By Zachary Tornabene, Paige Shepperly, Andrew Pregler and Andrew Sander
It’s fueled by a dream. The dream of the big moment. The dream of hitting the game winning three, crushing the walk-off home run, or making the game-saving tackle. Aspiring athletes dream of the opportunity to live in the spotlight, however, not all dreams become reality. In reality, today’s game of football is at a crossroads. In reality, players are putting their lives on the line to play a game.
For some football players, the desire for a healthy, normal life is enough to hang up the cleats and start dreaming of something else.
“I’m going to make my life with my brain not with my body,” said former high school football player, Jacob Perrin. “For me, it was the most realistic long run thing. I still want to be an active participant in my field at age 50. I don’t want early onset Parkinson’s symptoms if I’m still in my prime academically. I’m still contributing as a person.”
Perrin, a sophomore at Syracuse University, suffered five concussions in high school playing football and basketball at Waterville High School in the small town of Waterville, New York, approximately 60 miles to the east of Syracuse.
“It is pretty much like small town America,” said Perrin. “It was class D football, small to a point where we didn’t really have enough athletes to play a full defense and a full offense.”
Perrin played fullback on the offensive side of the ball and linebacker on the defensive side of the ball. As Perrin moved through high school, playing the game that he loved so much became more than a struggle with his body, it became a struggle within his family.
“It became a real battle especially with my mother,” said Perrin. “She got pretty strung out especially in my final game. I don’t remember much about the ambulance ride other than her just saying, ‘this is enough. This is my last ambulance ride with you. I’m not doing this anymore. This is too much.’”
Perrin, a captain on the defense, became known throughout the small town because of his reoccurring head injuries.
“It got to a point where there’s kind of a really unfortunate motif because people would come up and be like ’Perrin how’s your head this week?’ said Perrin. “But you brush it off. It’s them being funny, but they don’t really realize how much it’s going to affect you.”
Perrin is one of the many high school athletes, along with football players at all levels, who have suffered concussions and are forced to decide whether they will continue to play or not. According to Sports Concussion Institute, for males, the sport of football poses the highest concussion risk at 75 percent.
In an attempt to combat the issue of concussions, trainers at Syracuse University are beginning to implement a simple, new approach that focuses on a different set of muscles: neck muscles.
“It’s just like anything else, kid wants bigger arms, when his arms get bigger he gets excited about it so we just decided we’d measure necks,” said William Hicks, assistant athletics director of Syracuse University. “I’m stronger, my neck is stronger, in better shape, I can sustain the force greater. Right, wrong or indifferent, mentally, you feel better about yourself.”
The training program is a series of exercises that focus on the neck muscles to increase the size and strength of them. A professional football player will receive an estimated 900-1500 blows to the head during a season, according to Sports Concussion Institute. The hope is that with a much stronger neck, the force of a big impact to the head may be lessened, according to Hicks.
When it comes to tackling on the defensive side of the ball, big hits rule all. The violence of football, especially at higher levels, draws people in and keeps them coming back, according to fans. Perrin admitted that there was a fine line between protecting yourself as a player and playing all-out with your heart.
“In practice it was kind of a joke all the time, like ‘alright 46 power I-2, don’t hit Perrin in the head, ready break,’” said Perrin, mocking a play call. “But in the games I didn’t play any differently. Maybe I should have learned. I think a lot of it was actually, as much as I don’t want to admit it, my fault.”
However, Perrin said, he wasn’t just concerned for himself when he missed games. He felt like he owed his team his best performance every play on the field.
“I was a big moral part of the defense,” said Perrin. “I called the plays in and I took it upon myself to get everybody pumped up for the games and seeing me out bummed some people. When I got back in there, I wanted to be 100 percent and I always wanted to make the big tackle to set us up for a change in momentum.”
Perrin’s injuries caught up with his passion for the game that he loved, and after his senior year, decided to hang up the pads.
“By the time of the fifth one my senior year, the one they told me I shouldn’t play contact sports anymore, it was sort of a joint decision between my mom and the doctor,” said Perrin. “People have had more concussions and been fine. Pro athletes go for a long time, but I’m not a pro athlete.”
Concussions have become the talk of the game and how to prevent them has become the most pressing topic, according to governing bodies such as the NFLPA (NFL Player’s Association). Football has always been a game of shear strength and brute muscle, but it’s the muscles people don’t think about that may be making the difference with player safety.
Research is beginning to show that players who receive a multitude of concussions face future ailments, thus forcing coaches and players to make tough decisions. Long-term consequences include PCS (post-concussion syndrome) and several other potential negative effects, according to Sports Concussion Institute.
Recently, the NFL dealt with the suicide of former San Diego Charger Junior Seau. Officials believe that amount of blunt force dealt to Seau throughout his career may have led to his suicide.
At first, according to Hicks, it took some time for the Syracuse players to adjust to the program because it was difficult to see progression. However, once the players started seeing results, they were all for it, according to Hicks.
“I used to have a long skinny neck like a basketball player but now I steadily see my neck disappearing,” said offensive lineman Rob Trudo. “My traps (trapezius) are getting bigger and my neck is far stronger than it used to be.”
The program, while not guaranteeing concussion prevention, has yielded some positive results from Syracuse players on the field during this past season, according to Hicks.
“The one thing that I do know it has cut down on, as a direct reflection of the program, is the number of stingers,” said Hicks. “You know, when you get the little trap stinger in your arm and it goes numb and you end up missing a play or two, we have had very little of that.”
The Orange’s football team has seen a decrease in concussions this past year, and Hicks optimistically attributes some of that success towards the program.
“There’s no real proof,” said Hicks. “Luckily this year, for some odd reason, hopefully it’s the program, hopefully it’s a little bit more awareness to it, some change in practice habits, but we’ve had very few concussions.”
Other schools from around the country have asked about the program and have expressed interest in implementing it in their own programs. Recently, a school in Colorado sent Hicks an email about the program, however, the training staff is reluctant to give away the exact details of the program to anybody.
Hicks explained that giving away the details of the program could prove detrimental to not only the coaches who may not implement it correctly, but to the kids who learn from those coaches. If the program isn’t taught properly, according to Hicks, it could cause injuries.
“I can’t just tell a random teacher that I’ve never met in my life or even a random coach that emails me,” said Hicks. “I’m not going to tell them the program because I could put kids in that high school at risk.”
With the new program under development, it will take a few more years before it can provide definitive evidence of whether or not it reduces the likelihood of concussions, according to the team.
With governing bodies like the NFLPA pushing for more concussion research and protection, the sport is headed in a new direction. Roger Goodell, commissioner of the NFL, is currently exploring ideas such as eliminating kickoffs from the sport entirely, in an effort to reduce high impact hits.
While eating dinner, sitting on the floor in moccasins, and a New York Giants hoodie, Perrin explained that he doesn’t feel any different after all the injuries.
“I think I’m kind of predisposed to getting headaches a little easier in general,” said Perrin. “Not too bad.”
Perrin is now focusing on his major in Nutrition at Syracuse University and moves through daily life without any severe issues stemming from the head trauma. He considers himself very lucky even though he lost the game he treasured most.
“I’m pretty fortunate,” said Perrin. “From what I understand, I’m a pretty lucky case to have five rather significant concussions and still not be suffering real long term injuries.”