Player safety is top priority on field

By SEAN SHAPIRO

Keeping student-athletes healthy can be the biggest difference between a winning and a losing season on the football field.

And for a good team, staying healthy can be the difference between an early playoff exit and a trip to the state championship.

“For us, in our league (Class 4A), injuries are brutal,” said Liberty Hill Head Football Coach Jerry Vance. “If someone turns an ankle that’s a week you don’t have that starter. You need everybody to play. I think the two years we won state championships (2006 and 2007) we didn’t have any major injuries.”

That’s why the staff at Liberty Hill pays so much attention to details when it comes to keeping the Panthers healthy for Friday nights.

And that starts in the weight room during the summer, and then continues throughout the season, as players will lift three days a week even with a game on Friday.

“The first thing we do is we lift a lot of weights,” Vance said. “Not to look like Arnold Schwarzenegger, or anybody like that, but to build muscle to make us stronger. We’ve really found we’ve been relatively free of injury since we got here, and we push the weights.”

Vance said the proof in his system is the lack of ACL injuries in the past 14 seasons. While ACL tears have become more common in high school football, Liberty Hill has had “maybe five” ACL tears in over a decade.

One of the other keys is teaching proper blocking and tackling techniques on the field. From seventh grade until their senior year, Panthers are re-taught the proper techniques when practice starts in August.

With the help of the Liberty Hill All Sports Booster Club, the team is also properly equipped with top-of-the-line equipment each season.

“I’m willing to use all of a budget to make sure we can best serve the kids,” said Charles “Doc” Harrington, Liberty Hill’s athletic trainer. “It’s important we put kids in the right position and that the equipment they are using will come through for them.”

Even though Vance’s staff has done its best to eliminate injuries through elements it can control, sometimes it is impossible to prevent a concussion caused by an opponent, which unfortunately is a growing trend in high school football.

According to a 2013 study by the National Academy of Sciences, high school football players suffer concussions at a rate of 11.2 concussions per 10,000 “athletic exposures” – an exposure being a practice or a game.

That’s almost double the number of concussions suffered at the collegiate level, where student athletes reportedly suffer 6.3 concussions per 10,000 exposures.

Part of the reason for the spike at the high school level is the varying level of competition. While collegiate athletes are generally on the same level – 18 to 22-year-old mature men – high school athletics is more varied, sometimes with 14-year-old freshmen clashing with 18-year-old seniors.

While concussion numbers can be disheartening, concussion protocol has improved in the past couple of years, and Liberty Hill has always been on the forefront of Austin area schools in protecting its student athletes.

If a player is believed to have a concussion, he is immediately removed from the game. The player then has to pass a test and “zero out” by getting all the answers, once passing this test Harrington will send the player to the doctor’s office to be cleared.

Once cleared by a doctor, Harrington will keep players out for another seven days as they work their way back to playing in a game.

“On its simplest terms, and it is more complex than this, a concussion is like a bruise on your brain,” Harrington said. “So if a bruise takes a week to heal, a bruise inside your head should take just as long.” Harrington has had this philosophy toward concussions since he was hired at Liberty Hill 14 years ago.

“When I came in, we talked about this,” Harrington said. “My job is to take care of the kids as best as possible. And when they hired me I made it clear this was my stance. They didn’t have any problem with that and here we are today.”