Sunday July 29, 2012

PITTSFIELD -- Jordan Barbarotta knew something wasn't right.

Moments after an opponent's knee inadvertently hit the side of his head in a high school football game last fall, he knew he had a concussion.

Rubbing his eyes, he jogged off the field and told his dad, Taconic coach Vinny Barbarotta, that he was done for the day.

"I know kids that have had concussions," Jordan said. "I know what they look like. I could just feel, I'm like wobbling a little bit. I'm not 100 percent there. I knew I had a concussion as soon as he hit me ... with his knee, on contact."

It was the second hard hit to the head that the junior suffered in the game against Lee. The first was a milder, head-to-head hit on a kick return. The combination kept Jordan out for two more games, including one week in which he wasn't allowed to attend practice.

"It made me a lot more aware of it," Vinny said of the injuries, which his son suffered headaches from for two days after the hits. "As a coach you see a kid get his bell rung, you don't laugh it off, but it's the tough-guy act. I'm a lot more sensitive to it now than I ever was."

With football concussions grabbing headlines these days, Berkshire County's high school coaches and players are confronting the problem more than ever before.

Jordan said he's seen the most concern about hits in the past two years. Now, even after a minor collision, coaches will ask if he's OK, something that rarely happened before.

After what happened to him last fall, he understands why.

"No matter how much I wanted to play in those two games, I knew it was the safe thing for me to sit out," Jordan said. "If I were to get another concussion, I could've been done for even my career, for all I know. It's a big deal."

Those words would be welcomed by Dr. Ellen Deibert, a Pittsfield neurologist who treats about 200 complex-concussion patients a year, including Barbarotta.

Football still sees the most concussions of any high school sport. A study in the American Journal of Sports Medicine in April found that 47.1 percent of concussions studied between 2008 and 2010 occurred in football. Girls' soccer was next at 8.2 percent.

While the Barbarottas got their wake-up call last season, former Wahconah Regional coach Matt Morrison, who has long been involved in youth football in Dalton, saw how dangerous concussions could be seven or eight years ago.

Morrison was at a coaching clinic where he heard stories of kids winding up paralyzed by devastating hits. He learned a new tackling technique focusing on players keeping their heads up while tackling. The technique has been a mainstay of the Dalton youth program ever since.

"It was very eye-opening," Morrison said. "It was totally probably against whatever I learned growing up. When they showed me the film of a high school kid paralyzed because he got his ‘bell rung,' now it brings everything to light.

"Kids that tackle with their heads are going to get concussions, period. That is not how you play football. You don't spear your head into a guy's knee trying to tackle."

Morrison said he believes techniques have failed to evolve with the game. Keeping kids safe comes down to proper techniques. While not all concussions can be prevented, risks can be greatly reduced simply by getting kids to stop using their helmet and head to tackle.

Russ Moody, parent of Taconic High center Dylan Moody, said players need to understand how crucial the proper techniques are. (The Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association, the governing body of high school football in the state, doesn't mandate that any specific techniques be taught as long as they are within the rules of the game.)

"The kids have to be taught that concussions are a real issue," he said. "Their playing style has to be a part of that equa tion of eliminating concussions."

Jordan Barbarotta said his coaches emphasize not hitting with your head, but with your shoulder pads. Leading with the head never turns out well, he said. 

"[Kids] see those people in college football who want to get drafted flying at someone's head so they get noticed and get money," Morrison said. "They try to emulate what they see on television. That's not how football is played at the high school level."