Ryan Johnson, head football coach at Jordan-Matthews, jokes that he never heard the word “concussion” during his playing days.
Since then, there’s been a drastic shift. Johnson recalls the conversation around chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) changing in 2015. That year, the film ‘Concussion’ came out. It recounts forensic pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu, played by Will Smith, confronting the NFL for suppressing his research on CTE, the debilitating brain disease that can cause memory loss, among other symptoms.
Since then, Johnson has seen many parents become hesitant about allowing their children to play football.
High school football has long been a cherished tradition in Chatham County, but with the growing concern about sports-related brain injuries like CTE, ensuring player safety has become a paramount focus.
Addressing Concerns and Challenges
Across the region, high school programs are outfitting their players with quality helmets. Virginia Tech researchers' STAR rating system, which measures a helmet's ability to reduce the likelihood of a concussion, rates all of the helmets in usage at Seaforth and Northwood as 5-star, indicating a strong commitment to player safety.
Jordan-Matthews did not provide a helmet inventory to the News & Record before this story was written.
Across the county, coaches and athletic directors made it clear that it is the school’s responsibility to provide quality equipment.
Jason Amy, the athletic director at Seaforth High School, emphasized safety as a non-negotiable priority. It is one of the top items in his yearly budget, with annual investments in purchasing new helmets.
“We try to get better and better every year,” Amy said.
Mitch Johnson, the head football coach at Northwood High, echoed Amy’s opinion, emphasizing that he doesn’t know of “any student that has purchased their own equipment.”
Still, booster clubs help.
Cameron Vernon, the athletic director at Northwood, recognized the importance of continued community support and funding. He expressed his commitment to prioritize “needs” — such as safety — and explore further improvements or “wants” with money left over.
Currently, Vernon and Northwood are looking to kick-start a new campaign to raise money for a new-and-improved field house.
Continuous Learning and Adaptation
Northwood is taking its approach to football equipment a step further — investing in Guardian Caps, a padded shell fixed to the outside of a player’s helmet, to enhance protection.
According to research from the NFL, the Guardian Cap results in at least a 10 percent reduction in impact severity if one player is wearing it, and at least 20 percent reduction if two players are wearing them.
“Every one of our players wears it at all times,” Mitch Johnson said. “I don’t even think we’ve had our helmets on without the Guardian Cap on.”
Mitch Johnson, who joined Northwood this offseason, said this is the second high school he’s been with that has implemented the usage of Guardian Caps.
However, there still isn’t a consensus on the use of the caps across the county.
Terrance Gary, the head football coach at Seaforth, said that he was looking into purchasing the Guardian Caps this year, but after doing more digging, decided against it.
“A lot of the research says it’s not really that effective,” Gary said.
Gary, like other coaches in the area, is doubling down on proper tackling techniques through circuits and believes in the age-old wisdom of “you can’t hit what you can’t see.” Not only are these tackling drills key to building solid fundamentals, but they prioritize player visibility and safety during practice.
Gary and his staff attend Glazier Clinics, a series of football clinics that equip Gary and other coaches with lesson plans — instructing them on how to implement safe tackling practices over the course of a season.
Part of this continued education is the acknowledgement of soaring temperatures during summer training. Coaches like Ryan Johnson are prioritizing regular water breaks and other cooling measures, with Jordan-Matthew’s athletic trainer even chalking up an extensive “heat plan.”
Future Steps and Optimism
Football in Chatham County is not just a sport; it’s a cultural phenomenon.
The coaches and athletic directors in the region are cognizant of their responsibility in ensuring the safety of their athletes. By investing in top-rated helmets, proper tackling techniques, and expert trainer support, they are taking significant strides to protect their players.
Gary hopes that, with these extra steps, young athletes won’t have to miss out on the life lessons that football provides.
“Concussions are important, but I also feel like football is such a great sport when it comes to developing yourself as a man or woman,” Gary said. “You have so many different positions and roles on that team, which translates to life.”