The NFL got back to the playing field this past week for its first preseason games since the players and owners agreed to a new collective bargaining agreement. But the scene at NFL training camps is a bit different this year.
New rules now limit the amount of full-contact practice that players can participate in. Gone are the grueling summer two-a-days.
These rules were put in place to address growing concerns about player injuries, concussions in particular. Medical research suggests that the bone-crunching hits that energize fans have serious health consequences for players long after they hang up their pads.
Warnings From A Former Player
Chris Nowinski isn't your typical Harvard graduate. After earning a degree in sociology and spending four years on the football team, Nowinski made his professional wrestling debut in 2001.
Two years later, he suffered a bad concussion, but tried to keep wrestling. The post-concussion symptoms became so severe that Nowinski had to take an extended absence, and eventually retired in May 2004.
Nowinski's own concussion experience led him to write a book on the subject and found a group called the Sports Legacy Institute to research athletic trauma. He's concerned about players with concussion histories who continue to play.
The standard for diagnosing the seriousness of a concussion is how long the symptoms last, he says. "The longer the symptoms last, the more of an indication it might be that maybe you should hang it up," Nowinski tells David Greene, guest host of weekends on All Things Considered.
Nowinski's Sports Legacy Institute has done research into a condition called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. This degenerative disease has been diagnosed in many retired football players, and may have led to the suicide of former Chicago Bears player Dave Duerson earlier this year.
"If you're an athlete thinking about your future," Nowinski tells Greene, "a lot of the guys who have long-term problems never had a problem when they were active athletes."
Out of the first 15 former football players his team examined, 14 had CTE. Nowinski sums up his research bluntly: "I think we've found that playing a lot of football is a very dangerous proposition."
Concussions Under Friday Night Lights
One high school player that Nowinski might worry about is Spencer Helgren from West Ishpeming, Mich. He plays offensive and defensive line for the Westwood High School Patriots.
In the third quarter of a game late last season, Helgren took a head-to-head hit from another lineman. He thought he was OK, and went back to cover a punt a few plays later. He was knocked down by a blocker, and after hitting the ground, he began to cry.
"I'm not the kind of guy that cries ever," he says. "I'm one of those guys that's kind of like a wall."
He knew something was up, but passed all of the team trainer's concussion test. And then he was cleared to play the next week.
In that game, Helgren suffered another head-to-head hit, and this time, he wasn't allowed back to the field.
"That's what started the six-month, 24-hour-a-day splitting headache that never went away," he says.
A Coach's View
The seriousness of both the short- and long-terms symptoms of head injuries make coach Jamey DuBose of Prattville High School in Alabama very careful when a player takes a big hit.
"If it's a head injury, we don't risk," DuBose tells guest host David Greene. "We just had a scrimmage Friday night and we had a kid take a big shot on a kick return. The kid was shaken up a little bit and we sat him down for the rest of the night."
DuBose, whose team is ranked No. 1 in the nation this fall by Rivals.com, says this caution is the result of new awareness about the seriousness of concussions.
"If I would've been a coach 10, 15 years ago, that player would have been back out there playing again," he says.
But even with this new awareness, players still want to get out onto the field and hit their hardest. Helgren himself says that he plans to return to his team this fall.
Because player behavior is so difficult to change, many are trying to figure out ways to at least limit the damage on a player's head.
Engineering a Solution
Researcher Stefan Duma of Virginia Tech University has been studying how the human body responds to extreme impacts — during war, say, or auto accidents. A lifelong football fan, Duma began looking into sports impacts about 10 years ago.
A big-time football school like Virginia Tech has proved to be an ideal research environment.
Since 2003, Duma and his team have measured every head impact that each player experiences in every practice and every game. He says that typical impacts - the ones that occur 15 to 20 times on every play - have a strength of 30 to 40 times the force of gravity.
But the biggest hits are much more intense - up to 150 times the force of gravity.
"That's at the level of a severe car accident," he says.
Duma started testing how well different models of football helmets cushion these extreme impacts. And his team gave each one a star rating.
The newest, safest helmets got four to five stars — and he says they could cut risk of concussion in half.
The most popular helmet in the NFL last year — and the one worn by about half of Virginia Tech's players — got a paltry one-star rating. Now, because of Duma's research, every Hokie player will suit up this fall with a brand-new five-star helmet.
Duma admits that the best way to limit concussions is for players to tackle properly. Though they may feel invincible donning the latest armor, football players are still soft-tissue humans, vulnerable to the immense forces of the game.