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By Marty Farmer
Tyrell Gaylord is 10 years old and he loves playing football. Ask him his position and school and he proudly fires back, "running back and backup cornerback, Havlicek School," with the same alacrity that NFL players pronounce during their popular "background intros" of NBC's Sunday night games. A far cry from the bright lights of the NFL, however, Tyrell plays for the Featherweight Pac 10 team within the Oak Park River Forest Youth Football program. The OPRFYF is an organization that currently boasts 11 teams with approximately 220 players (ranging in age from 6 to 14). The children are primarily from the Oak Park and River Forest area.
A few weeks ago, Tyrell was ostensibly immersed in one of those glorious gridiron moments. He broke free from the line of scrimmage and was headed for a touchdown. With paydirt in his sights, he was pulled down by a defender from behind. Tyrell suffered a concussion. Plenty of gain with pain encapsulated the concerning moment on the football field.
"I was nervous that I wasn't going to play again," he said. "The trainer asked me some questions. When I didn't answer them, he said maybe I had a concussion. I went to the doctor to take a concussion test. At first, I didn't do well so I sat out for a few weeks."
After plenty of rest and obtaining a medical green light from a doctor, Tyrell rejoined his teammates on the field a few weeks after his concussion. He hasn't skipped a beat.
"I just like playing football. It's fun to tackle and I like the hitting [in football]," he said.
When Tyrell suffered his concussion, no one was more concerned for his well-being than his father, Tyrone Gaylord, who also coaches his son's squad within the OPRFYF. The aforementioned precautions assuaged Tyrone's worries in relatively short order.
"Like any parent, I was concerned about my son's health but the concussion wasn't from head-to-head contact," he said. "He hit his head on the ground. Tyrell spent a few weeks off to rest and recover, took concussion baseline and cognitive tests and passed those protocols. Even after passing those checkpoints, we still held him back from contact and just started with some light running.
"During the entire process, we elected to error on the side of caution. When I was growing up, there were no doctors or trainers on the sidelines of games. As a coach, I feel relieved knowing we have medical professionals at games to diagnose any injuries."
Like Gaylord, Rebecca Hachem is a parent of an OPRFYF player, actually two. Her twin sons, Elias and Julian, are in their third year playing football within the Little Huskies. OPRFYF is a member of The Chicagoland Youth Football League, the largest youth football league in America.
"I think the OPRFYF is as safe a program as there is out there," Hachem said. "The kids' weights, ages and skill levels are all factored in to make sure they are put in the proper level. I really like that plus the baseline concussion testing."
According to the league's registrar, Chris Guillen, there have been just a few concussions among the 220 players and 11 teams this season.
"Through roughly seven weeks which accounts for 77 games plus 50 practices, we've had four diagnosed concussions," Guillen said. "Those players went through the baseline testing protocols and were subsequently allowed to practice only after passing the baseline test again, being cleared by a physician and then eased into the practice regimen."
OPRFYF calls on a multi-pronged approach to foster player safety including the following: top of the line equipment including Riddell helmets (which are checked/replaced every other season), certified training for coaches via USA Football's Heads UP program, players/parents feedback, a league-mandated trainer on the sidelines at every game, along with medical input and presentations to players and parents from Dr. Romano along with Dr. Gail Rosseau, a neurosurgeon for the NorthShore University Health System. Rosseau lives in River Forest.
"My son, Brendan, played in the Little Huskies program and then three years for the OPRF football team," Rosseau said. "As a daughter, mother and wife of a football player, I'm happy to help the OPRFYF and the TCYFL in any way I can. Typically, I speak before the start of every football season, and in other sports, to provide information for coaches and athletes on how to recognize, prevent and also conduct in dealing with concussions."
Rosseau mentioned the importance of The Zackery Lystedt Law. The law, known by other names as well, is nearly universal within the United States. It says that youth sports requires medical clearance of athletes suspected of sustaining a concussion, before sending them back in a game, practice or training sessions. The new law is the most comprehensive return-to-play law in the United States for athletes under 18. In 2006, Lystedt suffered multiple concussions during a junior high school football game, resulting in severe brain trauma. More than 3.5 million sports-and-related concussions occur each year in the United States, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
"We're certainly aware and sensitive to the severity of concussions," Guillen said. "Knee and ankle injuries are probably the most common ones by far in our league. As a league representative of the TCYFL, I hear a lot of stats and 80 percent of the injuries are not concussions. Our focus is to minimize injuries of all kinds as best we can."
Concussions have become quite a hot-button issue around the country.
Interestingly enough, former NFL quarterback Kurt Warner and the fathers of other current NFL signal-callers like Tom Brady and the Manning brothers (Peyton and Eli) aren't particularly fond of tackle football for younger children.
On his website, Warner addressed his concerns with the following thoughts: "I am constantly concerned about my kids and the violence of the game of football. I worry about them suffering head trauma and developing any long-term issues as a result of that injury. So yes, I love this game and all the things that it taught me and afforded me along the way, but regardless of all that I have a responsibility to my kids. I cannot be oblivious to the risks of the game of football simply because it was good to me.
While former NFL quarterback Archie Manning didn't forbid his famous sons, Peyton and Eli, to play tackle football, the boys opted for backyard or flag football. In seventh grade, they joined their first organized tackle league.
Archie Manning said in an interview: "God, that's a great game. I wish I played my whole career in flag football,"
With so many stats and figures, pro and con, finding the truth about concussions can be kind of like deciphering a debate between a Democrat and a Republican. Regardless, open discourse raises awareness.
"I love that fact that there's more social and media awareness about concussions," said longtime OPRFYF football coach Elbert Reniva, "but I don't like how it's focused only on football.
Hachem added:mI think some of the information about concussions you read is overblown and sensationalistic.
Dan Reinhardt, who serves as the vice president of the OPRFYF board along with coaching and managing equipment responsibilities, believes the combination of improved coaching, excellent equipment and medical personnel on site ensure a fairly safe environment for the Little Huskies.
"From a league standpoint, I'm actually overjoyed at the level of commitment regarding player safety," said Reinhardt, who played football at the University of Illinois. "Our league has really bought into Heads Up teaching concepts with USA football to foster player safety. We teach these kids the proper techniques of tackling. It's all about stopping the progress of the football and not making a big hit on your opponent."
The impact of the OPRFYF certainly is being felt at the high school level in town. Guillen estimated that 18 of the 22 starters on the OPRF varsity football team played for the Little Huskies. "We had all those guys, [OPRF players] Jamal Baggett, Simmie Cobbs and Andre Lee," Reniva said. "I see them around town, they say hello and ask about Little Huskies. Our younger players aspire to be like them one day."