The Boys Who Fall: The Impacts of Concussions on High School Football Players

Allison Siegert

Imagine walking into a small football stadium in the middle of what seems like nowhere. You’re bundled up with three different pairs of socks and more layers than you thought could fit underneath your coat, due to the unpredictable autumn weather of Wisconsin. If you look up, you’re staring straight into the eye of stadium lights. You can feel the pre-game music thumping through your body as you approach the stands. You see the clock hit the two-minute mark and look up towards the locker room. You can see the tips of the warriors’ gold helmets glistening, ready to become covered in mud, grass, and scratches. The team walks towards battle, arms locked, heads high, with only one goal in mind. Friday night lights is the event you look forward to every week in the fall. No one can get enough of the crack of a hard hit, the hot chocolate warming their hands, or the clouds of breath. As my father, the head football coach at my high school back home, has said time and time again: the memories, the lessons learned, and making life-long friends all create a feeling that sets the sport of football at the high school level apart from any other sport.

Here in Wisconsin, a young man could have joined a football team starting in the early twentieth century, according to Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association. The game of football has changed immensely over the years, but the thing that has changed the most since the early 1900’s would no doubt be the technology of the helmets being worn. Protecting the most advanced human organ during such an intense game is of utmost importance to football leagues of all ages. Even the editors from Neurology Reviews agree that “the design of the American football helmet has changed dramatically since Admiral Joseph Mason “Bull” Reeves donned the first leather helmet in the Army-Navy game in 1893” (Strong 32). Helmet companies today, such as Riddell and Schutt, are constantly trying to create the safest helmet possible for football players. They are regularly looking for new ways to design helmets that are “focused on modifying the liner material and optimizing helmet absorption capability based on accelerometer monitoring systems,” according to Michael A. L. Johnson, MD, CPT, a member of the Department of Neurology at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. My brother, Cyrus Siegert, a high school football player himself, told me about the newest helmet he wore just this past season: “We have helmets that almost have an in-unit circuit board and chip in the padding of the helmet that detect the big hits and are wirelessly connected to our athletic trainers and coaches during practice/game. When the alert system goes off, the kid comes off the field and goes through a concussion test.”

And that brings up the highly-debated topic of concussions in football. What many people don’t realize is what actually happens to a football player’s brain during a concussion. Matt Giles, a journalist for the magazine Popular Science, created an excellent image of the neuro injury in one of his articles:

Picture the brain as a bowl of spaghetti that is suddenly flung out of an airplane. Those noodles would stretch. Some would snap from the pressure while others would merely thin out in a way that would damage the sensitive neurons. (Giles 2)


A football player’s brain after a large hit is essentially a bumper car hitting the walls, where your brain is the bumper car and your skull is the wall. The brain violently accelerates in whatever direction it was hit, neurotransmitters are released and sent into a frenzy, the neuronal cells stretch so thin that they let go of potassium and sodium ions and are replaced by calcium ions, which essentially paralyzes the neuron and can potentially cause microscopic hemorrhages in the brain (Giles 3). This combination is what sends the concussion victim into a daze of speech, vision, and even memory loss. However, for high school athletes concussions are less lethal than they are with older players because a young man’s brain is flusher with the bone compared to the space between the brain and skull of an older athlete. In younger players, there is less potential for movement and damage. This is due to the degenerative issue of brain shrinkage that everyone experiences with age.

Traditionally, the game of football has been thought to uniquely correlate with growing concussion rates, but, according to an eleven-year study conducted at the MedStar Health Research Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, football isn’t the only high school sport the media should be blaming concussions on. Twelve high school boys’ and girls’ sports were examined from 1997 to 2008, and they found a total of 2,651 concussions among all athletes. Researchers further found that in girls’ soccer 195 players experienced concussions, and in football 1407 players experienced concussions. Even though football players experience more concussions than girls’ soccer players and other high school sports, football boasts the highest participation in the county. In the year 2008, there were 1,112,303 participants in football and 344,534 participants in girls’ soccer (National Federation of State High School Associations, 486). Crunch the numbers and that gives an incidence rate that is extremely similar for girls’ soccer and football — 0.056% and 0.126%, respectively — yet the media fails to take notice and they continue to blast football. Either way, concussion rates are still going up, and something must be done to combat the powerful blow behind the contact that occurs between football athletes nowadays.

