Former star Arrington, North Hills hope to curb concussions with new football gear
The North Hills football team is making an effort to reduce the number of concussions by becoming the first high school football team in the country to use special practice jerseys and player-shaped pads in combination with neck-strengthening training.
North Hills Senior High School graduate and former Washington Redskins linebacker LaVar Arrington created the equipment that is designed to visually train football players to make safe, effective tackles by showing them where to place their hands and heads to not only take down an opponent safely but also protect themselves from concussions.
The products are part of Arrington's Xtreme Procision line and were donated to the school by Highmark Health Services as part of a partnership with Allegheny Health Network Sports Medicine.
Arrington, 35, began playing football when he was 8. His on-field accomplishments for the North Hills Indians in the mid-1990s helped earn him a place in the Western Pennsylvania Athletic League Hall of Fame. He was a two-time All-American at Penn State University and a three-time NFL All-Pro and Pro-Bowl linebacker for the Redskins.
During his two decades of playing football, Arrington sustained five concussions — two from fierce collisions, two more from getting kneed in the head and another from his head going through the windshield during a traffic accident.
He said he created the jerseys and pads in an attempt to make football better and safer.
“I was coaching a young football player, but he couldn't comprehend what I was telling him to do,” explained Arrington, who now lives in Annapolis, Md. “I got so frustrated, I walked away. While passing by a store, I spotted a white T-shirt and bought it. I took the shirt and colored a bunch of aiming points on it with a big red marker. Using that shirt, the young player was finally able to understand what I was trying to tell him.”
For the next two and a half years, Arrington traveled the country and worked the phones, interviewing college and NFL coaches to find out what they did to prepare their teams. This information helped him determine the most optimal aiming points for his new practice jerseys.
Kevin Cook, 17, a senior running back and outside linebacker for North Hills, said the jerseys help give his teammates and him better form when they are making tackles.
“Many times, the people who get hurt lead with their heads, and they've taken a knee to the helmet or things like that,” he said. “With the new target areas, they're able to tackle up high, keep their head up and go through the player rather than risk a head or neck injury.”
North Hills athletic trainer Eric Cardwell said the district has an average of five concussions per year among athletes from grades seven to 12 on school-sponsored teams.
“When an impact to the head occurs, the resulting whiplash causes the brain to strike one side of the inner skull, then bounce back to strike the other side of the inner skull,” Cardwell explained.
Such trauma can cause neurological disturbances such as headaches, dizziness, nausea, amnesia, insomnia, blurred vision, sensitivity to light or noise, malaise, irritability, and difficulty concentrating.
Cook, of Ross Township, knows teammates who have suffered concussions.
“Some of them didn't remember the game,” he said, “or that they even played in the game.”
Long-term effects, such as premature dementia and impaired motor function, still are being researched, studied and debated.
“We can't eradicate concussions altogether, but we're covering all bases to decrease the likelihood as much as we can,” said Cardwell, 41, of Ross Township.
Dr. Joseph Dougherty, 35, of Hampton Township, a sports-medicine specialist at Allegheny Health Network Sports Medicine, said the new practice gear is beneficial.
“I think that the new practice jerseys are a great tool to teach players the importance of proper tackling techniques, not only from a football standpoint, but also from a cervical (neck) spine injury standpoint,” he said.
The district also has made neck-strengthening training routine for its soccer and football teams.
“Neck-strength training is often an overlooked aspect in team sports training,” Dougherty said. “Studies have shown that neck musculature training is one of the few things an athlete can do that can actually help reduce concussion rates.”
This season marks the first year that neck-strengthening exercises are being incorporated into daily team practices at North Hills.
“This new training actually allows us to play harder because we know with the correct training and coaching, the chance of injury is being cut down every time we tackle because we're coming at it in a smarter way,” Cook said.
Dr. Jack Wilberger, 42, of Franklin Park, the chairman of the Department of Neurology for the West Penn Allegheny Health System, lauded the North Hills efforts.
“All of this is a very, very good start. Anything we can do to prevent injury is a good thing,” said Wilberger, 42, of Franklin Park.
“Perhaps one thing we could do better is to start this prevention training earlier than high school, before bad tackling habits are formed.”
Laurie Rees is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.