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State rep Carol Senate introduces the panel of speakers contributing to the community forum on head-related injuries in jr. high and high school football held at Vernon HIlls HIgh School. | Michelle LaVigne~Sun-Times Media

Coaches and medical professionals alike spoke out this month against proposed statewide legislation that would limit tackling in youth football practices. The measure was crafted in an attempt to curb head injuries.

State Rep. Carol Sente, a Democrat representing the 59th District, introduced House Bill 1205 last month and sought feedback on the measure during a Feb. 25 forum at Vernon Hills High School. The goal of the forum, she said, was to gauge whether constituents wanted her to push the bill.

Roughly 100 people attended the forum and nearly half said they are or were high school football players or coaches.

“If these kids stop playing football, we’ll end up talking about concussions in basketball and hockey when they start playing those sports instead,” said Libertyville Township resident Gregory Rocco, who is also a doctor in Kenosha, Wis. “Last week I helped a patient who had a concussion from an elbow to the head during a basketball game.”

Rocco, also a former high school and college football player, was one of nearly a dozen people who spoke from the audience. He said contact in practice is needed so student athletes can learn how to properly play the game.

Several other attendees echoed that opinion during the two-hour event, including neuropsychologist Beth Pieroth. While not a member of the audience, Pieroth was, instead, part of a seven-member panel of experts Sente assembled for the forum. The panel was made up of athletic and medical specialists, including Illinois High School Association Executive Director Marty Hickman.

Pieroth, a neuropsychologist at NorthShore University Health System, said the medical community is actually disputing the current criteria used to diagnose concussions.

“Plenty of guys who play football, even professionally, have no injuries or problems,” Pieroth said. “Some people are predisposed to injuries. In 10 years, we will be genetically testing kids to see if they are susceptible to certain injuries.”

Sente introduced the bill after neurologist and local resident Lawrence Robbins approached her with concerns about athletic head injuries. Robbins was another member of the panel and defended his research that said an average life-long football player takes approximately 8,000 blows to the head.

“It’s the lower-level hits I’m worried about,” Robbins said. “Studies show the kids who never reported concussion still do not have healthy brains.”

Robbins said the National Football League currently faces about 4,000 lawsuits from retired players, but the league will win those cases because of evidence that says injuries were first caused while playing youth football.

Vernon Hills resident Bart Newman was Robbins’ lone supporter who spoke out.

“Before now I was afraid to speak up because I didn’t want to be perceived as anti-football,” Newman said. “I want to see the sport survive and thrive but there is some truth to this information.”

Newman said he’s been involved in football for 31 years as a youth, high school and college offensive player, as well as a coach and parent of a football athlete.

While playing in college, Newman said he was hit in the head during the first quarter of a game and experienced an orange flash. He continued to play and said he felt as if he was “in a bubble.”

Later that day, his coach named him as a top player of the game.

“My coaches and the referees didn’t notice anything different about me,” Newman said. “I was not asked to play hurt because they didn’t know. We can’t rely on young men to tell us when something is wrong.”

Sente emphasized throughout the evening that the bill was filed to meet a General Assembly deadline, but she can and will revise or remove it as she learns more. She said she hopes to hear from constituents and gather additional information during a future house committee discussion in Springfield.

At one point during the forum, she offered to change the bill so it limits contact practices to two days a week. But audience members speaking did not respond favorably.

Lincolnshire resident John Munger said he opposes the process completely.

“A solution to a problem is not always to create a law,” Munger said. “After listening to all these athletic directors and coaches, you can tell they care, are aware and were working on these risks before any law was proposed. Let’s take a cue from them and trust in our parents and coaches and let us choose how to live our lives.”

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