Behind the glory of football there are the scars and bruises. Some visible, some not. We still have much to learn about the health risk football puts on it's players, but some of the biggest strides in research are happening on South Dakota's fields.
They can happen on any snap of any game. Bone-crushing hits that jack up the players and incite the crowd.
"That's what I love about football, I love to hit!" Said Mason McCormick.
These powerful blows don't just rattle the body, they put the brain at risk for a serious and potentially life changing injury: a concussion. The NFL has put them in the spotlight but every level of the gridiron deals with concussions.
"I played line, defensive end, and linebacker." Said McCormick.
Mason is your typical middle school boy with a love of football. 70% of all football players are also Mason's age, yet his is the group we know least about.
"What we really wanted to understand is what playing football in general and the head impacts they may experience, how that relates to brain function irregardless of whether they have had a concussion or other diagnosed brain injury." Said Thayne Munce, PhD, associate director of the National Institute for Athletic Health & Performance at Sanford Hospital.
For the past two football seasons, Sanford researchers have been focusing on Mason and his fellow youth footballers in a concussion pilot study.
"We assessed 12 youth football players before and after a season with several measures of neurologic function. Those measures include balance, reading time, reaction time, as well as memory." Said Munce.
Simultaneously, Thayne's team is doing a second study that is a little more in-depth and high tech.
"Yeah this helmet is better and it's got these sensors in them and the sensors were a little to get used to." Said McCormick.
Sanford has 22 of these helmets and is using them to study actual game-time hits. Looking specifically for those that cause concussions.
"These accelerometers measure motion and we are able to measure the number of head impacts, the location of those impacts, and the magnitude of those impacts. The players wear the helmets every practice and every game and we are out there on the field with them and we are monitoring every single impact that they experience." Said Munce.
Football impacts are measured in gravitational forces or G-force. Just standing outside your house would be 1 G. Things like a roller coaster to doing a barrel roll in a fighter jet range from 5 to 9 G's or 5 to 9 times the normal gravitational force on your body. The most violent football hits can go all the way to 150 G's. So at what point do hits cause concussions? A few studies suggest the threshold is around 100 G's but there are other factors that come into play
"Is it the location of the impact? Is it a combination of impacts that have occurred prior to that one big hit? Or is it a matter of genetic differences among the players that makes certain players more susceptible to becoming injured?" Asked Munce.
During this past season, Mason had one hit that definitely dusted off the cobwebs.
"It kept him out of school for a long time! I mean he had some serious issues with more sound than light, you hear a lot of people not wanting to have the bright lights in their eyes but Mason's was more sound." Said Kibbi McCormick, Mason's Mother.
Treating a concussion requires both physical and mental rest. In Mason's case, it kept him out of school for eight days before symptoms started to go away. He's lucky, some people have severe balance issues that require weeks to even months of re-training and therapy.
"Everybody is a little bit different than how they respond to a concussion we have different genetic makeup and different ways that we respond to injuries so for some people will get better relatively quickly and others will take time." Said Dr. John Swisher, a sports medicine physician at Avera Queen of Peace in Mitchell.
Most parents look to helmets to protect their kids but helmets are designed to prevent the skull from fracturing, not to prevent concussions. The most recent study even suggests that the 10 most commonly used helmets in youth football actually do next to nothing to prevent concussions. For true prevention you have to go back to the basics. Heads Up Football is one program that is helping encourage the fundamentals of safe tackling.
"Like put your knee between their legs and wrap up and have your head to the side and not down!" Said McCormick.
Researchers are also helping. The same technology that gathers data can also alert coaches to violent hits.
"The device will send a signal to the pager if a threshold impact has been reached." Said Munce.
The Sanford pilot study was definitely a breakthrough. It found, players at the end of the season showed absolutely no neurological deficits. In some areas like posture and reaction time, they actually improved over the season even if they suffered a concussion like Mason did. Even with these findings we are still in the early stages of fully understanding concussions.
"Our data suggests that young football players can play and enjoy the sport without a risk of injury that shows up with clinical evaluations. So our research will continue and the work of others will continue as well to hopefully provide these answers to parents." Said Munce.
The grass may have been swapped for the hardwood, but with the initial study finding no added danger, you can bet the McCormick's will be back in pads next fall.
"Yeah I'll let them play football, I have a younger son and he's planning on playing football too!" Said Kibbi McCormick.
"If you love it, keep playing it!" Added Mason McCormick.
Sanford Research chose youth football players for the study so they could follow them throughout their football careers and hopefully gain valuable information on the long term effects the sport puts on their bodies. The results of the year-long player monitoring study are expected to be released later in 2014.