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Sports injuries rising in high school athletics, doctors, coaches weigh in

By Tristan Klinefelter,


(WTAJ) — Every Friday, football fans pack the stands at high school stadiums across Central Pennsylvania cheering for the big plays and even bigger hits. However, a rash of recent critical, and even fatal injuries is now raising new questions about the sport.

Football is one of America’s most popular sports and one of the most dangerous. In recent weeks, one player died from his injuries, while another continues to fight for his life.

Penn Highlands DuBois Physician and Sports Medicine Doctor Christopher Varaccalo said players must stay focused on every play while on the field, but it’s critical that coaches and trainers also have their heads in the game.

“It’s really important on the sideline as a player or medical personnel, an athletic trainer or physician on the sideline to pay attention to the game,” Varaccalo said. “Pay attention to the hits that happen and the student-athletes that are involved in these hits and watch them.”

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Just weeks into the 2023 season, it’s already one to remember but not for the right reasons. In September, a Jersey Shore Area School District player, Max Engle, died from his injuries after a hard hit.

Prior to Engle’s death, Karns City High School quarterback Mason Martin was flown to the hospital in critical condition just one week prior. He remains hospitalized while community support keeps growing.

These instances were reminiscent of last season when NFL player Damar Hamlin’s heart stopped on the field after a routine hit. Doctors said injuries from the game ranging from cardiac arrest to concussions have led to new concerns and a re-examination of the sport.

“When the heightened awareness has led to positive changes where students and medical personnel and coaches are recognizing these injuries and we’re getting these student-athletes the appropriate care that they need in a timely fashion,” Varaccalo said.

For coaches, there’s another reason to worry that the injuries might hurt recruitment.

“I don’t think that is going to deter our student-athletes. I think more so from the parental perspective of parents,” Philipsburg-Osceola Athletic Director Kelly Kephart-Rees said. “I’m sure they’re having concerns. But I think the student-athletes are excited to play and be a part of a team.”

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There’s a new focus on safety equipment now too. State lawmakers in Harrisburg are considering a bill that would require defibrillators in all schools and at sporting events. Most schools already have trainers and EMS are on-site.

“There are situations where there’s just one person and not enough EMS personnel are there. So the more people that can be educated in just basic lifesaving procedures and measures, the better,” Varacallo said.

“I trust my coaches, our athletic trainer, to make sure kids are getting what they need to be successful at their own individual like and within their individual limits,” Kephart-Rees said.

What about the players delivering and receiving the hits? At Clearfield, coach Myles Caragein is moving away from the traditional old-school football tactics and executing a new route with safety top of mind.

“Big thing is we teach them head up, wrap in chest. We also teach a gator roll to our secondary about attacking below the waist and roll on attacking legs,” Caragein said. “We’re not looking for those vicious hits I mean we coach against kids ducking their heads and leading with that. I mean, that’s what I think is one of the leading causing causes of that injury. So we’re a big component of head up, chest up where we’re coaching the gator roll.”

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Still, it’s critical that coaches not only read plays but also recognize when something is wrong.

“You know, the safety of our student-athletes come first and we want to make sure in the event that something would happen, that we’re prepared,” Kephart-Rees said.

Another aspect of the game is equipment, at Clearfield the school invested in guardian helmets which are an extra layer of protection to avoid head injuries in practice.

“We’re around these kids a lot so we know how they’re acting. If they take a hit and we see something’s wrong, we refer them to our trainer right away,” Caragein said. “I don’t take any chance on that. If I can sense something’s wrong, go to our trainer and get evaluated until they clear you.”

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