Mike Maloney made 146 tackles during his Joliet Catholic football career. So when a 225-pound Big Ten fullback came charging toward him during a routine practice drill his freshman year at the University of Illinois, Maloney was ready.
He moved into position and readied for contact. He made certain his pads were at the proper level and kept his head up. But when Maloney, then a scout team defensive end, didn’t turn his body in time, the top of Carey Davis’ facemask connected with the ear hole on Maloney’s helmet.
For the next 15 to 20 minutes, Maloney had no peripheral vision on his right side. He saw stars and was woozy.
“It scared me,” said Maloney, now the football coach at Johnsburg. “I couldn’t see out of the side of my eyes and it really scared me.”
Like many of his fellow high school coaches, though, Maloney isn’t sure that a legislative bill introduced by State Rep. Carol Sente (D-Lincolnshire) proposing limiting tackling in practice to one day a week is the answer. Sente said Wednesday that she introduced the bill after consulting with Northbrook neurologist Dr. Larry Robbins over concerns about young players taking repetitive blows to the head.
But Sente said she won’t finalize language in House Bill 1205 until after she collects more feedback from coaches, doctors, IHSA officials and other constituents. Sente will host a public forum Monday night at Vernon Hills High School that will include a panel discussion involving IHSA executive director Marty Hickman, along with a high school football coach, athletic director, trainer and neurosurgeon.
Illinois is one of four states that currently have bills seeking to limit how much football players hit one another in practice. Among them is football-crazed Texas, where State Rep. Eddie Lucio III (D-Brownsville) introduced a bill similar to Sente’s this month. The issue also is being investigated at a legislative level in Virginia and New York.
Maloney, who estimates he sustained eight to 10 concussions during his high school and college career, plans to attend Monday’s event along with several other coaches from McHenry County. Maloney said coaches statewide were encouraged by the Illinois High School Football Coaches Association to attend as a show of solidarity against state lawmakers getting involved.
“It just seems like a trust issue,” Maloney said Wednesday. “I don’t know many (high school coaches) are putting their kids in significant danger with winning at all costs in mind. There’s always going to be inherent risk in the game of football. It’s a collision sport, it’s a dangerous sport and there’s accepted risk. But keeping all of our kids safe is always in consideration.”
Although Sente hasn’t yet defined what the state’s involvement in high school should be, the intent, she said, remains the same.
“It’s changing this culture of football – it doesn’t have to be about hitting,” Sente said Wednesday. “We do have to practice enough so the kids are safe when they tackle or are being tackled, but we don’t want to be practicing so much tackling where they’re getting repeated blows.
“How many hits to the head is too many? I just think we want to limit those.”
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Matt MacAlpine was a fifth-grade special teams player for the Crystal Lake Raiders when he had what he believes to be his first concussion.
MacAlpine, playing on the Raiders’ special teams unit, sprinted down the field and connected with an opposing blocker. He had every intention of driving his helmet into the player’s chest. But when both youngsters lowered their bodies into the same position, their heads met, driving both to the ground.
“I knew I got my bell rung pretty good,” said MacAlpine, now a senior at Crystal Lake Central.
As he remained on the ground, MacAlpine started to see stars. Although he didn’t feel much different immediately after the hit, he could sense something wasn’t right. Still, he kept playing.
On the ride home from Wisconsin, MacAlpine developed a headache that over the next few hours, made it painful to look directly at light. MacAlpine’s parents took their son to the hospital for observation. Doctors later determined he had suffered a concussion, forcing MacAlpine to miss a week of practice and the next game.
MacAlpine suffered a second concussion as a sixth-grader, causing him again to miss time on the field in a sport in which toughness can blur a player’s judgment.
“You just want to be out there,” MacAlpine said. “With all of the adrenaline you’ve got going, you can get your bell rung and a few plays later, you’re back to normal.”
It’s a feeling former Cary-Grove and Northern Illinois linebacker Alex Kube remembers well.
Kube was a junior in high school the first time he remembers really hitting someone. He had grown up watching NFL tough guys such as Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis and safety Ed Reed play through injuries.
Kube had aspirations to play pro football and believed that if playing through injuries would get him to where he wanted to go, it was all worth it. Kube convinced himself that if he could run and tackle, nothing was wrong. If he couldn’t think straight for a couple of plays after making a tackle, then that was fine, too. He learned under coaches who preached there was a difference in being injured and being hurt.
Looking back, Kube knows there are times when he returned to the field when he shouldn’t have. Although he never was diagnosed with a concussion during his high school and college careers, Kube took a different approach to injuries than he does as an adult.
