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Change coming to youth football

A big change is coming to River Falls Youth Football this season.

Traditionally, the youth football association has run flag football games for first and second graders and tackle football from sixth through eighth grade. Association president Doug Sailer said the organization has decided to go to flag football for all grades beginning this summer.

"With the massive focus on concussions and realizing that we can teach them plenty about football without putting a helmet and shoulder pads on them at that age, we decided to make the switch," Sailer said. "And it's a trend. We're seeing Menomonie doesn't tackle until eighth grade and Eau Claire just changed to flag football through seventh grade."

Boston University's Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center published a study in Nature's Translational Psychiatry in September 2017 that found the most direct association to date between participation in youth tackle football before age 12 and impaired mood and behavior later in life.

The study determined that although there's a link between players being exposed to head-to-head contact in youth football before the age of 12 and short- and long-term neurological problems, more research needs to be done on the topic before any rule or policy changes regarding the youth sport can be made.

But the River Falls Youth Football Association isn't waiting.

"We've debated it every year for probably five or six years," Sailer said. "We've had serious discussions about it every offseason. And I think part of it is we've been seeing kids go away from football because of the concussion scare. Our numbers have dropped a little bit every year. I don't care if we have 50 kids out playing football every year, that's great. I would love to have 500 kids playing football, but it was a concern."

Sailer said last year 183 kids took part in the youth football program. He said numbers have been as high as 240 in past years.

"We're seeing great numbers with our first and second grade," he noted. "I think we'll start seeing that number go backup over 200 again.

River Falls High School coach David Crail said he is a proponent of the change.

"I think there's several benefits," he said. "One, obviously you're taking out some of the elements that are keeping people away from the game. Obviously you're not going to be able to stop every injury, and concussions can still happen, but you want to make it as safe as possible for the kids. And as we look at it in terms of numbers, retention is a big part of that. We want to make sure that kids who start playing football at a young age are enjoying their experience, are not getting injured and make it to the high school level. I want to see as many kids as possible coming out as freshmen. And the thought is is that, if we can make the game a little bit safer, and take care of some of the major concerns, that are legitimate concerns, then we have a better chance of seeing them at the high school level."

Sailer and Crail both said making sure kids enjoyed the game was also a factor in the decision.

"We changed the way we did flag football with our first and second graders two years ago to go more seven-on-seven flag and saw really good results with that," Sailer said. "The engagement of the kids, first and second graders are distracted rather easily, but we had a really good experience with that. Before that we were playing 11-on-11 and kids are getting disinterested because they're on the line. This way they're all going out for passes. We just felt that we'd take that and carry that over."

Sailer said the discrepancy in the size of kids who are a similar age presents challenges to playing tackle football.

"We put a ot of safety things into place to protect kids," he said. "We had size limits for kids that could carry the ball to try and make sure that kids were as safe as we could possibly make it. But football is a contact sport so no matter how many safeguards you put in, every once in awhile you had that 160 pound kid either running or tackling that 60-80 pound kid."

Crail said the switch also prevents kids from being pigeon-holed into one position at an early age.

"You're not going to have kids that are designated as lineman in third, fourth grade, now they're going to be lineman the rest of their lives," he said. "We get an opportunity to teach them the fundamentals of different positions so that when they get into the upper grades they have a chance to compete at different spots. You never know, that lineman kid might turn out to have a really good frame to be a really good wide receiver. But throughout their career they've never touched the ball."

Registration for River Falls Youth Football for players entering grades 1-6 in fall, 2018, is open through at least June 1 through the organization's website at riverfallsfootball.com. The season starts in the beginning of August and runs through the middle of October. Practices are held Tuesday and Thursday night with games played on the six Saturday's after Labor Day. Registration fee is $95 and scholarships are available.

"We certainly won't turn anybody away," Sailer said.

Bob Burrows

Bob Burrows has been sports editor at the River Falls Journal since 1996 and at the Hudson Star-Observer since 2009. Prior to joining the Journal, Burrows served as sports editor with Ledger Publications in Balsam Lake, Wis. A native of Bayonne, N.J. and a U.S. Navy veteran, Burrows attended Marquette University before completing his studies at UW-River Falls in 1992.

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