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A series, by Ellen Abbott, on the issue of concussions in CNY.

New high school football rules protect helmetless players

Following the tragic deaths of several high school football players across the country, the sport's rules and practices are being scrutinized. Recent rule changes are protecting helmetless players, and some coaches in the region say it's bringing common sense back to the game.

On a chilly evening, the Oswego Buccaneers varsity football team hustles down the field against the Nottingham Bulldogs, its quarterback lobbing a well placed ball to an open receiver.

Oswego won that game 22-14, ending the regular season on a high note. It also ends a season with new rules meant to protect student athletes from concussions and other injuries when not wearing a helmet. The rules call for a player to stop play when he loses a helmet, sometimes sitting out the next play, and institutes big penalties for those initiating contact with a helmetless player.

Michael Connors is Oswego High School's football coach and athletic director. He says although he hasn't seen many cases of a helmet coming off during a game, the rules are in the best interest of students statewide.

"With all the attention drawn to concussions at this point, any stance that an organization can take to promote safety and the integrity of what we're trying to do is a positive thing," Connors said.

Recently, future Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre announced that he suffers from memory loss. Favre's revelation follows a massive $765 million concussion settlement paid out be the NFL to about 4,500 former players.

On the smaller, and much more local scale, high school players are taking harder hits from bigger kids, prompting the National Federation of State High School Associations to issue the regulations. Robert Zayas is executive director of the State Public High School Athletic Association, and implements the national rule changes statewide.

He says they make the game safer and are common sense.

"With the helmet rule and all the other rules implemented, we're seeing that people are educated by these rules, they're knowledgeable of them and they're taking more of a serious look at the way they play the sport of football and the manner in which they're tackling," Zayas said. "And coaches are now focusing on this to a greater extent than they ever have been before."

Although serious injuries are rare in high school and college football, they do happen. The American Journal of Sports Medicine reported this summer that about 12 players die each year from indirect or direct trauma from playing football.

In September, 16 year-old Damon Janes, a running back for a high school near Buffalo, died three days after suffering a helmet-to-helmet on-field collision. The high school team he played for canceled the remainder of its season after only playing two games.

But Zayas says football, like any sport, has its own inherent risks. Rule changes and new regulations help reduce those risks as much as possible.

"That needs to be our number one goal on a daily basis," Zayas said. To ensure that our student athletes are as safe as possible when they step foot on that playing field, or on those courts, or swimming pools or tracks all throughout the entire state."

In Oswego, Michael Connors says three of his players suffered mild concussions this season, and each went through a rigorous concussion rehabilitation program.

"At any time along that process if the student has symptoms or there's a fear that they're not moving along as hoped, then we stop at that point and revert back to the previous day," Connors said.

Connors says while the rules do help prevent injuries, what's most important is teaching kids how to play the game correctly.

"You really need to, as a coach, to emphasize proper technique and proper head position. Again, I don't think it was something that we weren't preaching before, but now it's really being emphasized."