often.

STONE PHILLIPS: Duma explains that because they lack the protective neck and chest muscles of older players, the youngsters are sort of like bobble head dolls. So, as he put it, almost every hit is like a surprise hit.

STEFAN DUMA: Because the neck is so small and so under-developed relative to the head size. That’s one of the reasons I think we’re seeing some of these larger accelerations. Because there’s no muscle tone that’s affecting any of this.

GUNNAR BROLINSON: With the kids when you start seeing 50 ,60, 70, 80g blows, you’re just going, wow, I mean that is really impressive in terms of the load that’s occurring and again you’ve got a young athlete developing brain subject to those kinds of loads, so its concerning. Fortunately, none of the Eagles suffered a concussion this season.

STONE PHILLIPS: Fortunately, none of the Eagles suffered a concussion this season.

Why is it that some impacts will cause a concussion and others of the same magnitude will not?

STEFAN DUMA: Well, there’s two basic reasons. One is direction and how you’re hit is a big, big factor. Getting hit with a lateral impact versus a front impact, those are issues. Our brain has different tolerances in different directions. The other issue is everybody’s very different. Our genetic make-up and our ability to withstand impact is different. It’s different for our whole body.

STONE PHILLIPS: The effect of an 80g hit on a college player versus the effect of an 80g hit on a 7- or 8-year-old. How does it compare?

STEFAN DUMA: 80gs on an adult, 80gs on a kid, it’s still 80gs. It’s a lot of energy.

How does it affect the kids, we don’t really know. We know it’s a low overall risk. It’s getting into the concussion range for adult. But the symptomatology, how many of those they can sustain, what’s happening in the brain, especially at the cellular level, that’s a real unknown right now.

STONE PHILLIPS: Duma’s research found that among the six impacts 80 g or greater, there was one remarkably big hit.

STEFAN DUMA: The highest one we measured was 100g, which puts you right in the middle average of a concussion.

STONE PHILLIPS: Is that surprising to you?

STEFAN DUMA: It’s very surprising. And that’s one of the reasons we wanted to collect the data was because no one knew what this would look like. We had no idea how hard the kids would hit.

There’s a lot of discussion that maybe we ought to change the design of the youth helmet. Now we have some data that would back up some of those design characteristics.

STONE PHILLIPS: Including information on where each hit landed. The helmet system tracks all of that.

STEFAN DUMA: What you see in the youth that you don’t see in the adults is almost always you have this helmet-to-helmet contact, the head is such a large part of their body. We don’t have the head-to-ground impacts that you would see in the college level. So mostly it’s helmet-to-helmet and right on the front of the shell.

STONE PHILLIPS: Are children more susceptible to head injury?

STEFAN DUMA: That’s a great question. On the one hand, children recover quicker they can recover and sustain injuries a little better. But on the other hand the brain is still developing, it’s not fully formed, it’s not fully wired, so we just don’t understand what that long term effect is.

STONE PHILLIPS: Virginia Tech opened the doors to its football locker room, so Duma could present his findings to the Eagles and their parents.

STEFAN DUMA: This is what the data looks like This is what we get on the sidelines. We do linear accelerations-so how the head

moves linear. And we also look at rotational — so the kind of rotating, twisting motion. We capture that for every single impact . . .

STONE PHILLIPS: He and Dr. Brolinson walked parents through the study and what the results could teach them.

GUNNAR BROLINSON: The one area where we have, I think, a huge opportunity to reduce the risk of concussion, reduce the risk of head injuries, I think occurs in practice. What we need to do, I think, is be very, very cautious with any kind of live or hitting drills and mitigate that risk in the situation that we can control which is really on the practice field.

STEFAN DUMA: What we can do is we can take this data and use it to drive future designs. How do you want to develop these helmets for the youth versus an adult. How do we make it lighter? How do we change the properties? Do we change the shape? The padding? To tailor a helmet for little kids as opposed to just wearing basically an adult helmet.

STONE PHILLIPS: What’d you think about what you heard?

AMY SUTHPHIN, parent: I thought I was shocked by the amount of impact that these little kids can put out.

DUANE DICKERSON, parent: A lot of times people don’t think about the young kids hitting this hard and honestly I didn’t realize it either. And, you know, the data don’t lie.

JA TOYA HARGRETT, parent: So, it was one of the things I was really worried about and to see the data is surprising, for them to be so small, but actually a really good thing.

KELLY GILLENWATER: I was surprised that we didn’t have any injuries actually by watching some of the hits these kids took. These studies need to be done at this level especially if these kids continue to play.

STONE PHILLIPS: The findings of the Virginia Tech study may encourage youth teams across the country to take a closer look at ways to make games, and, especially, practices safer. And it will hardly quiet the debate about whether kids this age should be playing tackle football at all.

For Eagles coach John Clark, who lives and breathes the game, the study delivered a high impact message about making football safer to make it better.

JOHN CLARK: I believe the game will flourish because of this study. There’s no reason to be afraid of the information. The information is real. It’s there. It’s what we do with it.

Auburn Mites on three!

TEAM: One, two, three, Mites!

JOHN CLARK: All right. Good job.