MIDDLETON, Wis. - Matt Vande Sande had his days under the Friday night lights. With the fond memories of his times on the field also comes the realization that he an his teammates didn't treat their injuries with much care.
"'Hey I need you back on the field in a couple of minutes.' 'OK, it's OK to go in there,'" Vande Sande said, describing the coach-player dialogue.
Vande Sande's son is now a sophomore, playing both offense and defense for the Middleton Cardinals JV team. As he helps the athletic trainer hired to be at every Middleton game, Vande Sande said he constantly checks in with the young player from the sidelines, making sure no one is taking serious blows to the head.
"It is a concern, but if we're teaching the kids the proper mechanics now of doing the tackling and how we are being more conscious to be aware of it and to trust it, 18 I think it's going to be better now than when I played, and it's going to continue to grow and be better in the future because we're aware of it."
Vande Sande is also on the board for the Middleton youth football program, part of the Dane County Area Youth Football League. He said starting this season, kids as young as 9 and 10 years old are now learning a new tackling technique aimed at preventing head and neck injuries.
"It's not always the win and loss. We're here for the safety of the athlete." Vande Sande said.
Vande Sande explained the "Heads Up" five-step process that comes from USA Football, a national organization underwritten by the NFL. He said the method teaches young players to maintain a wide stance while stepping quickly toward their opponent, keep their chin and head up, and use a "dip and rip" motion to tackle someone with contact to their shoulders.
All in all, Vande Sande said this technique is meant to train those kids from the start not to go in for a tackle head-first.
"By the time they get to the high school level, they've already been through it. They've already had four or five years of this," Vande Sande said. "So by the time they get to high school, they know what it is, how to do it properly, so they're not getting any injuries."
All coaches in the Dane County Youth Area Football League were trained in the new way to tackle this year.
Dr. Owen Anderson works in the St. Mary's Hospital Emergency Room, and said sideline response is helping to keep the number of child concussions down.
"High school is high school. College is college. They've got their whole lives ahead of them. They need to get checked out and make sure they're safe to go back to play so they don't have any permanent damage," Anderson said.
Anderson said that permanent damage can often come from players, parents and coaches ignoring the symptoms and putting a kid back on the field before the brain heals. He said what's known as "second impact syndrome" can even be fatal.
"If there's another brain injury, you can have dangerous swelling and sometimes even death from a minor head injury while that brain is still in that sensitive period and hasn't had time to heal fully," Anderson explained.
More important than any score, Vande Sande said, is keeping his son and his teammates healthy.
"The whole idea is to keep the players safe, and enjoy the sport, learn about teamwork, learn about yourself in a safe way," Vande Sande said.
For more information on USA Football's Heads Up Program, visit the Dane County Area Football League's website and check out the concussion fact sheets.
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