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Death of Football Player Highlights Need for Safety Vigilance

The death of a child playing sports is always tragic and traumatic. The August 24, 2008 death of 15-year old football player Matt Gfeller after suffering a brain injury after a helmet-to-helmet collision during a game in Winston-Salem, North Carolina was no exception, leaving family, friends and the entire community grief-stricken and stunned.

If your child is among the 1.8 million kids playing youth, middle school or high school football this fall, Gfeller's death probably has you wondering if your son is safe on the field and if there is anything you can do as a parent to minimize the risk.

While injuries - even of the catastrophic variety - cannot be completely eliminated from football, there are lots of things pro-active parents can do to minimize the risk of serious  or catastrophic injuryto their child.

A Safety Checklist

To begin with, while deaths like Gfeller's are always upsetting to learn about, you need to know that they are also very, very rare.  While this may be small comfort to the parents of the five or so youth football players who die each year from head injuries, it is reassuring nevertheless.

More importantly, you need to know that there are steps you can take as a parent to make sure that your young athlete is safe as possible playing football. 

The three areas where parents can make a big difference are as follows:

1.  Hydration safety.  Football players are at particular risk of heat illnesses, especially at the beginning of school each fall when the weather is still very warm in many parts of the country.  Sadly, between four and six football players die every year from heat-related illness.  Parents need to make sure that their child's program takes steps to reduce the risk of heat illness in football, such as those recommended by the American College of Sports Medicine.

2.   Concussion safety.  Football players suffer the most brain injuries of any sport.  According to a 2007 study, almost forty percent of high school and collegiate football players suffering catastrophic head injuries (death, nonfatal but causing permanent neurologic functional disability, and serious injury but leaving no permanent functional disability) during the period 1989 to 2002 were still playing with neurologic symptoms at the time of the catastrophic event.  

Parents need to be pro-active when it comes to concussions in sports.  You are still your child's best safety net.  Making sure your child has a safe helmet,  understanding return to play guidelines and insisting that your child not be allowed to return to the field too quickly after suffering a head injury are his best protection from second impact syndrome and possible long term injury.  Too many coaches fudge the return to play rules and too many players are on the field with lingering concussion symptoms.   As parents, you are the ultimate controller of whether your child plays, not the coach. If you have any doubts of whether your child should be playing in a game, consult your child's pediatrician before allowing your child on the field.   For a list of other ways parents can reduce the risk of concussions and catastrophic head, neck and spinal cord injuries in football, click here.

3.  Tackling Safety.  The long-time ban on initial contact with the head in blocking and tackling (spearing) has led to a dramatic reduction in the number of fatalities and catastrophic injuries in football, but coaching in the proper skills of blocking and tackling  is still vitally important.  Parents should make sure that these skills are being taught and that the ban on helmet-to-helmet contact is strictly enforced.

So, should you let your child play football this fall? Yes.  But go into the season with your eyes wide open and be sure you have this checklist in hand. Safety is as much a matter of preparedness and awareness for parents and coaches as knowing the plays is for the athletes.


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