When Michael Zuehlke’s oldest son, Nick, wanted to play football a few years ago, Zuehlke signed his then-5-year-old up for flag football with the Crystal Lake Raiders.
That year, the Raiders informed Zuehlke that interest in the flag football program had waned. Not enough kids signed up. They gave the Zuehlkes the option to take a refund or sign up Nick for “flyweight” football – a modified version of tackle football for 5- and 6-year-olds that some programs within The Chicagoland Youth Football League play.
Zuehlke left the option up to Nick, who said he wanted to try tackle. Zuehlke had doubts about suiting up his 5-year-old in pads and a helmet.
“As much as an advocate for football as I am, I was a bit apprehensive myself at first,” Michael Zuehlke said. “[Nick] tried it, and by the time he had those pads on and those first couple of hits, there was no looking back.”
Nick, now 8, still plays in the Raiders program. His brother Dan, 6, is in his second year playing flyweight football, and now their father is a flyweight coach.
Across the Chicago area, many 5- and 6-year-olds playing in TCYFL programs will suit up for flyweight football. When USA Football – which is the official youth football partner of the NFL and organizes the sport in many communities across the country – announced its plans for a “rookie tackle” pilot program in select youth leagues, TCYFL president Geoff Meyer was not surprised.
TCYFL has offered flyweight football for six years. Like USA Football’s rookie tackle, it features a smaller playing field, no kickoffs or punts and players rotating positions frequently.
TCYFL does not keep score for flyweight games. Each half is 20 minutes with a running clock. Teams play seven games in the season.
“It’s a great introduction to tackle football,” Meyer said. “They’re little guys, they’re just learning, they’re having fun. But they’re out there doing it. They’re a team; it’s teaching them all teamwork and camaraderie.”
TCYFL oversees some 50 programs, including the Cary Jr. Trojans, the Crystal Lake Raiders, the Crystal Lake Jr. Wolves, the Huntley Mustangs, the Johnsburg Jr. Skyhawks, the Lake in the Hills-Algonquin Jr. Eagles, the McHenry Jr. Warriors and the Woodstock Thunder, among others.
There are more than 8,000 youth football players under TCYFL. Some programs play flyweight with 5- and 6-year-olds, while others play flag football.
“For us, it’s more of a recruiting tool and introducing to these parents that we’re going to put [the kids] in equipment,” Meyer said. “As far as I’m concerned, they’re safer in that equipment than playing flag football with no equipment.”
‘These are children’
Dr. Chris Nowinski doesn’t recommend anyone under the age of 14 play tackle football.
Nowinski is the founder of the Concussion Legacy Foundation and co-founder of the Boston University CTE Center. He doesn’t think modifying tackle football is enough.
“The solution is right there in front of them,” Nowinski said. “We’re telling them that [the solution] is not tackle. Trying to create an alternative slows down progress toward a real solution.”
The BU CTE Center studies chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the brain disease that has been discovered in many former NFL players and is associated with memory loss, aggression and depression. The link between the disease and football is the inspiration for the 2015 film “Concussion,” starring Will Smith.
Researchers believe repeated blows to the head cause CTE. According to the Concussion Legacy Foundation “it’s not just concussions: the best available evidence points towards sub-concussive impacts, or hits to the head that don’t cause full-blown concussions, as the biggest factor.”
The NFL denied the links between football and CTE for years. A study released by Nowinski’s team at the BU CTE Center on July 25 found CTE in 177 of 202 brains of former football players. That included 110 of 111 former NFL players, 48 of 53 college-level players and three of 14 former high school-level players.
The study looked at former football players who donated their brains, many specifically because they believed they suffered from CTE.
“The fact that three players who never played beyond high school also had [CTE] reveals that all players are at risk,” Nowinski said.
Nowinski can’t escape the analogy with big tobacco businesses.
“What the research seems to be telling us at this point is that we could make a hit to the head analogy to smoking cigarettes,” Nowinski said. “One cigarette is not going to cause lung cancer, but thousands, or tens of thousands could.
