Taking the Field

Members of the Malibu High School football team practice proper blocking techniques during a practice on Wednesday, Sept. 6, at MHS.

It happened on a routine play during practice.

Franklin Churchill, then a sophomore on the Malibu High School football team, approached a one-on-one drill just he always did. But this time with one small difference: He had his head down, and rammed headfirst into a teammate’s breastplate. 

For a moment, the hit felt like many others. Despite questions from his coaches, Churchill insisted he was OK and good to continue with practice. His coaches insisted he see MHS athletic trainer Marie Zweig just to be sure. 

That’s when things started to change. Churchill began to feel drowsy and irritated. He developed a bad headache and also started to feel somewhat confused. 

After his headache worsened, Churchill and his mother went to the hospital, where a doctor confirmed what he had feared: He had suffered a concussion, a head injury that has become synonymous with playing the sport of football. 

Concern has grown in recent years over the rate at which football players get concussions and just how dangerous repeated blows to the head can be for players later in life.

A recent study examining the brains of 202 former football players found that 87 percent of them were diagnosed with some level of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE—a degenerative brain disease that affects a person’s mood and behavior, and can also lead to memory loss, confusion and even dementia. 

The disease gained an uptick in awareness following the release of the 2015 film “Concussion,” which chronicles the trials of a Nigerian doctor attempting to make the NFL aware of the rate of brain damage in its former players. The study, released in July, found that 110 out of 111 brains that showed severe CTE belonged to ex-NFL players. 

But the players in Malibu aren’t professionals. The study indicated that 21 percent of people who played only as far as high school football showed mild signs of CTE. 

MHS head football coach Terry Shorten said he’s aware of the research currently available on head injuries, and has adjusted his practice plans in recent years to maximize safety and minimize injuries altogether. 

Shorten’s practices, which he augmented about seven years ago while coaching at Oak Park, feature less contact and two days of no-pads work, he said. 

“As a staff, we’ve done extensive review of the protocol,” Shorten said. “We’ve taken measures to alter our practices. We have very little contact during the week. It’s a much different practice plan than I would say, five years ago or 10 years ago or 15 years ago.”

Shorten said changing what goes on during practices has made a positive impact on the amount of injuries he sees. 

“We’ve seen less injury at practice than we used to have in the past,” Shorten said.

Shorten is not the only football coach to adjust amid the growing concern that players incur higher risks of head injuries. In March of last year, all eight Ivy League football teams voted to eliminate tackling from their practices. Dartmouth was the first to incorporate the practice back in 2010. 

MHS senior Ben Crosby-Brodka has played all four years on the Sharks football team. He’s played in practically every game—on both sides of the ball—and has tried a variety of positions. 

And not once has Crosby-Brodka ever suffered a concussion. But that doesn’t mean his parents weren’t concerned about him getting one when he told them freshman year that he wanted to join the team. 

Crosby-Brodka said both his parents were strongly against him joining the team, his mother especially. But he wanted to a play a contact sport so badly that he resorted to lying about his involvement on the Sharks. 

He said he told his parents he was lifting weights. What he was really doing was working with the football team. Things didn’t go too well when Hell Week came and Crosby-Brodka told his parents he had joined the football team.

“She was a little bit angry,” Crosby-Brodka said, referring to his mother. 

Eventually, Crosby-Brodka was allowed to play. With all his experience, he feels that concussions are preventable so long as players consistently stress proper form with tackling and other aspects of the game.  

“You see players get hurt when they slow down,” Crosby-Brodka said. “People hesitate last minute, or they don’t know what they’re doing so they slow down, and then they get cracked. Or they don’t properly tackle because they freeze up.”

Senior Brandon Chaisson feels the same way. He also has played football four years, and has never had a concussion. 

Chaisson said the MHS coaches constantly stress proper tackling form and other safety measures, a point reiterated by other players and Shorten as well. 

“Honestly, it’s pretty hard to get concussed,” Chaisson said. “You have to do everything wrong to get concussed.”

While Crosby-Brodka and Chaisson have enjoyed concussion-free football experiences, neither said they felt a desire to play in college. Crosby-Brodka cited the higher probability of injury as one reason he will forgo playing at the next level. 

“The concession rate and the injury rate is so much higher in college, and it’s so much more competitive,” Crosby-Brodka said. “I don’t feel the need to do that to my body.”

Despite the practice changes and increased safety measures, Shorten said he’s seen numbers dwindle in football programs. Malibu in particular, he said, has lost its feeder program for MHS, and the high school no longer has a junior varsity team. Last year, 22 ninth-graders came out for football, as opposed to eight this year. 

Shorten said part of the reason for the lower numbers could be related to less interest in sports generally, but also acknowledged that some of the reason could be an increasing amount of parents discouraging their sons to play football.

But players think the parents’ concerns are a bit overblown. Churchill—now a senior and concussion-free since the play two years ago—said parents should consider that the injury concerns look worse from the outside, and that they should feel encouraged by the players and coaches all looking out for each other’s safety. 

“I’d say let your kids play,” Churchill said.