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Local youth football leaders educate public on safety efforts in the game
Georgia Football Association Heads Up Tackle Football
Anthony Jennings, president of the Midway Wolverines Football and Cheerleading Association, talks to a crowd Thursday during the Georgia Football Association Tackle Football Open House at Kelly Mill Elementary School. Jennings organized the event to try to educate local families about recent efforts to make football safer at the youth level. - photo by Brian Paglia

Maggie Muschara’s husband is an avid football fan. Every Labor Day weekend, their family hosts a party to watch the University of Georgia football team’s first game of the season, inviting friends to commune over sports. 

But Muschara is a physical therapist, and when she found out the couple was expecting a boy, she made a declarative restriction on their future son’s athletic career.

“He’s not playing contact sports until his growth plates are fully formed at 12,” Muschara remembers saying.

Their son, Colt, began playing flag football at 5, but it wasn’t long until he started lobbying Muschara to play the real thing. Concerned over the growing safety issues surrounding the sport, Muschara attended a Georgia Football Association Heads Up Tackle Football Open House two years ago. She heard enough to convince her — just barely — to sign up Colt for a team. 

Muschara was back at the event Thursday at Kelly Mill Elementary School, this time as part of a panel of coaches, parents and medical professionals who spoke to a crowd of almost 100 about the recent effort to make football safer at the youth level.

Anthony Jennings, president of the Midway Wolverines Football and Cheerleading Association, organized the event to provide a counterpoint to what he feels has become regular media coverage regarding the dangers of football that could threaten the sport’s existence.

“Perception is becoming reality,” said Ian Holmes, southeast regional manager of USA Football. 

We want to stop thinking of the head and helmet as part of the football play.
Anthony Jennings, president of the Midway Wolverines Football and Cheerleading Association

Holmes said that after showing a short video created by USA Football, the national governing body for the sport. The video featured medical professionals and high school football coaches from around the country touting new tackling techniques and practice methods meant to prevent head injuries that have been pioneered in part by Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll, who also made an appearance.

Holmes presented USA Football’s newest guidelines for blocking and tackling to remove players’ heads from making dangerous contact. USA Football is now a proponent of players tackling with their shoulders, which has also become known as “rugby-style tackling.” Their newest initiative is a blocking method for offensive linemen that emphasizes hand placement and body leverage.

“We want to stop thinking of the head and helmet as part of the football play,” Jennings said.

The county’s youth athletic associations all require their coaches to get certified to use these guidelines by USA Football, and each association has a safety director charged with monitoring practices and games to ensure coaches are properly implementing them.

But those in attendance still had plenty of questions for the panel. They asked about hydration and the process for reporting concussions. They asked about the certification process for coaches and what types of helmets to use. 

Most of the medical questions went to Lindara Halloran, a pediatrician at Vickery Pediatrics in Forsyth County, and Harold King, manager of community outreach and athletic training with Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. They acknowledged the potential risks of playing football, particularly for concussions, but they also highlighted the growth in concussions in sports like competitive cheerleading and lacrosse.

Halloran said “a lot” of the concussions that come through her practice are from football, but she added “you also have the kid who hits his head on the locker and [gets] a concussion. There’s all different kinds of things.”

Jennings and Robbie Cato, vice president of football at Midway, emphasized the character development football offers young players. 

That is what has prevented any regret for Muschara. She left the open house event two years ago more at ease with the prospect of Colt playing football, but she still waited until two hours before the deadline to sign him up for the season. As a mom and a physical therapist, it was an agonizing decision for her, she said. 

It worked for their family. Colt is now going into his third year playing football. 

“From our experience, it’s been great for our family, it’s been great for my son,” Muschara said. “But ultimately, it’s your decision. And that’s a hard one to make.”