A proving ground for young talents, middle school football has been a fall mainstay in Gaston County. Yet as studies linking frequent football-related collisions with brain injuries, coaches are changing their approach to the game as well.

Twenty-five minutes before his team’s Sept. 5 home opener, the attention of Grier Middle School football coach Eric Furr wasn’t only focused on the field and getting his players prepared for the game -- but the crawly critters on it as well.

“Keep an eye out for those fire ant hills,” he said to players, coaches and referees during pregame warmups. “I don’t think that is a problem you want today.”

Fortunately for Furr, his team avoided the ant hills and opposing Chavis Middle School tacklers, taking the contest in a 46-16 rout.

Certainly, every time Furr and his team take the field, victory is the primary objective. As a coach, however, being a middle school coach goes deeper than one’s win-loss record.

“It is the camaraderie you help build between kids and their teammates,” Furr said. “They put in that hard work, they sweat every day. I tell the kids from the first day, if this game was easy everyone - male and female - would be out here.”

While youth football is the initial step taken toward gridiron greatness, middle school can best be described as the proving ground for young talents. Eleven Gaston County middle schools currently field teams, with nearly 400 student-athletes participating this season.

“What I like is, (as a coach) we are helping these kids,” said Bessemer City Middle School football coach Daniel Walker. “In many ways, football gives kids something to do during fall months, keeps them occupied and out of trouble.

“It also is good for me, because down the road when you see some of them maybe playing high school, college, or - if lucky - pro football, you are still ‘Coach’ to them. That’s what I love about this.”

Though the love of “America’s Game” remains, local middle school coaches also understand they must deal with the proverbial elephant in the room.

In recent years, football has become the subject of scrutiny and criticism as safety concerns mount. Among the worries held by the Gaston County contingent is less about the current state of the sport here, rather what the future holds for a game they love.

 

What do the numbers say?

Drawing middle school athletes out to the practice field hasn’t been an issue for Shawn Stamey during his time at Cramerton Middle School.

“Numbers have never been an issue for us,” Stamey said. “Everyone wants to play football at Cramerton. Maybe I guess a lot of the reason for that is we rarely cut anyone, unless we have a crazy number come out.”

Over the past five years, no school in Gaston County has fielded a larger football team than Cramerton. In his fourth year at the school - first as a head coach - the least number of players he and his staff had at their disposal was 33 during the 2015-16 season.

Of all county middle schools, Cramerton is one of three schools - along with Belmont and W.C. Friday - to have more than 200 participants during that span.

As with anything, ebbs and flows are par for the course … and local middle school participation is no different.

According to numbers courtesy of the Gaston County Schools Athletic Department, participation is down this season with 384 middle schoolers taking to the gridiron. It is the lowest turnout since the 2015-16 season, when 368 student-athletes suited up for local schools.

Some would see any downward tick as an ominous sign for the sport. But the numbers paint a different picture, one where schools under most circumstances gain more players year-to-year than they lose.

A good example is Bessemer City, which had only 19 players take the field during the 2016-17 season after 31 student-athletes participated the previous year. The program quickly bounced back, doubling its participation in 2017-18 as 39 players buckled up their chin straps each Wednesday.

According to Walker, success has a little to do with that.

“When a program is winning, you tend to see more participation,” the Bessemer City Middle football coach said. “The first couple of years, our numbers were pretty low. But the last couple of years we’ve seen close to 40 - and some of that has to do with making the playoffs, playing for a championship.

“Families tend to see that, they see good teams and good coaches. And as a result, they may be from certain areas and see good things happening, and want to move.”

Every school isn’t necessarily reaping that success in participation.

Over the past five seasons, a total of 114 players have taken the field for York Chester Middle School. Chavis and Grier are next on that list with 151 and 159 student-athletes on the gridiron, respectively, over that span.

 

Changes in technique, equipment sought as remedies for concussion issues

Simple science recommends everything adapts with time.

Football is no different, with coaches once set on regular ‘Oklahoma’ and ‘Bull in the Ring’ drills now embracing other ways of teaching the game.

“I’d say these days we spend up to 75 percent of our hour and a half, two hours on the practice field teaching (players) the game, the right way to tackle,” Stamey said. “We spend maybe 10 to 15 precent of that on tackling and contact drills. The rest of the time is teaching proper techniques.”

Since a correlation was made between concussions and severe brain ailments such as CTE - short for Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy - training and education has been stressed to coaches at all levels.

“We’re told in these meetings and clinics extensively about kids having their heads up,” Stamey said. “But at that age you can teach them for a month, and someone will still come out and do it wrong. That’s why it is so important for us to continue the education process as much as we can, because our goal is for them to have fun and be safe doing so.”

