Imagine your 14- or 15-year-old son is getting ready to play his first season of high school football.
For thousands of North Carolina freshmen and sophomores that is exactly the challenge they are taking on when NCHSAA practices officially kick off July 31.
While many of the same players have gotten started in summer workout programs, the crack of full contact practices won’t be heard until August.
Whether the players ultimately make the varsity or the junior varsity team, starting the high school football career can be a daunting task, mentally, physically and emotionally.
A new challenge
Incoming Butler freshman quarterback, Bear Gates, 14, has gotten a taste of the next level this summer in offseason workouts with his future Bulldog teammates.
The 5-foot-11, 130-pound quarterback, who started at Mint Hill Middle School in both his seventh- and eighth-grade seasons, knows he has step up his game and is eager to put in the hard work.
“It’s really exciting to get play for a powerhouse team and program like Butler,” said Gates, as Butler has averaged 12 wins per season over the past decade winning three, 4AA state championships in that same span. “But it’s also a little bit overwhelming at the same time. It’s tough to be learning new plays and a new system and trying to make a good impression against guys that may be two to three years older than you and know what they’re doing. …
“But I know it’s a process. I’m just trying to take it all in, learn quickly, so I can get better and take my game to a higher level.”
Gates’ father, Lowell Gates, who played basketball at East Mecklenburg High and is now an engineer in the Charlotte Fire Department, is equally excited about his son playing high school football, but that doesn’t come without some reservations.
“When your kid plays football, in the back of your mind, you always worry that he could get hurt,” said Lowell Gates, who is 6-foot-3, 180 pounds and believes his son will eventually be the same size. “This year, being a smaller guy (135 pounds), he’s going to be on the field with some kids that have already made jump into being a man. …
“When I see him get knocked to the ground, he immediately turns back into my 5-year-old boy. But I know, he’s going to have to weather the storm for a while until he grows into his body.”
Meanwhile, Charlotte Catholic sophomore, Malik McGowan, 15, never expected even play for the varsity as a freshman last season.
But shortly after starting his Cougar football career, Coach Charlotte Catholic football coach, Mike Brodowicz, was so impressed with the then 6-foot-4, 280-pound offensive tackle, that he not only believed he could play varsity, but also start for a Charlotte Catholic team coming off a perfect, 15-0 season and 4A state championship in 2015.
McGowan’s mother, Dianne Stanley, was excited for her son, she initially didn’t want him to play varsity football as a 14-year-old freshman.
“When coach Brodowicz first asked me if Malik could play varsity football I actually said ‘no,’ and you should have seen the look on his face,” said Stanley, with a slight laugh in hindsight.
“I was worried that he was too young to play varsity, but coach Brodowicz asked if we could try it out for a little while, so I agreed. I was nervous his first game and I’m still nervous he might get hurt in every game. But, I am also very proud of Malik because he handled himself so well on the field against a lot of senior heavy teams with guys three to four years older than him. When I look at him, I still see my little boy, but he’s not that little (6-foot-4, 320 pounds now) anymore.”
McGowan was only the second freshman to start for Charlotte Catholic in the past 13 year; the other was defensive lineman Tyler Bullard, 2006 graduate.
“I was really nervous to go out there and line up against upperclassmen at first,” McGowan said, now a 6-foot-4, 320-pound tackle. “But each game got a little easier and easier. Eventually, I wasn’t thinking about being a freshman or the guy I’m blocking be a senior. I was just playing football.”
14 vs. 18
The threat of injury is on the football field on every play in every game, whether you are a 135-pound quarterback or a 320-pound offensive tackle.
The violent nature of football is a real concern for players, their parents, their coaches, and their trainer and their team doctors.
As players get bigger, stronger and faster with each season, staying healthy throughout a season gets tougher.
While players of any age can get hurt, the age and maturity gap between a 14- or 15-year-old freshman or sophomore and 18-year-old senior can increase the risk of injury.
Dr. H. Yates Dunaway, assistant medical director of OrthoCarolina and the team doctor for the Charlotte Catholic football team for the last three decades says “playing in the big boy league,” meaning varsity football, isn’t for everyone, especially for younger players.
“You have to remember that football is a game that is meant to be fun,” Dunaway said. “It’s a lot more fun when you’re out there not only playing, but also playing against guys you can compete with.”
Coach Brodowicz and Myers Park football coach Scott Chadwick agree.
“The difference between a 14- and 18-year-old is very real, there’s no doubt about it,” said Brodowicz, noting every one of his seniors can bench press 225 pounds or more now.
“The worst time to play high school football is when puberty has clicked, but not quite ramped up yet. I tell a lot of our ninth-graders, including my son (former Catholic cornerback, Ben Brodowicz), that you’re probably not going to enjoy this year a lot.”
“When you are putting a freshman on the field, the biggest thing you have to weigh is are you putting that player in danger,” said Myers Park football coach, Scott Chadwick, who is 23-15 in three seasons with the Mustangs, including an 11-2 record last year. “We’ve started two freshman at Myers Park since I’ve been here – wide receiver, Elijah Bowick, who was 6-foot-1, 180 and Cameron Roseman-Sinclair, who was 6-foot-1, 177 pounds. Not only were those players physically mature, but they were also mentally and emotionally ready for varsity football and that allowed them to fit in the team.”
Roseman-Sinclair says he grew up always playing football against older kids in his neighborhood, but high school football was an adjustment. He credits Chadwick and Myers Park assistant Dre for helping make the jump as 14-year-old, freshman, who turned 15 on July 5.
