Football rules changing at all levels as studies reveal brain injury concerns
Seventeen-year-old Jalen Lawrence is 270 lbs and has offers to play football at several Division I schools. The defensive lineman from Westside High School in Macon says he has been playing football for nine years, and hitting, especially on the head, is nothing new.
"When you do it like that you get used to it," Lawrence said.
Getting used to the hits may have long term consequences. A study of former NFL players who suffered a concussion showed extremely high rates of depression and dementia. One of the newest studies shows even the smallest hits to the head can create health problems for younger athletes.
As the NFL changes its rules under threat of lawsuits, the changes are trickling down to lower levels of football.
"We try not to bang them as much because, you know, the athletic talent these days and the speed of the game getting faster, it's violent," said Westside High School Head Football Coach Sheddrick Risper.
Bibb County Schools Athletic Department Director Eddie Ashley says the new rules involve taking extreme precaution regarding the detection and diagnosis of head injuries. Risper says Westside has even outfitted the football team with new helmets designed to lessen the impact on the brain.
"That just takes a lot of the toll off your head, but being a lineman I still get beat up a lot," Lawrence said.
Besides more teaching time and less hitting at practice, coaches say they believe teaching proper technique helps avoid big impacts to the head.
"We try to teach our kids not to lead with the helmet, try to Avoid helmet to helmet contact," Risper said.
"Head up, not first, head up use your shoulder pads," said Lawrence.
But even with the increased vigilance regarding brain injuries Lawrence concedes it's not a top priority for most athletes his age, even if the consequences can be long lasting and costly.
"I guess it's a part of being young but it hasn't really crossed my mind too much," Lawrence said.