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Padecky: Youth football team turns to technology for safety


Technology, if only described analytically, can be cold and formless, as inspiring as looking at the diagram that leads to an electrical outlet. Or, technology can be stuck inside a football helmet. Which can signal contact alerts. And that certainly is not cold and formless, given our growing concern with protecting a player’s melon.

By his nature and occupation, John Antonio is preoccupied with safety. He’s a Petaluma policeman. He is also coach of the Petaluma Panthers, a youth football organization representing five teams determined by size and age. It is tackle football, not flag, and the Panthers play in a 10-team league composed mostly of Sonoma County teams.

Last year Antonio came across some very specific technology. His response was immediate.

“It’s a no-brainer,” said Antonio, also head football coach at Piner High School.

This season, 105 of his 170 players will be wearing Riddell’s Insite helmet. He would like the helmet on all 170 kids but at $280 a pop, Antonio needs a couple more fundraisers. It took $28,000 to get this far. Then again, the technology, even to those most tight of wallet, is intriguing.

“When I presented the idea to the board,” said Antonio, also president of the league’s governing body — the Future Leaders of American Gridiron, “they were dumbfounded — ‘Why hasn’t this happened already?’ ”

Here’s how it works for the Panthers.

In each of those 105 helmets are five sensors located in different spots. The sensors measure and record four elements related to impact: The location of the impact, the impact’s duration, linear acceleration and rotational acceleration. Those last two elements refer to direct impact as well as if the head and helmet moves in other than a straight line.

On the Panthers’ sideline stands Mario Bernardini, a Novato firefighter and paramedic. Bernardini will be holding an Alert Monitor. The monitor has every player’s name, uniform number and position. Bernardini will receive a sound alert if contact reaches a specific level. That level is the result of data collected from 5 million hits collected since 2003, when testing began. The University of Texas football team was part of the study.

If the impact data from a single contact registers high enough — signaling possible brain trauma and either a vibration or sound on the Alert Monitor — the player is removed from the game for further analysis. The Alert Monitor records and stores all hits taken in the game.

With Second Impact Syndrome having been found to making a player even more vulnerable to a concussion, the player still can be removed from the game if the cumulative collection of data poses a concern. All data is recorded and stored for a seven-day period, the idea being that damage can occur in practice a well.

The Insite technology accomplishes one thing that troubles all football coaches of any level.

It eliminates a player lying through his teeth, er, mouthguard.

“Players never want to come out,” said Antonio, who has been coaching football for 17 years, six of them as the head coach at Piner High School. “We’re taking it (judgment) out of the player’s hands.”

The helmet, to mix this metaphor, is the unblinking eye. It can see what coaches cannot.

“You can’t always see every player on every play, especially if it’s on the other side of the field,” he said. “It helps identify hits you don’t see.”

The Alert Monitor has to be within 200 yards of the helmet.

Currently the Panthers are the only tackle football team in the North Bay wearing this helmet.

“But the most widespread use in the country is in California,” said Erin Griffin, a Riddell spokesperson.

Of course, the sensors — no larger than a quarter and unseen from the outside — can’t eliminate the first jarring, stars-producing hit. It can’t, and shouldn’t, make a player feel bulletproof. It can’t, and will never, make football safe. It’s not a safe sport. Can it become less dangerous?

Ah, now this is where we’re scraping the nut. Rightly so, player safety, not mention long-term brain damage, has commanded center stage in this sport. Mothers and fathers at the youth level are justified in asking for and receiving the best coaching available AND the best equipment available.

Football safety has become the latest cottage industry. So explains the email I received the other day: A company is offering: ”Custom football performance socks.” I’m serious. Performance socks? How? The player can jump over a linebacker?

Myself, I go old school on this one.

Much can be accomplished if kids are taught how to tackle properly. Don’t lead with your head, Sparky. You have shoulders. Use them. And don’t put your head down. See where you going. See what you hit. But America, being what we are, is the land of opportunity. Promoting football safety is the land opportunity.

This helmet, however, is not selling snail oil. Whether it’s Riddell or Rawlings or The Genuine Billy Bob’s Ram-Proof Helmet, if the headgear passes testing, what parent would deny their son additional protection? No one would.

No parent should ask of himself or herself: How lucky do I feel? Can I get away with having Brian playing through high school without utilizing all the available technology? Do I have to put a dollar sign on his health?

No football coach should ask of himself: How many fundraisers and sleepless nights will this take to make it happen? Youth football coaches, and that includes ones in high school, get paid peanuts, if at all. The coaches, least the ones I know, would go into a lifetime of therapy if one of their players left a game paralyzed.

So, John, you say it’s a no brainer. Sorry, my brain is hurting just thinking about something so simple to understand and applaud.