The Free Press, Mankato, MN

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October 25, 2012

NFL joins effort to enhance safety in youth football


"Hit!" several players shouted. "Be violent," said another.

"That's right, we got to be violent, we got to hit. In between the whistles, alright? Okay, let's do it."

Sophia Berns watched the ensuing game intently from the stands. Her son, Kosta, 11, is on the team. Another son, Niko, 13, plays on a Wolverines team in an older division. The Berns family has seen tangible benefits from their boys' participation in youth football. Like all parents, they've also had to consider the risks.

"But they live and breathe football," Sophia said. "There is no other sport."

The Berns family knows there are risks. Niko's team took the field recently with only 12 players. The others had been sidelined by a wrist injury and a torn MCL, among other nicks and bruises. An ambulance was called to a recent practice when one player suffered a minor case of whiplash.

Football has a higher rate of brain injuries than any other youth sport, well ahead of the next closest activities (girls' soccer and ice hockey). According to the Center for Disease Control, bicycling still results in far more emergency room visits than any organized sport.

In more than a quarter-century of coaching, Wilson, 50, has seen youth football grow into a complex entity with a lot of moving parts. Rockville's youth league is run by a board of directors with a large network of volunteers. Its coaches need to obtain seven types of certifications before they can blow a whistle. This fall, for the first time, every parent had to complete a mandatory online course in concussion awareness. And any player showing signs of a concussion can't return to practice without a doctor's note.

Robert Cantu, one of the leading experts in traumatic brain injury, says that safety steps and increased awareness like this is not enough.

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