By Caitlin McNally, producer, Football High
When we began researching this film, one of the first team websites we came across was Arkansas's Shiloh Christian Saints. Our jaws dropped -- I can't imagine even the famed Dillon Panthers of Friday Night Lights, with their unstoppable boosterism, would've engineered a website quite like the Saints'. Take a look -- and make sure you have the volume up.
Immediately, we had a strong sense that our instincts were right: high school football really has become a whole new game.
But we didn't realize just how early a community's passion for football begins. When we got to Springdale, Ark., it quickly became clear.
On a balmy July evening in 2010, we filmed some games between first grade teams as part of the local youth league, Kiwanis Kids Day. We had already filmed a bit with the "gray team" at practice. Now we were following them into the local high school stadium for their big contest under the bright lights.
"You guys really aren't with the red or the blue team, right?" This was the first question one of the gray team coaches asked me when we arrived. I had made the big mistake of wearing a red and blue T-shirt -- the colors of the opposing team. The coach, who was also a dad of one of the first graders, suspected I might be a spy sent over to suss out the gray team's playbook.
You might think first-grade summer football is just organized chaos on turf, but you'd be wrong. Just like high school football -- and the college and pros, for that matter -- the pee-wee game is competitive enough to be rife with possible intelligence agents and sinister schemes.
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But amidst all this intensity, there are increasing concerns about football's risks. We spoke with Chris Nowinski, of the Boston University School of Medicine, who questions whether more attention should be paid to the frequent, low-grade hits that amateur football players are taking to the head, especially at the youngest ages:
"A seven-year-old biomechanically is at a disadvantage, because they have this little tiny neck and this huge head and they can barely keep their head from hitting the ground every time they fall."
So far, the youngest participants in neurological studies of head hits in football have been high school players. But researchers as well as journalists join Nowinksi in wondering how young the damage may start. As Will Carroll, SportsIllustrated.com's "Injury Expert" told us:
"It's always that one kid who's a little bit bigger, a little bit faster and is out there on the Little League field wearing hand-me-down gear, coached by dad or the neighbor, and these kids are getting jacked up. How many of these kids have concussions? How many of these kids are taking massive hits to a developing brain?"
Meanwhile, despite the headlines about head injuries, the youth game remains immensely popular among first-through-sixth graders. The organizer of the Kiwanis Kids Day football league told me that there are now 16 youth teams practicing in the summer -- that's almost 500 kids under the age of 12 in the Springdale area alone. As he says, it's a lot of football right from the start: "They practice about four nights a week for about an hour and a half to two hours. ... They get a ton of football in a short amount of time. Football is king in northwest Arkansas, there's no doubt about it."