© 2023 KMUW
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

With Safety In Mind, Kansas Changes High School Football Practice Rules

Andy Marso
Heartland Health Monitor
Mike Zegunis, football coach at Blue Valley Northwest High School, addresses his team during a recent practice at the Overland Park school. Kansas high schools are starting the second year under new rules that limit full-contact football practice.

Questions about the long-term effects of football on the brain have trickled down from the NFL to the high school level, where there's little research on players. Even so, the organization that governs high school sports in Kansas is directing coaches and players to cut down on the hitting as they prepare for the season. 

At the first day of football practice at Blue Valley Northwest High School, one sound you won’t hear is the crashing of pads and helmets.

The state’s high school athletic association is enforcing new rules. Players aren’t allowed to actually tackle each other until the fifth practice. Once the season starts, they’ll be limited to an hour-and-a-half of full contact each day in practice, and none the day after games, which doesn’t sit well with heavy-hitting linebacker Garret Tierney.

“I personally don’t like the limited contact setting because you’re not allowed to go 100 percent basically, and I just can’t play football like that,” Tierney says.

Tierney says his mom and grandparents don’t mind the new rules. He says they’re concerned about the connection between football and head injuries.

By now, most parents across the U.S. have seen the headlines about football players suffering a strange, brain-damaging condition called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.

Those headlines are almost all about professionals — dozens of NFL players who have accumulated a lot of hard hits over a lot of years.

Tierney’s teammate, Riley Zerni, thinks players at the high school level probably don’t need to worry about it as much.

“I think it’s different cause we’re not getting as hard of contact," Zerni says. "Those guys are definitely bigger and stronger, and they’re hitting more and more powerful than we are.”

The thing is, nobody knows. There’s little research about the risks that thousands of high school football players across the country are taking by playing the game.

Boston University, which is at the cutting edge of CTE study, has found damage inside the brains of some players who never made it beyond college or even high school football.

Mark Lentz , assistant director of the Kansas State High School Athletic Association, says the organization is trying to be proactive with the new limited contact rules.

“We’re not guaranteeing that someone’s not gonna get a concussion, which no one can do, but we’re minimizing the risk," Lentz says. "I think that’s the big key to it, is that we continue to minimize. Does this mean it’s the perfect system? I don’t know. But is it something we believe that can be built upon, absolutely.”

The players may say they don’t like them, but Lentz says the changes have generally been well received by the state’s coaches. He says many of them had already reduced hitting in practice by as much or more than the new rules require.

And there’s something he and other state high school officials like Brent Unruh don’t want to get lost in the media’s focus on football: Every sport has risks.

“Girls' soccer, this past year actually, their overall concussion rate is the same or even a little higher than football," Unruh says. "It's the first time that’s it’s reached that level. So it’s definitely not just football.”

Back at practice, Blue Valley Northwest coach Mike Zegunis surveys a squad whose numbers are down from a year ago. That fits a national trend. Youth football saw a participation bump last year, but it came after several years of decline. Overall numbers are still down since 2009.

“The safety stigma or whatever you wanna call it, I think that affects real little kids," Zegunis says. "Kindergartners, first graders, second graders that moms and dads used to allow to play tackle football, now they’re not. I think parents are saying, 'You know what, we’re not even gonna go there,' and that’s unfortunate because I think we’ve done a good job to make the game safer.”

Part of the fear with CTE is the unknown. It builds in the brain over time, and players and their loved ones don’t know it’s there until symptoms like erratic, sometimes violent, behavior crop up.

That’s what happened to NFL players like Mike Webster and Junior Seau. And that’s what happened to Zack Langston, who about 10 years ago was a hard-hitting linebacker at Blue Valley Northwest who would go on to play at Pittsburg State University.

Langston fatally shot himself in the chest in 2014 after years battling symptoms associated with the concussive disorder. He was 26. Researchers at Boston University examined his brain and found severe, widespread CTE.