Now onto the phrase that is an influential part of almost any article that has anything to do with concussions: Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE. “CTE is a degenerative condition that can only be diagnosed through autopsy,” writes Matt Giles in an article in Popular Science. As of now, there is no way to test a living individual to see if their brain is suffering from CTE. CTE has been found in 90 out of 94 former NFL players over the past eight years (Giles 3). This is the number that shocks the public the most, as would any study whose results are near 100 percent. But what is missing from this study are all the resources that are being provided to football players now and just how in depth their recovery can be before they get back on the field and potentially reinjure the temporal lobe of the brain.

Nevertheless, parents and students across the nation are questioning the safety of football and wondering if playing is really worth it. Is the sport of football too dangerous for high school athletes to be playing? The sides are obvious: yes, it is, and no, it isn’t. There are thousands of sources for each side, I’ve presented some above. But some of the best and most reliable information comes from the research of two neuro-focused physicians, pathologists and surgeons, Dr. Bennett Omalu and Dr. Uzma Samadani.

Dr. Omalu is a public authority on this issue and has been able to reach out to thousands due to his recent studies presented in the film Concussion (2015). He discovered tau[1] and named the disease CTE, which he found all over football player Mike Webster’s brain.[2] With strong opinions on the idea that football is only concerned about profits and not the people playing, he has been able to convince hundreds to keep their kids away from the sport of football. During a New York Press Club talk, Sports Illustrated reported him saying that, “someday there will be a district attorney who will prosecute for child abuse [on the football field], and it will succeed” (Kelly 1).

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Dr. Uzma Samadani and her beliefs about youth football. In August 2017, she spoke at the Wisconsin Football Coaches Association Clinic about high school football. Her argument is strongly in favor of allowing teens to play football. In fact, she allows her own son to play. She backs her argument by comparing suicide rates of athletes at certain ages to the rest of the population at those ages, and what has been found is lower suicide rates in all levels of sports competition. Since 2005, NFL players are 48 percent less likely to commit suicide, and similar results were found among NCAA football athletes. Even at the youth level (grades 7-12), an increase in sports participation leads to a decrease in depression by 25 percent and suicidal ideation decreases by 12 percent (Gangwich). During her talk, she even debunks Dr. Omalu and his opinions by stating that CTE is in fact not the problem: the depositions of tau are a response to injury in the brain, which can be repaired over time. It has even been found that CTE is not directly related to dementia at all, according to Dr. Samadani’s various studies as well as JAMA Neurologys studies. In fact, says Dr. Samadani, according to a study done by the Mayo Clinic, 438 high school football players were followed for fifty years alongside members of the chorus, glee club, and band, and they were no more likely to experience dementia than their counterparts.

Dr. Samadani repeatedly hammered down the fact that any MRI of a child’s brain will show changes over the course of a football season, and this is completely normal. Even the brains of young people who don’t play football will change, because all brains atrophy over time. It’s a part of life. Dr. Samadani believes that the benefits of high school football highly outweigh the risks of possible injury (brain related or not). She states that, “football attracts kids that normally wouldn’t be able to play sports because there are close to 30 different positions. All skill and size types are needed.” She also presents the fact that the average BMI of a high school football player is twenty-six, a number considered at risk. If these kids had no sport to play, she says, they would likely develop a variety of different health related issues including obesity and diabetes (Wis. Football Coaches Assoc.).

Overall, the decision of whether teens should be playing high school football comes down to relationships between coaches and athletic trainers and how well a particular high school follows the American Academy of Pediatrics Recommendation.[3] Before making a decision about participation in the sport, parents and students alike should be focusing in on their football program’s willingness to follow the recommendation and perspectives of health professionals brought forward above.

Works Cited

“Dr. Uzma Samadani – WFCA Clinic” Youtube, Wisconsin Football Coaches Association, 24 Aug. 2017, 11/06/2017

Breslow, J. (2013). The Autopsy That Changed Football. FRONTLINE, 6 Oct. 2013, -autopsy-that-changed-football. 11/06/2017

Giles, Matt. “What Happens To A Football Player’s Brain During A Concussion?” Popular Science, 5 Feb. 2016, 11/06/2017.

Kelly Laura. “‘Concussion’ Doctor Says High School Football Is Child Abuse.” The Washington Times, , 8 Aug. 2017, 11/06/2017.

