Advocates push for tougher safety guidelines for high school football players

Orthopedic surgeon Dr. Keith Feder runs the West Coast Sports Medicine Foundation, a free walk-in clinic in Manhattan Beach.
Orthopedic surgeon Dr. Keith Feder runs the West Coast Sports Medicine Foundation, a free walk-in clinic in Manhattan Beach. Corey Moore/KPCC

The high school football season is coming to a close. Parents and coaches will root for wins but pray for an injury-free ending.

This season, tougher pro football rules about blows to the head have put a focus on head injuries. When a teenaged player suffers a blow to the head, it can be downright scary. It could mean a concussion or something far worse. Safety advocates are pushing for tougher high school guidelines.

On YouTube, family and friends pay a musical tribute to Hollywood High School football player Spencer Juarez. A slideshow of photos includes his baby picture. There’s another of Juarez smiling as he holds a birthday cake with candles. And snapshots catch the freshman running back in action in his red and white jersey. He was #12.

Just over a year ago, Spencer Juarez collapsed as he carried the ball against West Adams Prep. He died the next day. The tragedy shocked his classmates. Rigoberto De Leon spoke to reporters.

“He was on the floor and everyone started panicking ‘cause he was laying there and he didn’t get up," recalled De Leon. "That’s when they called the ambulance.”

In February, the Los Angeles County coroner determined that an accidental blow to the head is what killed Juarez. More high school football coaches in California and across the country are seeing head injuries, particularly concussions. Researchers say the national rate of concussions among young players has grown nearly 10 percent over the past decade.

“Studies have shown that a student athlete, their brain recovers slower than an adult brain,” said Roger Blake, who works with the California Interscholastic Federation. The CIF governs high school athletics – and 600,000 high school athletes – in California. Medical preparedness during the regular season is left mostly to schools and school districts.

“So we may watch Brett Favre play a football game on a Sunday and get a concussion," Blake added. "That pro athlete may be able to – not always – but may be able to come and play the next Sunday. But at the high school level, it normally takes the brain longer to return.”

Healing time could take a week or more than a month, depending on the nature of the injury. Medical researchers say many high school football players that suffer blows to the head try to “shake off” their injuries and return to the field before they should. That can raise the risk of greater injury – including brain damage or even death.

At a crowded Friday night football game between View Park Prep and Frederick Douglass – two charter high schools in South L.A. – Glenda LeFlore runs up and down the sidelines like a referee. Clad in black, she looks like an eager mom rooting for her son. Actually, she is. Her two sons play for View Park. But she’s also the medic for both teams.

“The ones who really want to play and really love the game, they’ll shake off just about anything – especially a concussion,” LeFlore said.

LeFlore, a nurse practitioner, has worked at the high school games for six years. She has treated more than a few hard hits to the head and knows what to look for.

“If it’s a concussion, you need to make sure," LeFlore advised. "You need to assess if there’s a loss of consciousness. Watching for vomiting, anything that might indicate that they might have increasing intracranial pressure or just bleed, basically. Actually, I’ve seen a couple of players where their eyes are bouncing around in their head.”

To help catch the extent of a concussion early, some California schools conduct a computerized process for players called a baseline testing. But not all schools can afford that technology – or full-time athletic trainers, either.

Dr. Keith Feder is trying to change that. The orthopedic surgeon runs a free walk-in clinic in Manhattan Beach. He launched an outreach program called “Team To Win” that supplies high schools with medics.

“If a young athlete gets a concussion, whether it’s in a soccer game, a football game, a basketball game, a volleyball game, if it’s immediately evaluated, they’re removed from the contest," Dr. Feder said. "They don’t return. You take away the second impact risks. You also get them treated and you immediately begin treatment.”

Dr. Feder and other doctors throughout the Southland are volunteering at football games as they push for legislation to protect players better.

Earlier this year, the California Interscholastic Federation took a huge step in that direction. It mandated that officials bench high school players immediately if they suspect they’ve suffered a concussion. Injured players must get written permission from a doctor before returning to the field – even for practice.

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