CRAWFORD COUNTY, Ill. (WTHI) - It's a sport that many see as popular, but also dangerous.
"I think football is a unique sport, a great teacher of teamwork, a great teacher of toughness," said Coach Tim Nolen, "and I really believe in football. I think most coaches would say this, I think the football coach and football is a very important thing in a young man's life."
Nolen is the head coach of Robinson High School's football team. While this year is his last before retirement, he's had a football career of 40 years.
"The game is still a tough game. You have to try to build toughness with your players," he said, "but at the same time you're walking this very thin line between making sure they're not concussed, or in some type of a situation like that, that could lead to some type of further damage to them."
Concussions continue to be a great concern in the game of football. Debates remain at the national level regarding the safety of the sport and its effect on players.
"I think we've all had our eyes opened," Nolen said, "I think it's very important that we realize the things that are happening in the NFL is not the same as high school, in my opinion. The pro-football players have been playing football for 20-30 years, all the way back to being in little kids football, and a high school kid has not been playing that long."
Nolen believes concussion research is blurred with NFL studies being applied to high school players, but that doesn't mean prevention and safety at the high school level need to be ignored.
"We want to be safe and we want to do everything we can to find out more about it," he added.
Concussionss are also a topic Scott Rawlings is familiar with as a certified athletic trainer. He's also the athletic training services coordinator at Crawford Memorial Hospital.
Every year in football alone, Rawlings says he sees about 8-10 concussion cases. Commonly, he says, the cases usually involve underclassmen playing in different capacities.
"They play maybe special teams on Friday night, then they have practice on Saturday morning," Rawlings said, "then they play a full JV game Monday night, and then we're right back into our bigger hitting practices Tuesday to start getting the varsity guys ready, and then they're involved right back in that. Historically, that's where we've seen some of our concussions."
A new addition of gear will help with concussion prevention and safety.
Thanks to Crawford Memorial Hospital, The United Way of Crawford County and Bay Safety, county schools will receive new high-tech football helmets. It's a project that totals out to about $18,000.
For Rawlings, the new helmets serve as another set of eyes for the training staff.
"We're there at practices and games, but you know there's just some things you don't necessarily see," he said.
The SpeedFlex helmets include a five-panel impact sensor inside. When a player takes a hard hit, the sensor will go off and alert the trainer through a monitor worn at their hip. That's when the trainer will go to the player with the activated sensor and address the issue.
"It may be just as simple as 'Hey, your monitor went off are you ok?'," Rawlings explained, "It may prompt a concussion evaluation, it may not."
It's not only alerts to staff, but education as well. Rawlings says the impact sensors are connected to a software. The software, Rawlings says, can connect to several different elements like film review tools like Hudl and national data.
"You can compare it to national averages," he said, "So for exposure, you've been hit x amount of times this week, the national average is below that. So what are we doing, practice habit wise, that maybe needs to change?"
Rawlings says the software also helps identify problem spots in a player's tackle.
"If you have kids that are head droppers when they're going to make contact, that can be a teaching tool that 'Hey, your sensor is consistently four or five times a day on the crown of your helmet, that should not be involved in that tackle as much'," Rawlings explained, "It can be a teaching opportunity for the student-athletes as well."
Rawlings says county schools will receive 15 helmets through the initiative. It's not just new gear, but an addition that will help trainers, athletes and coaches maintain healthy statuses and get better insight into concussion causes, treatment and protocols.
"Football is very, very important. I really believe that, and we have to do whatever we can to save football," Nolen said, "Probably in 10 years, this game is not going to look like it looked 10 years ago, but if it saves football then it will probably be a good thing."