With all of the stories of head injuries being generated by professional football in recent months -- most notably the deaths of Dave Duerson and Junior Seau -- it was only natural that the controversial issue would trickle down to the high schools.
Veteran coaches Chris Andriano of Montini, Bill Mosel of Thornton, Bill Mitz of Jacobs, Ed Brucker of Marian Central and Frank Lenti of Mount Carmel have been aware of the concussion factor since helmets cost only 75 and coaches conducted three-a-days and didn't permit their players to drink water.
"The game has definitely changed," said Andriano, who has been coaching for 33 years. "We have never had a neck or spinal injury but we've had some concussions. But I can't think of any of our players who have had any kind of serious head problem over the last 30 years. We've always been very cautious and handled them the right way."
They concede the game is more physical than ever before, even at the high school level. And athletes are bigger, stronger and faster, thus increasing the possibility of serious injury in a violent, collision sport.
"We've been lucky," admits Mitz, who has had only one case of concussion in the last two years.
But they insist the percentage of concussionhead trauma or serious injury is reduced significantly by proper teaching of blocking and tackling techniques, purchase of the safest equipment on the market, reconditioning and re-certifying used equipment as well as conducting fewer contact drills and more controlled scrimmages.
Lenti, who has coached for 28 years, also advocates the use of form-fitted mouth guards designed by a dental company that has partnered with former Mount Carmel, Illinois and Pittsburgh Steelers standout Matt Cushing.
"We encourage our kids to invest in the form-fitted mouth guard," Lenti said. "Something that gets missed in all of the safety issues is having a good mouthpiece is important. A hit on the side of the jaw or under the chin causes shock to the brain as well as a hit to the helmet. This mouth guard helps the jaw absorb contact."
Mosel, a 30-year coaching veteran, has his players involved in an impact testing program, Baseline, which is affiliated with Ingalls Hospital in Harvey. In fact, all athletes in all sports at Thornton have their brain activities monitored by team trainers and team doctors through the program.
Baseline concussion testing is mandatory in many football and hockey programs across the country, from elementary schools to the pros. Such testing provides a baseline score of an athlete's attention span, working memory and reaction time. If the athlete suffers a concussion, he retakes the test. If there is a large decrease in the post-concussion score, the athlete is benched until the score increases.
"If we suspect a concussion, the information is available," Mosel said. "They can tell right away if anything is amiss. It is a preventative measure. It allows us to know what is going on."
"No one is sure about the percentage of athletes who have head issues. In the past, did we do a good job of educating athletes as to the symptoms? What is the percentage of all high school football players in the nation who get concussions? I'd like to know that statistic."
In the wake of the recent controversy that has surfaced over the DuersonSeau issues, the coaches claim parents haven't voiced concern wondering if they should prohibit their sons from participating in football because they fear for their safety.
"Always rule No. 1 is 'safety first,'" Lenti said. "We have always insisted that we have the best head gear money can buy. If a youngster breaks his collarbone because of a shoulder pad, that's one thing. But a head injury is something else."
Mitz, who has been coaching for 32 years, said the coaching staff and the trainers talk to parents in the preseason, educating them about concussions and other injuries.
"There is always a fear factor," Mitz said. "You always worry about your kids. God forbid you have to deal with a head injury. That's the terrible part of the game."
In his coast-to-coast travels to evaluate the nation's top football prospects, Chicago-based recruiting analyst Tom Lemming of CBS Sports Network said some parents are concerned but the athletes aren't.
"Not much will be done until someone dies, sad to say," Lemming said. "It has to start with the NFL. Colleges take their cue from the NFL and high schools take their cue from the colleges. There is a lot of talk but not much action.
"It reminds me of smokers. When the U.S. government finally said smoking caused cancer, something was done. At this time, the NFL says there is no proof that there are more concussions or brain damage. But it is obvious to anyone who monitors the game that players are getting bigger and stronger and faster and causing more head injuries with head-on collisions than 20 years ago."
While observing high school games from the sideline, Lemming said he sees many bone-jarring collisions.
"But the difference between high school and college is enormous with the speed and size and strength. It is scary when they collide head-on," he said.
"Officials have to change the game a little bit. Players should be suspended for one game for a head-on collision. All the rules are established to protect the quarterback, the most vulnerable position in football, but officials have to look at the safety of the game as a whole."
Brucker, who has been coaching for 40 years, and the others don't want to make light of a serious issue. They admit from time to time that they observe some coaches who teach defensive backs to dive at opponents' legs, increasing the chance of a knee striking the helmet and causing serious head injury.
But, to a man, they argue that the issue is blown out of proportion, that the media has chosen to sensationalize some stories, that it isn't a serious problem at the high school level and that spearing or using the head as a weapon isn't as much in vogue as it once was.
"Some people are over-reacting," Andriano said. "Look at all the kids who have played high school football. How many are injured? Teaching proper blocking and tackling techniques and making sure you are doing things the right way is what is most important. If a kid doesn't do the right technique, he is asking for trouble. Coaches need to be more precautionary and look different ways, like impact testing, to put people's minds at ease."
Brucker said: "These things may have happened back in the day and you might not have heard about them. When a kid suffered a sprained ankle, you just taped him up and he went out and played. Now you put a boot on his ankle and he's out for a month."
"What makes you question your practices, how you conduct your program, is you wonder if this is where it all begins," Mosel said. "I equate it to boxing. It isn't just one punch that triggers the head trauma problem but a combination of things. We were cautious before but we are more cautious now.
"The game will change but the game has always evolved. No one is sure about the percentage of athletes who have head issues. In the past, did we do a good job of educating athletes as to the symptoms? It isn't a badge of courage to hide things. When I started, it was common practice to scrimmage from start to finish. Now I worry about the number of contacts and blows to the head in a given day."