University of South Carolina researcher Susan Yeargin slips up behind an undersized defensive lineman during a break in practice and uses a hand-held device to measure his core body temperature and heart rate without him even noticing.
As she leaves the field, a tiny defensive back yells to her, “When can I get one of them earpieces?” referring to special devices that, rather than helping with hearing, measure the force of every hit the young players take during practices and games all season.
A national grant from youth-football governing body USA Football has transformed the youth football practice fields at Seven Oaks Park into a high-tech lab where groundbreaking studies are getting their start.
“We are the true pilot program,” said Jim Mensch, director of the certified athletic trainer program at USC. “There’s no other league in the country where they’re doing this type of work.”
While professional and college programs have done small-scale studies with similar devices, even they don’t routinely have players swallow special pills that measure core body temperatures. And while the big boys have measured the impact of collisions, the data don’t translate to the less forceful collisions and less developed brains of young players.
Concussions, especially, have drawn the attention of researchers and football league administrators all the way up to the professional level. The National Football League last month reached a $765 million settlement with former players suffering memory loss, dementia and other brain-related ailments associated with head injuries. Youth football leaders are concerned the link between frequent collisions and brain damage will prompt parents to steer youngsters away from the sport.
“With the NFL settlement, people want to know what’s going on,” Mensch said. “You want to have information to give to the parents. This (collision study) will let us know what the kids go through.”
The USA Football grant last year paid for certified athletic trainers and students to be at all practices and games for the Irmo Chapin Recreation Commission’s youth football league at Seven Oaks Park and the Pop Warner league at nearby Friarsgate Park. Those trainers not only kept track of the various types and severity of injuries, they treated the injuries.
This year, the USC staff expanded the study to include heat illness and concussions.
The heat study involves measuring factors such as food and hydration before, during and after practices and games to determine which factors are most crucial for preventing overheating. The high-tech part of the study involves straps around the young players’ midsection that measure heart rate and pills they swallow that measure internal body temperature.
The pills, slightly larger than standard prescription-drug capsules, have to be taken either the night before or early on the morning of practice. That gives time for the pills to make it to the intestines but not so much time they make it all the way through the alimentary system. (Technically, the pills can be sterilized and recycled, but for this study, the participants aren’t being asked to perform the messy chore of retrieving them.)
The telemetric devices in the pill measure temperature and send the measurements via radio waves to be stored in a hand-held device the size of a TV remote control. Yeargin, the assistant professor leading the study, and her assistants need to hold the device within a few feet of the players to collect the information from the pills and the heart-rate devices before, during and after practices and games. They can do it relatively unobtrusively while coaches are dispensing instructions.
After the study was discussed at a pre-season meeting of players and parents, about 20 players at each site volunteered to take the pills. (They had to weigh more than 80 pounds and have no trouble swallowing large pills.) They also have to drink out of personal water bottles during practices to measure their fluid intake, and head to the Port-A-Potty to provide a urine sample and step on a scale to get weight reading before and after practices.
The kids were more eager to take part in the concussion study. All they have to do is stop by a table before practice to have one of 60 small accelerometers attached behind their ear. On its specialized bandage, the X2 Biosystems X-Patch does look like a hearing aid. About the size of a quarter, the devices measure the number of collisions felt by the wearer, along with the velocity and direction of the hits.
“This is so cool,” said Joelle Gage, the USC graduate student coordinating the distribution of the devices. “It’s never been done on the youth level, and that’s where all the NFL players start.”
Could it also be where brain injuries begin from decades of collisions? That likely depends on the number of hits and the force of those hits at the youth level. Every night after practices and games, the X2 devices will be removed and placed in a briefcase-like storage system for data collection. By the end of the season, there will be a chart on the number of collisions and severity for each player in the study.
The concussion study actually began before the season when 38 players volunteered to be hooked up to devices at USC usually used for studying stroke patients. The comprehensive brain measurements will serve as baseline data, Mensch said.
The study is designed to help youth football leagues develop return-to-play guidelines “that make sense at this level,” Mensch said. Proving the need for the study, one player at Seven Oaks suffered a concussion the day before the X2 devices arrived. He’ll have to wait until a physician clears him to play before he can wear one of the devices.
The Seven Oaks and Friarsgate players truly are groundbreakers. USA Football plans to expand it to five more locations nationally next year, Mensch said. This season’s study is as much about working out kinks as it is about gathering data.
And the most basic problem is making sure 10-year-olds don’t go home with the devices still stuck behind their ears.
“What’s the most important thing?” Ashley Smith, who coordinates the youth sports programs for Irmo Chapin Recreation, asked a young player after a device was placed behind his ear. “Bring it back after practice!”