“You have to get athletes to understand that when you get dinged up in the head, it’s not about being a man or being a tough guy anymore,” Kube said. “It’s about getting yourself checked out and making sure you’re OK.”
There was a time when Kube ignored what his gut told him to do. The first time came early in Kube’s varsity career at C-G. He remembers not spearing an opposing running back, but making helmet-to-helmet contact. As he lay on top of the ball carrier, Kube saw stars before losing track of what was happening around him.
“The next couple of plays were just a haze,” Kube said. “But if you’re going to play this game, you have to understand that if you’re going to hit somebody, that’s something that can happen.”
Kube finished the game and never encountered any symptoms associated with concussions. But as someone who now trains high school and college football players, Kube admits his attitude about dealing with head injuries has changed dramatically. In a football culture built around violent collisions, Kube now understands players no longer can afford to ignore the warning signs of what could be serious head injuries.
More than 4,000 NFL players have sued the league, accusing the NFL of negligence in keeping pertinent information regarding head trauma quiet for years. Kube said the attention being paid to the subject at the NFL level has trickled down to the college level and now to high school football, prompting bills such as Sente’s here in Illinois and Lucio’s in Texas.
Both lawmakers insist while they still are investigating just how restrictive their respective bills will be as it relates to high school football practices, the culture surrounding the game has to change.
“The sports movies of the past have guys standing in one of those circles and going head-to-head,” Lucio told The Associated Press. “The harder they hit each other helmet-to-helmet, the tougher they seem. But what we know now from a science standpoint and from a medical standpoint is that’s horrible.”
The IHSA, which declined to make Hickman available, isn’t sure having the state government involved is the right way to deal with it.
In a prepared statement, IHSA associate executive director Kurt Gibson said concussions “remain a significant subject for organizations like ours that place a high priority on risk minimization.” The IHSA already does not allow high school football teams to conduct contact drills during the first three practices of the season, but does not dictate how coaches run practices during the remainder of the year.
Even so, Gibson, who also heads up the IHSA’s sports medicine committee, said he believes the IHSA has effective systems in place to maximize student safety without outsiders getting involved.
“I am not sure at this juncture that a state law is the answer,” Gibson said.
• • •
Jacobs football coach Bill Mitz and Johnsburg’s Maloney have issues with the ambiguity that exists in the current version of Sente’s bill.
As it reads now, the proposed legislation doesn’t define tackling, leaving the intent of Sente’s proposed legislation open to interpretation. Mitz, who just finished his third season at Jacobs after 28 years at Stevenson, said limiting how much time his staff devotes to teaching proper tackling technique could lead to more problems than solutions.
In three years at Jacobs, Mitz said he has had two varsity players suffer concussions and said head issues were never a serious issue in his nearly three decades at Stevenson. But Sente’s suggestion that limiting how much teams can tackle will cut down on concussions doesn’t sit well with Mitz, who insists teaching proper tackling techniques is a must for ensuring proper technique for safety.
“It’s like a kid hitting a curveball,” Mitz said. “You’ve got to practice that every day.”
Mitz said that full-speed contact drills at Jacobs are limited already to a couple of days a week. During tackling drills, Mitz said players hold onto dummies, cutting down on the chance of serious injuries. Mitz said that offensive and special teams drills never are run live and that defensive 7-on-7 work where a ball carrier is taken to the ground already is limited to five to 10 minutes on Tuesdays and to about 10 minutes on Wednesdays.
At Crystal Lake Central, MacAlpine said workdays are limited to two days a week, but never at full-speed. At Johnsburg, the Skyhawks limit full contact drills to twice a week, following a trend that keeps player safety at the forefront.
“We didn’t kill each other in practice and not because we were worried about concussions or anyone getting hurt,” MacAlpine said. “But just because we wanted to save ourselves for Friday night.”
Coaches like Mitz and Maloney regularly use drills in which players are wrapping up, but don’t tackle on a full-blown level. Like Mitz, Maloney said he believes coaches have scaled back how they run practices not only because of the attention being paid to head injuries, but because they can’t afford to have their teams at less than full strength on Friday nights. Both coaches also wonder how the law would be enforced – a question Sente said is among those that still need answers.
But while she continues to seek input from those who are involved in football on a regular basis, Sente said she won’t allow the topic to disappear before something meaningful is completed. Whether that comes as a result of her bill or the IHSA broadening how it deals with players taking repeated blows to the head, the culture needs to change.
“Football is in this evolutionary period and when did it start and when it’s going to finish, I don’t know,” Sente said. “But at the end, if we still have football, it won’t look like it does today.
“We have to do something to shift the balance and to keep the fun and athleticism of the game and still protect our youth.”