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Boys in helmets were bobbleheads, and that’s cause for concern

Updated: November 28, 2013 6:43AM

Palatine Mayor Jim Schwantz has been around football practically his whole life.

He starred at Fremd High School in Palatine and at Purdue University and enjoyed an NFL career in the 1990s that included a stint with the Bears and a Super Bowl championship with the Dallas Cowboys.

As a youth coach, Schwantz, a father of two, picked up on an alarming trend. Many of the youngest boys looked like bobblehead dolls while running around the field trying to balance football helmets on their tiny necks and heads.

Parents remarked how cute it was; Schwantz saw potential for harm.

“Technology has made helmets lighter, but some kids’ necks still aren’t strong enough for helmets,” he said. “You could be doing structural damage.”

Revelations in recent years about head trauma in the sport, and remaining questions about short- and long-term brain damage, fueled his concerns.

All this led Schwantz to partner with Palatine High School teacher Matt May to launch the Northwest Flag Football League for third- through sixth-graders this year. They describe it as a rousing success.

Initially they hoped for 40 players. By the end of the first week they had 90.

May, who coaches youth basketball in the northwest suburbs, had informally surveyed high school football coaches about tackle and whether it was necessary for young boys.

“Coaches shared with me that they don’t think it’s necessary for a kid to play contact football,” he said. “It’s more important to work on fundamentals.”

Across the U.S., football and basketball players have lost their way with fundamentals because of the emphasis on games as opposed to practices.

Schwantz and May recognize this. They hired past and present high school football coaches to help them provide instruction on proper techniques. Games were played after the completion of drill work.

Flag leagues are certainly more inclusive. In tackle, some of the heavier boys are not allowed to touch the ball while others are promoted to upper age groups based solely on being big. Schwantz says some aren’t psychologically ready for the quickness and physical play older kids embrace. He has seen fear on their faces.

A flag league takes weight issues out of the equation.

To be clear, Schwantz is still a proponent of tackle football. “I love tackle football,” he says. “I owe a lot of what I am to football.”

Yet, he believes the human body can weather only so many hits. “Delaying hitting as long as you can, that’s a good thing,” he added.

Gavin Muldowney says son Dylan grew tired of the hits in tackle after fourth grade, especially after a visit to the emergency room. With head trauma in the news, flag football seemed like a good idea anyway. “A lot of parents are listening and saying, ‘Maybe tackle football isn’t what third- through sixth-graders need,” Dylan’s dad said.

Another parent, Steve Herbst, worries about the rare catastrophic injuries in tackle. In 1980 he became a quadriplegic after getting tackled in a high school game.

Because of his injury and the latest concussion news, Herbst and wife Sue may never let Jack play tackle. But Jack is learning in the flag league while they continue mulling the future.

“I struggle painting a picture that I’m anti-football,” Herbst said. “I have no regret playing the game. But this buys time for people to make up their minds about what is right for their child.”


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