Montana Weighs Risks, Rewards Of America's Biggest Game
A week before their homecoming game, the Missoula Sentinel Spartans are on the practice field. The defensive line is practicing their blocking on a giant metal sled that vaguely resembles the shape of an opposing offensive line. It’s heavy, but the Spartan D-Line push it a few yards at the sound of the whistle.
High school football is a ritual of educating young men in self-sacrifice, with the risks and rewards of the game rooted in physical exertion, violence and community.
"I believe football is the greatest game in the world because it is the ultimate team game," Head Coach of Sentinel Football Dane Oliver said.
"You have to sacrifice your individual needs for the good of the team. It takes 11 guys for us to run a good play.”
The Sentinel football team’s website greets visitors with the essay Why Football Matters, written by NFL Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh.
Harbaugh says there’s practically no other place where a young man is held to a higher standard, and because of the lessons learned in the game, football has saved lives.
His essay was published on the Ravens website April 22, 2015.
That same day, a judge approved a lawsuit settlement between the National Football League and former players over the medical conditions associated with repeated head trauma.
In that settlement the NFL will pay hundreds of millions of dollars to retired players.
Earlier this month, a study found brain disease in 96 percent of dead NFL players it examined.
In the same study, the Department of Veterans Affairs and Boston University also found the degenerative brain diseases known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, in 79 percent of all dead football players they examined.
NFL coach Harbaugh says the issue of brain injuries in football, and in every sport, is very real and teams on every level should work at making their game safer.
But, when it comes down to the real values of football, Harbaugh says the rewards of the game outweigh the risks.
Coach Dane Oliver of Sentinel High School agrees.
“Football is a hard game, it's difficult to come to practice every day and you go from the dog days of the summer to the cold," Oliver said. "And I think there is a certain level of mental toughness involved with the game of football. I think John Harbaugh promoting that and wanted to share why it is the most popular game in America. The game still has value. But we have an obligation to make the game safer.”
The Sentinel High School football program is acutely aware of the risks of the game.
Sentinel graduate, Dylan Steigers was scrimmaging at Eastern Oregon University in 2010 when he came off the field and threw up on the sidelines - a symptom of being concussed.
He was rushed to the hospital and later died.
Steigers death inspired the first concussion protection legislation in Montana.
The Dylan Steigers Protection of Youth Athletes Act passed in 2013 requires schools to educate coaches, parents and student athletes on concussions in every sport.
After a player shows signs of being concussed, the law requires the student to be taken out of play. The athlete must be examined and can only return to play after getting the okay from a health care professional, like neurologist Paul Coats.
“We don’t have huge quantities of high quality data," Coats said. "But what we are getting as we are starting to look at this is a fairly strong compelling data set that tells us that concussions and repetitive concussions are harmful to brains and that the effects of that may not show up until decades later.”
Coats is a contributing voice in Montana’s Save the Brain project.
Save the Brain is a program run out of the Kalispell Regional Health center that promotes concussion awareness.
When Coats was in school, he played football as a middle linebacker.
“There are few joys that match the feeling of a really good strong hit on the football field and seeing that guy go down, I cherish that," Coats said. "And I know that there are ways of delivering that good solid hit without taking somebody’s head.”
Coats says the science into what happens to a brain when the body takes that good hard hit is still in the early stages. Unlike a broken bone it's really hard see and understand brain injuries.
Montana concussion response law came four years after the first in the nation was passed, in Washington. But Coats says Montana is really moving forward in effort to protect young athletes from head injuries.
“In some ways I think we’ve been able to leapfrog ahead of some of the earlier states passed laws because we’ve had more data and we’re taking the advantages of their experiences," Coats said.
While new data comes out about head injuries, and how they contribute to conditions like Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's and depression - for a young man full of testosterone, Coats can’t think of a better place to channel that energy. As long it’s done in a safe way.
Mitch Reynolds is a senior receiver and safety or the Sentinel Spartans. He started playing football in third grade. Back then it was just flag-football. He says the physical aspect of football is really important to why it's great.
“Football breaks you down, it's hard, I get beat up every day," Reynolds said.
After getting knocked down, Reynolds say his teammates are always ready to help him back up. And he does the same for them.
The threat of physical violence is present on every play. Fans like that.
Sunday Night Football is the biggest TV event of the week. Last Sunday, 22 million people tuned in.
It’s an American tradition and young men like Mitch Reynolds know that. The game gives him a place to belong and a community that supports and cheers for him.
“It's still a contact sport, there is no getting around it, it’s a risk you have to take, but for me it's well worth it," Reynolds said. "Coming out and having some of the best friends I’ve had in my life on the football field. It’s definitely been worth it.”
During the Friday night brawl against the Skyview Falcons from Billings, dad of two Sentinel Spartans, Kyle Cunningham stood on the sideline.
“I knew Dylan when he played here and it is a pretty sobering thought that a kid can die from a football injury," Cunningham said. "Another thing that just came out was that NFL study that came out in the last week and 91 NFL players that had died and 87 had CTE that’s a pretty sobering fact.”
Cunningham says the Dylan Steigers act that outlined concussion management for students athletes was long overdue. And he’s glad to see coaches teaching safer tackling techniques.
If Cunningham had it to do all over again, he’d suit up today and get back on the field.
“There is no better feeling than getting that good stick. Or there is no better feeling than scoring a touchdown," Cunningham said. "And you don’t get that in baseball or basketball. There is just something about being on a football field and the crowd is out here and you’re under the lights…it’s a pretty neat experience for a kid. I would encourage every single kid to experience it.”
It's homecoming night and the Spartans are going to win, beating the Skyview Falcons 35-14.
But they don’t know that yet.
So, the cheerleaders keep cheering and the crowd keeps yelling. Young couples are holding hands and standing in line for soda and hot dogs. Parents are sitting in the bleachers and standing on the sidelines with eyes for nothing but their boys playing under the Friday night lights.
It’s a picture that says – we’re in this together and it's all going to be okay, even if it might not.