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Chris Murphy, Published October 20 2013

Fargo-Moorhead youth football numbers on the rise despite growing concussion concerns


According to a recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, football leads all sports in occurrences of concussions among children.

Fargo-Moorhead Athletics president Paul Ferrie brings a simple rule to a complex issue: If there’s a hint of a concussion, you lose your helmet.

“If they deem that a kid has a concussion, we take the helmet away, and they can’t get it back until a doctor OKs them to come back and play,” Ferrie said. “We always try to be ahead of what the standards are.”

When it comes to youth football, numbers are on the downslide, with the general consensus being that the decline is due to the fear surrounding the uncertainty of concussions.

Eden Prairie, where the high school team has won back-to-back Minnesota Class 5A state titles, has lost 34 percent of its participants in its third-through-eighth grade league since 2008. Participation has gone from 803 players to 532 in that span.

Anoka-Ramsey’s kindergarten-eighth grade program has dropped 26 percent, and both the St. Croix Valley Athletic Association and Stillwater’s middle school programs have fallen by 24 percent.

Fargo-Moorhead Athletics began in 1972 and wrapped up its 42nd season Saturday and Sunday at the Fargodome. Numbers dropping is not the case for Fargo-Moorhead youth football, as it has gone from 1,260 players on 59 teams in 2006 to 1,545 players on 67 teams in 2013.

“They keep going up strangely enough,” Ferrie said of the participation numbers. “Since concussions have become the big issue, the numbers have gone up.”

According to Minnesota state law, youth sports programs must provide guidelines and information on concussions to all coaches, officials, youth athletes and parents or guardians of each child. All coaches and officials must receive annual training on concussions and it’s required that a concussion information form is signed and returned by each youth athlete and the athlete’s parent or guardian prior to the youth athlete’s participation in an athletic event.

The Fargo-Moorhead youth football website has a concussion information sheet and a link to an online training course for concussions done by the CDC that is required to be taken by all youth football coaches in the Fargo-Moorhead program on its homepage.

“The techniques of blocking and tackling have gotten better,” Ferrie said. “The coaches have learned to teach not to use the helmet as a weapon. Our helmets are also top of the line for youth that you can buy. They are basically the same as (North Dakota State), but youth-sized.”

Moorhead High School athletic trainer Jenna Noland would not hesitate to let her daughter, Jade, play football if she wanted to.

“You could get hurt playing anything,” Noland said. “If they get taught at an early age the right ways to hit, the right ways to take a hit and really learn the fundamentals, that’s really going to help in the long run. I wouldn’t hesitate to let my kid play. They may get hurt. If it’s a concussion, we’ll deal with it.”

According to Noland, it’s the undefinable quality of the concussion which has caused the paranoia surrounding it.

“It’s just another injury,” Noland said. “Unless the kid is vomiting or passes out, it’s just a bruised brain basically. There might be a lot more diagnosed concussions than in the past, but that’s because what is considered a concussion has changed in the last 10 years. I don’t think it should scare people away from playing a sport.”

This season, Fargo-Moorhead Athletics added a baseline test for anybody age 12 and older. A baseline test is used to assess an athlete’s balance and brain function, as well as searching for the presence of concussion symptoms. Athletes take it before the season, so a health-care professional has something to compare it to after an athlete may or may not have suffered a concussion during the season.

“It just gives us an idea of where they were before a concussion, and where they are after,” Noland said. “It’s another tool to help us.”

Ferrie understands the concern. His son, Joel, who is now in his 30s, played football in high school and college.

“You always worry,” Ferrie said. “In any sport, something can happen. Most accidents are freak accidents.”

So does Noland. She is fully aware of the unknown nature of concussions.

“There’s no X-ray we can take. There’s no MRI we can order,” Noland said. “You can have a CAT scan, but that’s just to see if the brain is bleeding, which means we have more of a problem. There’s not a test that says, ‘Yes, you do,’ or ‘No, you don’t.’ It’s very symptom-based. It’s hard to diagnose, and it’s hard to treat. It’s not like a fracture or a torn ACL or MCL.”

But if Jade, who is 2 years old, comes walking up to her with football pads on, ready to hit the field, Noland has her answer ready as to whether or not she can play.

“Absolutely,” Noland said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Chris Murphy at (701) 241-5548

The Associated Press contributed to this story