Local coaches speak out on rash of NFL health controversies
Bounties. Concussions. Lawsuits. Suicide.
These are the NFL buzz words littering the off-season air of late, making headlines in areas the league wishes would vanish.
Will the landscape of football suffer because of all the negative press? Will prep players' parents think twice about signing the waiver form and walk their son away from the game fearing for the future of a teenager?
Five high school head football coaches who have been in the trenches of dealing with the dilemmas of keeping a player in one piece offered up their opinions on the latest matters in the sport.
The roster includes:
- Dave Keel, Homestead High School for 20 years
- Frank Matrise, Kenosha Tremper High School for 20 years with two prior years at Kenosha St. Joseph's
- Clay Iverson, entering his first season at Mukwonago High School after seven years at Pewaukee
- Rob Stoltz, Greendale High School for 11 years
- Tom Swittel, Brookfield East High School for two years after 15 years as the head coach at Wauwatosa East
While it may be a minuscule sample size, the thoughts of these experienced coaches take the temperature on whether or not the game at the high school level will be impacted enough to see any significant drop in numbers or concerns.
"As much as I'd like to dismiss that, I don't think you can," said Iverson. "We're in an interesting spot in high school football right now. We've got a lot of really good football players in this state, and we do see parents asking a lot more questions, which is good."
"You'll have some kids that will shy away, but I think if coaches do the right thing and come out on a positive manner from the top down and explain we're all in this for the best interest of the kids, I think it will be something where parents will want their kids to play," said Matrise. "I take pride in that, saying I want to watch out for kids and make sure they are OK."
The awareness has increased, but so have the numbers. There has been no parallel avalanche of football players de-committing fearing the risks of what lies ahead. Coaches like Stoltz and Keel are keen to the fact that the health and safety of a player trumps victories.
"I think as long as we promote to parents that we are interested in the best interest in the health of their son we won't have an issue," said Keel. "We do that, and will continue to do that. If there are any issues with a young man, he is not going to be put at risk. I think we're OK long term as long as we maintain that focus."
"The reality is football and concussions are scrutinized to the nth degree in the last handful of years, and it's very much in the public consciousness and it will continue to be as it should be," added Stoltz. "But I believe that five years from now it's not going to be the Flavor of the Day from a media standpoint.
"Could we suffer a decrease in the numbers? It's possible for sure, but I would not expect it to be anything substantial and I think largely because people are becoming more educated and they understand the risks going in."
It doesn't help when Junior Seau graces the cover of Sports Illustrated with an article that acts as his obituary. Parents read the text and digest the questions why these warriors in the NFL lose control of their thought process after seasons of pounding and head trauma. But high school coaches share the fear factor and refuse to roll the dice.
"I think the high schools have actually been on the leading edge of safety, even ahead of the NFL," said Keel. "If any player exhibits any signs of a concussion, be it [in] practice or a game, there is a protocol that must be followed by the physician or trainer and coach. Those things are completely out of the hands of coaches these days, which is a good thing."
Stoltz, who suffered head injuries while playing at Greendale and later UW-Oshkosh, didn't need any chart to guide him in concussion awareness.
"If there is anything you don't mess around with it's your brain," said Stoltz. "But I don't have that increased sense only because I think I'm already on alert. When we have players and they get their head dinged, you're done. I'm not going to go to the trainer and ask if he's good to go ... he's done.
"As a coach, I'm not someone questioning any decisions because I've been on that end as a player."
"A lot of us came from the era of shaking it off, but now it's not our job to make that call," added Iverson. "None of us are trained to decide if a kid has a concussion or not, so if you're going to make a mistake, you've got to make it on the side of safety for the kid."
Matrise learned firsthand that concussions require strict attention. Back in his playing days at Kenosha St. Joseph's, Matrise suffered a serious blow to the head as a sophomore. His father, also the Lancers Athletic Director, was ahead of the curve.
"We were lucky because we did have a team doctor and I can remember coming home that night and my dad consulting him as far as what to do and taking the proper procedures and what to look for," said Matrise. "I can remember my parents on the hour, every hour, waking me up to make sure I was OK.
"The credit goes to my dad, and he's preached that to me as far as safety for student athletes."
Swittel, who played high school football at Marquette followed by college action at St. Norbert, shared stories of suffering hits that resonated well after the collision.
"Even though I was never diagnosed with a concussion and never in my mind lost consciousness, there were times where I got my bell rung pretty good," said Swittel. "The last game of my college career playing at Dayton I walked into the wrong huddle and had no idea where I was. A couple of my teammates had to grab me and pull me into our huddle. I never left the game and I'm sure that would never happen today."
Swittel has a radically different approach for sidelining a player today, and not strictly as a coach, but as a parent. Ironically, it was an incident not involving his 8th-grade son, but his daughter, Taylor, a gifted soccer player at Brookfield East who suffered a concussion after taking a knee to the head.
"It made us sit back and say, 'Holy cow, this is serious stuff,'" said Swittel, whose daughter will play collegiately at UW-Milwaukee next season. "I would be lying if I didn't say I'm a little nervous for her and don't want it to happen again."
Old-school thinking is no longer an excuse for ignoring the symptoms of a concussion. Coaches today rely on their own personal history to set the guidelines of maintaining safety in the game today.
"Like most guys my age who played in the early '90s, you got banged up a little bit, but back then, a concussion meant you were unconscious, and everything else was just you getting your bell rung and you got up and played again," said Iverson, a former New Berlin Eisenhower and UW-Eau Claire lineman. "You wanted to play and didn't want to be known as a guy who didn't want to play and came out because your head hurt.
"What you're seeing now is a change in attitude toward that injury, which is definitely good." Page 1 of 2 (view all on one page)
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