Sports

STAN GROSSFELD

Frightened away from youth football? Not in Wellesley

Wellesley, Ma- August 14, 2017-Stan Grossfeld/Globe Staff- --Mekhi Martin of the Wellesley Junior Raiders youth football team during preseason practice.
stan grossfeld/globe staff
Wellesley youth coaches believe that teaching proper techniques is a key to avoiding injury.

WELLESLEY — If you think youth football is dying a painful death, just go to Wellesley.

Last season, the Wellesley Junior Raiders fifth-grade football team was perfect — undefeated and unscored upon — in its state championship season. But head coach Rob Broggi is equally proud of another string of zeros.

“Zero concussions, and zero serious injuries,” said Broggi, who is also president of Wellesley Youth Football, which includes children ranging from second to seventh grade

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“Safety is our main concern. We take nothing more seriously.”

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Nationwide, youth football participation is down roughly 20 percent since 2009, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. Last year, a total of 1.217 million youths, ages 6-12, played tackle football at least once — a one-year decline of 45,000.

Wellesley has bucked the trend. It even added a sixth-grade team this season.

“We are actually up the last two years,” said Broggi, a hedge fund manager who teamed up with Matt Damon to help bring an apparel company to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. “The Bay State Conference is steady across all towns. It’s harder to get the second/third graders these days, but overall the program numbers are steady.”

Still, worried mothers blitzed him with safety questions before allowing their kids to play this season.

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“Almost all of them were completely reticent about having their kids play football,” he said. “It’s getting harder to convince mothers to let their kids play because everyone has this preconceived notion of what it’s going to be like.’’

Especially after a July report by Dr. Ann McKee, director of Boston University’s CTE Center and chief of neuropathology for the New England Veterans Administration Medical Centers. It said that 99 percent of NFL players and 21 percent of high school players that donated their brains for research were found to have chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

When the CTE Center recently released a new study that found increased risks of brain-related problems from playing tackle football before age 12, Broggi went on the offensive.

He emailed a letter to his Wellesley Youth Football community criticizing the BU report.

“It is important to note that the football players studied had an average age of 51 years old,” he wrote. “This means that most of these people were playing youth football in the 1970s. During that era, youth football was taught in a wildly different manner than it is today.

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“Kids were encouraged to get right back in the game/practice after ‘getting their bell rung,’ players were taught to use their heads as a weapon, their helmets were nothing more than thin plastic shells, and heavy contact was involved during the vast majority of practice time.

“Sadly, the 1970s were also a time when nobody wore seat belts . . . nobody wore bike helmets, nutrition was a Twinkie, Ford Pintos were exploding, drinking multiple martinis during lunch was normal . . . kids were inhaling tons of second-hand smoke from mom & dad’s Lucky Strikes, and nobody ever exercised.

“Thank goodness the world has come a long way since then. So has youth football.”

Coach Rob Broggi huddles with his players after practice.
stan grossfeld/globe staff
Coach Rob Broggi huddles with his players after practice.

Broggi wants to see comparative studies done in soccer, hockey, lacrosse, and skiing.

“Feels like a jihad against football to me,” he said. “They should study all contact sports, not just one. Otherwise this information is useless.”

Broggi also posted on the league website a Yahoo! Sports article titled, “I’m a brain scientist and I let my son play football.” Written by BU neuropathologist Peter Cummings, the article says that research is lacking.

Risks in other sports

In 2016, there were zero deaths in youth football attributed to direct contact, according to the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research.

But 53 percent of adults believe that tackle football is not a safe activity for kids before they are in high school, according to a recent UMass Lowell-Washington Post poll.

According to Broggi, flag football is actually more dangerous.

“Parents should rethink switching to the increasingly popular flag football if they are looking for a safer alternative,” he said

A February report published in the Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine concludes, “Injury is more likely to occur in youth flag football than in youth tackle football.”

Another eye-opening study concerned girls’ sports.