Said Walker: “Our league is big on avoiding helmet-to-helmet contact and the lowering of one’s head. We always preach head-up, contact with shoulder pads is encouraged. We do 'wrap up' drills, but limit contact as much as possible.”

When asked, area coaches have said concussions have been a rarity in their experience at the middle school level - though not saying such injuries don't happen.

“I’ve seen (on teams I’ve coached) maybe only two concussions,” Furr said. “Most of the ones I’ve seen have come at the high school level and beyond, where players are bigger and faster, and tend to carry much more of a punch.”

According to Trent Hayes, the CaroMont Sports Medicine coordinator for the health provider that serves Gaston County Schools, the accuracy of how many concussions truly occur during play at local middle school games tends to be skewed for several reasons.

“Because of our split school model, athletic trainers are not necessarily present during these middle school games or at the school,” said Hayes, who also serves as trainer at Gaston Christian School. “Due to (Gaston County Schools) using a split school model, there is one athletic trainer that provides for two schools, typically at the high school level. All schools have first responders in place, but care is not the same or close to being comparable when it comes to diagnosing and caring for concussions.”

Though Hayes does believe a large share of injuries at most any level of athletics are typical “sprains and strains,” he also believes brain-related injuries go unreported.

“With the number of collisions in (football), it would somewhat surprise me there would be few instances of concussions. Hopefully the numbers are accurate though,” he said. “I see (concussions as an athletic trainer at Gaston Christian) in soccer, softball and basketball - sports with far less contact than football. But a lot of that has to do with not knowing what they are looking for, so there is a chance things are going unreported.”

Concussions may not be totally avoidable, but Stamey has been a staunch advocate for investing in safer helmets for football players at all levels.

“This is something I suggest to all parents in our program,” he said. “The primary one I recommend is the (Riddell) Speedflex helmet. Chances are they’ll be comfortable and safe under most circumstances. It would take them not using proper technique (not tackling with head up), being dragged backward or if ear-holed.”

As part of its “Play Smart, Play Safe” campaign, a helmet study conducted by the NFL and NFL Players Association (NFLPA) in conjunction with biomechanical experts found the VICIS Zero1 and the Riddell Speedflex Precision at the top performing headgears. The Schutt Air XP Pro VTD (I and II) and Xenith XP+ also are recommended by experts.

“Particularly in regard to VICIS, their honeycomb system tends to form fit on all parts of the head,” Stamey said. “The nature of helmets like the Speedflex and VICIS tends not to cause the helmet to rattle the head.”

Unfortunately, cost is a major hurdle for elite equipment. A Riddell Speedflex helmet can cost anywhere from $300 to $500, where the VICIS Zero1 can run for up to $900.

“It’s a steep price to pay, but when talking about the brain and head-related issues, I cannot think of a better investment,” Stamey said. “Like a car, these helmets are built to give a little so the brain doesn’t rattle inside one’s head while providing a comfortable fit.”

 

What does the future hold for football?

Few believe the game of football will fade away and suddenly become obsolete.

Yet, coaches also confess they’d be foolish not to be sensitive to a rise in concerns offered by parents and countless others.

“I think of football as the one, true team sport,” Stamey said. “There is a camaraderies that can’t be seen in most other sports. But have I talked to kids and parents about not playing football? Definitely.

“A former player of mine now kicking at the high school level, his parents were dead set against him playing football … unless I only allowed him to kick. I can say for sure there are more parents out there like them, being a tad gun shy about the game and how it may affect their future. But overall, the game will still be around, just with less numbers than we’ve grown accustomed to in years past.”

Walker sees society as a big problem - not just in concerns about the safety of football, but also rising interest outside of the game.

“Interest is waning at the lower levels,” the Bessemer City Middle head man said. “We had less 7-year olds, 8-year olds, 9-,10-, 11- and 12-year olds wanting to play football. Parents are shying from football and going to other sports and interests, to the point where middle schools may soon have greater issues fielding teams.

“At say, the youth league level, that is where the teaching is supposed to begin. At middle school level, we don’t truly have the time to teach football from the ground up. And if we do, you look up and see the season is over.”

Fortunately for Furr, Stamey and Walker, football is still seen as an intricate thread in the fabric of a community at-large.

“Football is big in Gaston County,” Furr said. “I’m not from here, was raised maybe 35 to 40 minutes from around this area. But right once I arrived, I learned football - period - is big time, especially at the middle school level. It’s good for a community and good for the high schools too, because if the middle schools are good it helps the high schools play at a high level as well.”

 

Joe Hughes can be reached at 704-869-1843 or via e-mail at jhughes@gastongazette.com. Find him on Twitter @JoeLHughesII.