Dr. Dunaway believes the most pressing, injury concerns in today’s game are concussions, knees (ACL’s) and overuse, whether you are talking about muscles, ligament, tendons or just playing in too many games.
Dunaway says the concussion issue is the most serious, because the effects can stay with a player the rest of their lives.
A recent study from National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury revealed 300,000 football concussions occur each year in high school football each year, with 10-15 percent of football players suffering from a concussion each season.
“We used to say a player ‘got his bell rung,’ take him out for a few plays and put him back in the game, and that really wasn’t a smart thing to do,” Dunaway said. “Now, we may be overdoing it the other way (for concussions), but it’s much better to be cautious. We (medical community) still need to get a better understanding of the concussion. Ultimately, I believe the concussion injury will completely change how football is played.”
Dunaway is also concerned with the rise in knee (specifically ACL-related) injuries and believes that some athletes are so big and so strong, that their own condition can contribute to injury.
The size and strength of an athlete, or lack thereof, can make it even more likely for them tear ligaments or tendons.
“I wonder if a lot of athletes are too big, too strong, just as much as I wonder if they are not strong enough,” Dunaway said. “We encourage players to get in the weight room as much as possible, and to a certain extent you have to do that, almost in self-defense, because the risk of injury does go down. …
“But I believe athletes overlook things like stretching, core strength, balance and even the cardio aspect of sports, too. The risk of injury is a lot higher when an athlete is tired.”
Dr. Dunaway and many coaches also believe that high school athletes often play in too many games from their high school season to club and/or AAU teams, to all-star events and more, overusing their bodies in many ways.
Many athletes compete in their respective sports, or multiple sports, year-round, adding dozens of workouts, practices and games where the potential for injury is always there.
While coach Brodowicz, who played college football at Elon University from 1982-86 knows all about the dangers of playing, he notes “that there is risk in everything we do in life.”
“There’s no question that football is organized violence in some form and I get that,” said Brodowicz, noting his Charlotte Catholic varsity football team lost seven players to season-ending injuries in the 2016 season. “We’re very up front with our guys about the physical nature of the game.”
While each football player on the field is ultimately responsible for his own safety, the overall health of a player has become a multi-layered, team effort.
Most high school football teams not only have a coaching staff, but also employ an athletic trainer, strength coach and team doctor. Many players even have personal trainers of their own.
While all of these positions are vital to a players’ well-being, Dr. Dunaway believes the athletic trainer has become one of the biggest assets.
“One position that doesn’t get near the credit they deserve is the athletic trainer,” Dunaway said. “They not only know the athletes and watch them play on a daily basis, but they know about keep an athlete healthy from their strength and fitness to their hydration and what they eat. …I think the trainer is the most key addition to a team over the last 25 years.”
Charlotte Catholic athletic trainer Donna Cure, who has worked the Cougar football team for the past seven years, brings a wealth of knowledge to her team as she has also worked with the University of Nebraska and Nebraska Wesleyan University and did a recent internship with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Cure says her job is not only to keep the players healthy, and help decide when they can and can’t play or practice, but also help them become as educated as possible on how to take care of their bodies.
Cure says Charlotte Catholic has even invited Gatorade representatives to come in and talk about the importance of hydration and nutrition.
She also sees the Charlotte Catholic players from a parents’ perspective, as her son, Jackson Cure, is a senior quarterback on the team.
While she knows her role is important, Cure also stresses the health of all players is a team effort.
“Doctors, trainers, coaches and the parents have to work together to keep players as safe as they can be,” Cure said. “We have a much great range of knowledge of how to take care of our bodies. We want our players to have as much of that knowledge as possible, and to know they can come to us (trainers/doctors) any time with questions or concerns.”
One of the best ways to prevent injury is to avoid it altogether.
While nothing is 100 percent safe, the Charlotte Catholic and Myers Park football coaching staffs both run their practices to minimize the interaction of junior varsity and varsity players.
Charlotte Catholic’s varsity and junior varsity team practice at different times for the first 18 days.
The Cougar varsity team practices in the morning, from 7-9:30 a.m., while the junior varsity squad practices each evening from 6-8 p.m.
“A lot of ninth-graders simply aren’t ready to take a hit or play with a senior,” said Brodowicz, noting most freshman and even some sophomores have never been in a weight room. “We want to make sure our players are getting off to the best start that they can.”
Myers Park staggers their practices for the first two to three weeks, running junior varsity from 6 to 8 p.m., while the varsity practice from 7 to 9:30 p.m.
The time that the varsity and J.V. practices overlap is dedicated to conditioning and individual drills.
Coach Chadwick says there are never live team drills or live hitting when the teams are players from both teams (varsity/J.V.) are practicing together.
Ready to go
Most local high school teams also spend three or four days a week in June and July working together in the weight room, on conditioning, and doing basic skill work in helmets and shorts.
That preparation helps many players come into the official start on practice in much better shape, preventing a lot of unnecessary injuries, according to coach Chadwick.
It also helps the younger players get used to what it’s going to be like playing football at the high school level.
“That time in the summer is really invaluable,” Chadwick said. “Not only do the kids stay in shape over the summer, but they are ready to go when live practices start, and aren’t dealing with as many cramps, pulled muscles, strains and other issues that can lead to bigger injuries.”
Jay Edwards is a freelanc writer: firstname.lastname@example.org
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