“High school girls soccer had a significantly higher concussion rate than boys, with female soccer players suffering the most concussions,” according to research presented at the 2017 annual meeting of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.

“While American football has been both scientifically and colloquially associated with the highest concussion rates, our study found that girls, and especially those who play soccer, may face a higher risk,” said Wellington Hsu, professor of orthopaedics at Northwestern, in the report.

Broggi said he is not surprised.

“My wife was an All-American soccer player and captain at Boston College and she absolutely feels that it has made an impact on her,’’ he said. “It’s because they’re constantly taking headers, and that’s a 35 m.p.h. projectile coming off their head.”

A Wellesley player hits a tackling dummy in practice.
stan grossfeld/globe staff
A Wellesley player hits a tackling dummy in practice.

Broggi readily acknowledges that there is still risk in youth football despite limiting contact in practices and using heads-up tackling techniques. But every aspect of the game is designed to minimize head injuries.

“It’s all about rugby tackling and shoulder tackling and getting the head out of the play,” he said.

Thomas Ashe of the Wellesley Junior Raiders.
stan grossfeld/globe staff
Thomas Ashe of the Wellesley Junior Raiders.

Coaches are trained in concussion education, baseline testing, and return-to-play protocols. At each game, he said, there is a doctor and an EMT in attendance.

“I do worry about the safety,” said Melanie Hampson, whose son Noah, 8, is starting his first season in Wellesely Youth Football. “But I figure he’s young, he bounces a bit more, right? There’s not too much power in them yet. When they get older and bigger is when the problems start.”

Weighing the positives

Last year, Pop Warner, the nation’s largest youth football league, settled a wrongful death lawsuit involving a 25-year-old who committed suicide in 2012. The suit alleged that Pop Warner failed to train coaches properly and limit hitting in practices held when Joseph Chernach was 11-15 years old. The BU researchers found evidence of severe CTE in the former high school football player.

Even the top-rated helmet companies acknowledge that no helmet can protect the brain 100 percent from concussions. New impact-absorbing helmets that use technology principles similar to car bumpers are being worn for the first time in the NFL this year. The VICIS Zero1 is the top-rated helmet in safety tests. The helmets cost $1,500 each, although VICIS says it plans to release a less expensive youth version in 2019.

Mekhi Martin, in his protective helmet, sizes up the action.
stan grossfeld/globe staff
Mekhi Martin, in his protective helmet, sizes up the action.

Broggi, whose son Robby plays quarterback, said Wellesley will “most likely” purchase the helmets, pending the latest safety tests. He also believes that the positives of youth football — the discipline, camaraderie, and leadership — far outweigh the safety risks.

“It’s a sport where there’s a spot for every type of kid, whether big, fat, small or skinny,” he said. “All of these kids have a role together at all these different spots. And they have to be there for each other.”

But Broggi also realizes that if mothers say no to football, it will die.

“If youth football disappeared, that would be a real tragedy for a whole generation of kids,” he said, “because football, when taught and practiced the right way, teaches these kids things that other sports don’t teach.”

The Wellesley Junior Raiders go through practice.
stan grossfeld/globe staff
The Wellesley Junior Raiders go through practice.

Broggi turned to a boy on the practice field and said, “Hey Max. Was your mom nervous about you playing football before you started playing?”

“Yeah,” said Max.

“How does she feel now?” said Broggi.

“She thinks it’s awesome,” he said.

Broggi smiled.

“She runs the snack shack and she’s on the board of Wellesley Youth Football,” Broggi said. “She’s a total convert, as well as all the moms.”

That didn’t change much with the new BU report and the news that former Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez, who was convicted of murder and then killed himself in prison, had a severe case of CTE.

Only a single fourth-grader — a first-year player — was withdrawn from the league by his parents. Everyone else played.

“Only positive comments,” said Broggi.

stan grossfeld/globe staff

Stan Grossfeld can be reached at grossfeld@globe.com.