“[Modified tackle] is so much like putting a filter on cigarettes or going to low tar. Yeah, I have tackle but fewer tackles,’ or, ‘Yeah, I have tackle but different tackle.’ No, the tackle is the problem. Inhaling the smoke is the problem. And these are children.”
‘Kids should play sports, period’
Not everyone in the medical community is in agreement on the dangers of youth football.
Dr. Uzma Samadani is a neurosurgeon and professor at the University of Minnesota. She allows her 15-year-old son to play tackle football.
“I study brain injuries, I take it seriously,” Samadani said. “This is what I do for a living. But I’m comfortable enough with risk-benefit in this situation that I think it’s safe for my child to play football and I think it’s probably safe for most people’s children to play football.”
Samadani, who went to medical school at the University of Illinois-Chicago, studies better ways to classify brain injuries. For her, saying someone has a concussion isn’t enough. She’s working to better identify which parts of the brain have been injured.
She feels there is not clear enough evidence that the average youth football player is at risk for developing cognitive impairments later in life.
“There appears to be a higher risk of CTE in athletes, particularly contact sports athletes,” Samadani said. “Depending on which [research] papers you read, 20 to 40 percent of contact sport athletes appear to develop CTE. It’s really unclear if any of them are symptomatic. There’s no evidence to suggest that they develop clinical symptoms due to that CTE.
“The number of people who develop symptoms due to CTE is probably minuscule. There’s not a clear correlation between the presence of the pathology underneath the microscope and symptom development.”
Samadani doesn’t have a problem with young athletes playing tackle football, as long as kids are playing sports. She said if flag football makes a parent or child feel safer, then play flag.
But she also said society shouldn’t condemn parents or children for choosing to play tackle football.
“Kids should play sports, period,” Samadani said. “We need to come up with more sports for kids, not fewer. We need to figure out more ways to de-risk sports, rather than more ways to ban sports.”
Dr. William Cox, the Medical Director of Centegra Sports Care, doesn’t see a reason for 5- and 6-year-olds to suit up in pads and a helmet. Cox said at that age a child’s head is about 90 percent of its full size, whereas the rest of the body still is catching up.
“They don’t have the coordination that the (older) kids have,” Cox said. “I don’t necessarily see the benefit of having them in pads that are bulky and limit their mobility, and a heavy helmet — what’s heavy for them — on an already oversized head on a small neck.”
Centegra provides athletic trainers for most of the area’s high school athletics programs, and for some youth athletics. Cox served as an assistant team physician with the NFL’s Washington Redskins in the 1990s.
“Football is a great sport,” Cox said. “The benefits of sport are well-established. Kids who participate in sports are usually better students, they’re more successful, they’re healthier. It’s just the one aspect of football, the head injury, is kind of the great unknown.”
Cox said Centegra will see an average of about 200 athletes a year with concussion-related symptoms. The majority of those athletes are 12 or older. Centegra also provides baseline concussion testing for local athletes.
Cox believes that new tackling guidelines, such as USA Football’s Heads Up Tackling, are a good thing. For parents and athletes, it comes down to weighing the pros and cons.
“Risk-benefit is something you have to weigh on an individual basis,” Samadani said. “Obviously, I’m worried about my kid, just like everybody else. Of course I don’t want to see him or any other child get hurt.”
Tackle vs. flag
The Cary Jr. Trojans also compete in TCYFL. They do not offer flyweight football. For the Jr. Trojans, the reasoning is simple: They always have started 5- and 6-year-olds with flag football and have seen no reason to change.
Jr. Trojans President Nate Young said he will keep a close eye on USA Football’s rookie tackle pilot programs.
“It’s something we’re going to watch,” Young said. “There’s clearly a conversation that’s been had among parents, the media, the medical community about the safety of youth football in general. It has parents, to an extent, second-guessing.”
Even so, Young has heard nothing but positive things from other TCYFL programs that have flyweight programs.
“They think it’s a great way to introduce kids to the sport and they’ve had great success,” Young said. “This is not the football that was played 20, 30 years ago. Coaches have become very smart about when to allow contact in practices, and if you’re going to do it, there needs to be a very good reason for having contact.”
