DENVER — He’s 27. An old 27. After seven surgeries, it’s gotten to the point where Sam Stratton’s knee and ankle take turns getting funky on him when the weather turns cold.
“I’ve been asked that question so many times by doctors and reporters: ‘How many concussions have you had?’” Stratton said.
We ask anyway. Fifteen, he says. Maybe 20. When a bell’s been rung that many times, the lines start to blur. Along with other things.
“That’s always an interesting thing I’ve noticed, still being around the game,” noted Stratton, the former dual-threat quarterback at Chatfield High School, where he now serves as an assistant coach, “is that the head injuries have been taken much more seriously by your coach and trainers and players as well.”
He remembers throbbing. Irritation. The play, not so much. As a freshman quarterback at Chatfield, Stratton was reaching for a first-down marker when a collision with a defender sent him helicoptering into the air; the descent saw him land head-first onto the ground, concussed.
“Because as a quarterback, I ran around a lot and hurdled people and jumped around, after that play, my dad nicknamed me ‘Spider-Man,’” said Stratton, who scored 54 touchdowns for the Chargers before a torn ACL ended his senior season. “He started calling me that because of that play.
“I didn’t remember anything the following day on film. I kept playing. That was my first really bad one because I didn’t allow myself to take any time to heal.”
Stratton wishes he knew then what he knows now, although that’s not saying a whole heck of a lot, in retrospect. In order to serve on the Chatfield staff, the Colorado High School Activities Association required Stratton to undergo concussion-recognition training. In January 2012, Colorado law made such safety training mandatory for coaches and made it mandatory for players between the ages of 11 and 19 to receive written permission from a health care provider before they could return to play. The Jake Snakenberg Youth Concussion Act, named for the Grandview High School player who died after multiple head traumas in 2004, was signed into law in March 2011.
“Everyone says that this generation is so soft,” Stratton said. “It’s not necessarily that kids today are soft. I just think that it’s a situation where they’re coming up in an era where they don’t claim a loser or they turn off the scoreboard at certain times. Where they’re just comforting the kids’ feelings rather than teaching tough, hard decisions. Which is, I think, good for football.
“We tackle better now”
Stratton believes CHSAA’s emphasis on safety over style, maturity over machismo, is good for football at the high school level, too.
“Even though I’m a part-time coach, just like most of our staff, we understand how to properly tackle and wrap up with our heads up versus keeping their heads down,” Stratton said. “And being in good communication with injuries and things that they’re feeling and making sure that our trainers are involved as well. I can only speak to Chatfield, but (we) understand the importance of it. It’s good that they’re implementing (changes).”
The late, great John Gagliardi, a Trinidad native and Colorado College alum who died a few months ago at the age of 91, famously never allowed full tackling in practice over 64 seasons as the football coach at Division III St. John’s — and won 489 games, the most of any coach in collegiate history. The Ivy League has banned full tackling in practice during the regular season.
“A lot of people struggled with having to change,” Chatfield coach Bret McGatlin said. “I really embraced it five years ago. I feel like we tackle better now. We’re smarter about it, because we don’t have an old-school mentality of ‘stick your head in there.’”
If the data unearthed over the last decade on CTE and its impact on former NFL players’ brains doesn’t open your eyes, then this will: This past week, research was presented at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America in Chicago that detailed the effects of just one season of football on a developmental male brain.
The study found that MRI scans of the brains of 26 young males who played for a season — the average age of the subjects was 12 — were structurally different than before they started playing, and, just as significantly, differed from the MRIs of 26 young males who didn’t play. Researchers said blows to the head in football could affect the shape of a player’s corpus callosum, the band that connects the two halves of the brain and serves as a key part of the development of cognitive, motor and sensory functions.
“I know that we’re not just staying with the old-school ethos just for the sake of, ‘This is the way it’s always been done,’” said Valor Christian athletic director Jamie Heiner. “We’re always looking to grow, always looking to learn.”
“They would think it was too soft”
The Datalys Center for Sports Injury Research and Prevention gathered injury data on 96 high football school teams studied during the 2012-13 and 2013-14 school year and found that 58 percent of reported concussions happened during practice. So when first-year head coach Vincent White removed live tackling from Mullen High’s mid-week agenda this past fall, he might’ve been on to something.
“We don’t have a lot of numbers,” explained White, whose Mustangs, with a roster of 50-something kids, finished with a 4-7 record. “So you’ve got to protect those that you have.”
At Mullen, kids were given the option between a $200 helmet made by Riddell and a high-tech, $800 model by a new company, Vicis, whose offerings — thanks to a pliable and more forgiving outer layer — recently finished first and second in the NFL’s annual safety tests. The coach said roughly half the players elected to get the more expensive model.
“I don’t think it’s a bad thing that we’re more aware of trying to protect our kids,” said White, who played at Mullen. “There’s nothing wrong with that.
“It’s not like we’re not hitting. We’re just not tackling. We work on positioning and tackling and wrapping them up. The only thing you don’t do is take them to the ground.”
And heck, White trotted out an army compared to the numbers Nels Thoreson had to work with at Justice High School in Lafayette this past fall. The 8-man program opened the season with 15 on the roster and ended it with roughly a dozen, most of whom played both ways. Thoreson, who’s also the program’s athletic director, has to squeeze more blood out of more turnips than most. Brother Neil, a firefighter and paramedic from Dailey, is an assistant coach who doubles as the EMT and trainer, where necessary. The Phoenix don’t have a dedicated practice field, and Thoreson jokes he has to peruse a public park near campus to make sure it’s level enough and solid enough to prevent ankles accidentally rolling because of a hole in the grass or an unfriendly divot.
“You can teach technique but if somebody’s not going at 100 percent, they’re going to get in the game and not know what’s going on,” Thoreson said. “Coaches have to be really creative sometimes to simulate game-like situations.”
Thoreson might use tackling dummies, for example, to simulate a block, or have kids sprint to an offensive player at full speed with a bag and then set it down before contact, so they’re simulating the speed of the player without the collision at the end of the sequence.
“They’re not tackling the player but rather the dummy,” Thoreson said. “Stuff like that to do our best to try to have a game-like situation without game-like consequences.”
Thoreson played quarterback at Wisconsin-River Falls; White was a running back at Stanford. What would their collegiate coaches think of the mantras they’re spouting now?
“Oh, they would think it was too soft,” White laughed. “There’s no question there. But we’re more aware. We’re more educated, too.”
“It gets the job done”
At Justice, they had to get clever. At Chatfield, with a squad more than four times the size of Thoreson’s, they had to get enlightened.
The Chargers’ regular-season pattern was to tackle live only 5 percent of the time, and split the rest almost evenly between “Thud” — racing full-speed to the spot and making contact without bringing an opponent to the ground — and tagging. McGatlin espouses the rugby-based “Hawk” tackling technique emphasized by Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll.
A generation earlier, “there was no such thing as tagging when I played,” McGatlin said. “I’d say (we went) live 75 percent of the time.
“We are better teachers. And let me tell you, we are much better tacklers. I looked at some of our playoff games this year, how good of tacklers we were . It may not look as physical, but it gets the job done.”
It got done at Dartmouth, too. The Big Green posted a 9-1 record this fall, and despite not tackling at full-speed during the week, ranked No. 1 in the Ivy in scoring defense (12.0 points).
“It’s a collision sport — I don’t want the game to change,” Stratton said. “Guys are bigger and stronger than ever and they’re only going to get bigger and stronger than ever, so we’re seeing these injuries and these impacts and we’re seeing these concussions and they’re at seismic proportions because guys are so big and strong and fast.”