The health of athletes might not be the only thing threatened by concussions. The sport of football might be in danger, too, if the drop in youth participation locally is any indication.
Ask Todd Hobbs, Amboy's junior tackle president, who clearly is anxious to be talking about numbers in his program.
Some of his fellow coaches had expressed doubts that talking to a reporter would help.
"The guys in the program said, 'You know why you're going there, right?'" Hobbs says with a nervous laugh. "We're a small program. We can't afford to lose numbers."
Hobbs says his eighth-grade team will be a big one, both in literal stature and in numbers. Eighteen eighth-graders are registered. Twenty-one seventh-graders and 17 sixth-graders are also relatively par for the course, but having just nine fifth-graders signed up is a cause for concern.
Just north of Amboy, Ashton's 30-year-old junior tackle program likely will have about 50 players, about 10 fewer than last season.
"I can think of at least two situations ... that [concussions are] why they're not letting them play football," said Jim Lahman, who has overseen the AFC program for 19 years.
Most of the area's programs have seen a dip in numbers. Some haven't completed registration.
In some cases, declining numbers are a direct correlation to declines in school districts' enrollments. For instance, Challand Middle School in Sterling just graduated one of its biggest eighth-grade classes in recent memory. Enter one of the smallest incoming fifth-grade classes Sterling has seen in some time, and having another 162 athletes in the junior tackle program is unrealistic.
"If I can get 150 kids, I'd be very happy," the program's second-year president, Mitch Jacoby, said.
Most of the area's junior tackle teams run a watered-down version of their varsity counterpart's playbook. That promotes continuity and prevents athletes from being overwhelmed while they should be focusing on mastering fundamental techniques.
"Execution is the name of the game on this level, ... and repetition," Newman junior tackle president Jube Manzano said. "You can have 100 plays, but if you can't run one of them well, you've got nothing. I'd rather have five or 10 plays and run them well."
"Unfortunately, concussions are always going to be there," Hobbs said. "Preventing them starts with how you're coached. It's basics – not leading with your head, using proper blocking technique."
To read more from our special series on sports concussion, please check out The Hidden Injury project page on saukvalley.com. Click here to visit.