The Raiders were one of the first TCYFL teams to introduce flyweight football. Rich Swick, TCYFL representative for the Raiders, was one of the first to coach the flyweight division.
“It’s a controlled environment,” Swick said. “It’s not as gritty as say a normal football game.”
Swick said the response from kids involved and their parents has been positive and that retention among flyweight players is generally high. When Swick’s son started in the Raiders program, he played flag.
“With flag, you saw kids that are rough and it’s almost too physical because they’re not wearing equipment,” Swick said. “They’re not wearing a helmet, and they’re bumping into kids.”
First-year coaches go through a USA Football training program, which Zuehlke estimates is about 12 to 14 hours of training. Returning coaches take a refresher course every year.
Meyer, the TCYFL president, said he would draw the line if he were seeing excessive amounts of head injuries in his league.
“If I saw us having concussion problems all the time — if I’ve got concussions all over the place, constantly — then OK, that’s an issue,” Meyer said. “But it’s not happening. It’s not even close to an epidemic. It’s made to seem like it’s at epidemic proportions.”
But Cox and Nowinski agreed that concussions aren’t necessarily the problem, and that football is in a unique position, compared to most other sports.
“In football, it’s the repetitive blows to the head that are the concern that you don’t see in the other sports,” Cox said. “Other sports, they tend to be more sporadic. A football center or offensive lineman essentially gets a hit to the head every single snap of the ball. That’s why a lot of the focus is on football.”
Meyer also thought flag football might be more dangerous because kids don’t wear pads. To that point, a recent University of Iowa study suggests that there “was no significant difference in the number of severe injuries and concussions between” tackle and flag football.
And as far as Meyer is concerned, it’s safer to put a helmet and pads on a child.
“In reality, some of those tackles aren’t even anything,” Meyer said. “You’ll see one kid running to the ball, as soon as he gets touched, he falls down.”
Zuehlke agreed, saying if the Raiders still offered flag football, he would sign his boys up for flyweights rather than flag.
“Parents ask me, ‘Why should I let him play now?’” Zuehlke said. “Yeah, they can get hurt. But other elements outweigh the possibility of my child getting injured. A lot of these kids haven’t even gone into kindergarten yet. (They’re) just learning those basic functions of keeping your hands to yourself, respecting your teammates and what that truly means.
“I have a 2-year-old. If flag came back (to the Raiders), I think I’d go with the tackle football. I’m personally, and my wife is personally, comfortable with allowing our children to play tackle football.”
HE SAID IT: Three questions with Dr. William Cox, Medical Director of Centegra Sports Care
Northwest Herald: Should 5- and 6-year-olds be playing tackle football in any form?
Cox: It’s an interesting question because at that age the brain is even more susceptible to concussion than the kids as they get older. The other factor is, when they wear helmets, their head is also large for their body size. The human skull roughly is about 90 percent of its full size when you’re 5 years old. They kind of have an adult-sized skull on a little wobbly neck and body. Then you put a helmet on, on top of that, which is heavy. The brain at that age, yes, it’s more susceptible to concussion.
The flip side of that is at that age they’re light and they don’t hit very hard. I can’t speak to whether the rate or risk of concussion is higher at that age because they don’t have the impact that the kids do as they get older.
Northwest Herald: What happens when a child sustains a hit to the head?
Cox: The brain is basically made up of nerves. The brain is not fully developed at that age. It’s not even fully developed through college actually. But at that young age, it’s not fully developed. The long and short of it is, the neurons, the nerve cells, are more susceptible to injury in the developing brain than they are in the adult brain. These injuries can have long-term consequences.
Northwest Herald: At what age is it safe for kids to play tackle football?
Cox: I don’t think anybody knows the right answer. My own personal opinion is that if they are going to play football in high school, they should definitely be in pads in seventh or eighth grade. I don’t think you want to first expose kids in high school. But earlier than seventh or eighth grade, I would leave it up to the coaches and parents to see if it’s beneficial for those kids to be in pads. Plus, I think it’s different based on the position a kid is going to play. If he’s a skill position, he can play flag football. Whereas if you’re a lineman, you need to learn blocking techniques in pads and helmets.