Damon Janes (photo courtesy: Janes' family)
BUFFALO - Before the start of Tuesday's practice, Keion Paris and the rest of the coaches in the Buffalo Raiders Youth Football program put aside their whistles for a moment to discuss a life-saving topic.
They had seen the news about Damon Janes, the high school football player in Chautauqua County who died after a helmet-to-helmet hit on Friday, and they wanted to make sure they'd take every precaution possible.
"We have to be the ones to protect the kids," Paris said.
The Buffalo Raiders program, which fields teams across a variety of elementary and junior-high age groups, attempts to limit injuries by teaching proper tackling technique and discouraging players from leading with the crown of their helmets. No matter how early they ingrain this technique, though, they will never be able to entirely eliminate risk for its participants. Deaths are extremely rare for youth and high school football players, but according to Dr. Laszlo Mechtler, contact sports can pose a problem for kids because their brains haven't fully developed.
And it's not like they're necessarily playing at a lesser intensity.
"Hits that occur even for 10-year-olds," Mechtler said, "are similar in severity to professional sports."
Mechtler, the Medical Director at the DENT Neurologic Institute, doesn't discourage football altogether at the youth level, but he said high school players sustain three times as many brain injuries as college players and are especially vulnerable due to their age and lack of brain development. At younger levels of football, Mechtler urges even more extreme caution, going as far to say that contact should be limited for football players younger than 13 years old.
The key, Mechtler said, is recognizing injuries and dealing with them properly.
"Educate the athlete to know that if you're injured, come out of the game. If you're dinged up, come out of the game," Metchler said. "One of the most dangerous things is multiple concussions in a short period of time, because that leads to catastrophic brain injury."
According to Mechtler, only three to four high school football players a year die after sustaining hits on the field, but he said emergency room visits among high school players have increased during the past decade. Over the past four years, there are about 25,000 fewer high school football players, which Mechtler attributes to parents' worries about the safety of the sport.
At every level, though, the game has attempted to adapt. The NFL has cracked down on helmet-to-helmet contact in recent years, and this season, the NCAA enacted a new rule change to eject any player who leads with the crown of their helmet or intentionally targets an opponents' neck or head area.
After Janes' passing, there can only be more changes on the horizon.
"These stories are important for other players and athletes to see that the brain is very sensitive," Mechtler said.