Landesman, Peter, director. Concussion. Colombia Pictures, 2015. 11/06/2017

Landry, Dr. (2015). The American Academy of Pediatrics tackles youth football injuries: New recommendations advise better training and enforcement of rules around tackling, and skilled athletic trainers to reduce injuries among young athletes. ScienceDaily, 25 Oct. 2015, 11/06/2017

Lincoln, Andrew E., et al. “Trends in Concussion Incidence in High School Sports: A Prospective 11-Year Study.” American Journal of Sports Medicine, vol. 39, no. 5, 2011, pp. 958-963. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1177/036546510392326. 11/06/2017.

National Federation of State High School Associations. “Participation Statistics.” NFHS, Sept. 2009, 11/06/2017.

Pirscoveanu, DFV, e. (2017). Tau protein in neurodegenerative diseases -a review. PubMed- NCBI. [online] pp. 1141-1150, 11/06/2017

Strong, Colby. “Evolution of the Football Helmet: Improving Safety Through the Years.” Neurology Reviews, vol. 21, no. 6, June 2013, p. 32. 11/06/2017.

Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association. “Football History.” Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association, 11/06/2017


Writer’s Memo

With any creative piece that I have ever been asked to complete, I have always looked to draw on things that reflect the person I am today or why I am the way I am. When researching topics to write about for my argumentative long assignment, I dove deep into the world that has inspired me to pursue the career I am diving into. With the help of my dad (my hometown’s head football coach), my brother (a graduating star linebacker), and the Wisconsin Football Coaches Association, I compiled the resources needed to put forth a strong argument for the world of high school football, so much so that my father actually presents this piece to wary parents looking for reassurance when enrolling their son in a football program. When writing this piece, I learned how to weave my way through feedback from my peers and English 100 teacher, and I was able to learn more about myself in the process. I learned how powerful my research can be, influencing those back home and here in Madison and how I must keep pursuing the subject of concussions in sport to further educate the people in the sports world. Looking back, I would revise a few details and some of the wording in my essay to make it seem more fluid throughout. As a young writer, never be afraid to go back after you’ve submitted your work to revise and make the piece longer than the page limit to further educate and pursue your audience; because in the end, your writing should have no limits!


Instructor’s Memo

Carrie Schuettpelz

We find ourselves at a moment in time where students are, unfortunately, quite well versed on the issue of football concussions. This was certainly the case in my English 100 classes where, each semester, I’d typically receive at least a few essays on the subject. In my class, the first major assignment was a personal narrative that included a broader “societal issue,” and so it was common for former high school football players to reflect on their time in the sport. What made Ally’s first paper so unique, though, was that it was from the perspective of someone whose entire family was involved in high school football–including her father, who coached the team. Ally had thus spent her entire life as a keen observer of the game.


The second major assignment of the term was to take that same “societal issue” and make it the subject of research. Ally and I discussed how to turn her observational lens from her first paper into more of a firsthand account, which she did beautifully. I really admire how she was able to weave in the story of her father and brother–through her own personal observation–into the research. I always encourage my students to utilize the “I” voice in their work, and Ally did that with such mastery. Moreover, she managed to turn the state of Wisconsin–her home state–into an important character in the narrative. Ally also did something I had not seen in previous football concussion papers, which was present a “counter-claim.” We are mostly familiar with the reasons why football is dangerous–most notably CTE–but Ally managed to unearth research by Dr. Uzma Samadini about the reasons why young men should be allowed to play the sport, which added dynamism to the issue. Together, these elements made for a paper that was solid in its analysis, deeply rooted in something very personal to the writer, and strongly tied to an issue that is of great concern.


[1] Tau are proteins that clump and clog the brain during CTE. Tau cause the death of brain cells associated with mood, emotions, and executive functioning. (Pirscoveanu, 1141)

[2] Mike Webster died of a heart attack at the age of 50 on September 24th, 2002. He had a Hall of Fame pro football career, played for the Steelers (1974-88) and the Chiefs (1989-90) for a total of 17 years. In the last years of his life he was substantially depressed, had multiple physical problems, and financial and marital misfortunes. (Breslow, 2)

[3] The American Academy of Pediatrics Recommendation for High School Football Programs states: 1) follow the rules, 2) reduce contact drills/practices, 3) neck strengthening, 4) tackle technique improvement, 5) proper care on demand. (Landry, 2)