The first few minutes of the third quarter this Saturday more players on gridirons across the country will be injured than at any other time during the 1954 season. They are most likely to be hurt when a bulky halfback with three seasons' experience comes plunging crazily around end with the ball. One of his interference will throw a block at the defensive tackle who has pulled out to nail the ball carrier. The tackle, his second year on the team, will be caught off balance—and injured. If he suffers a sprain, it will be his knee or ankle. If a fracture, it will be his collarbone. If a dislocation, it will be his shoulder.
DEATHS AND INJURIES
This is no Monday morning quarter-backing but a prediction based on years of experience. It comes from the American Football Coaches Association, which has analyzed football injuries and fatalities for the past 22 years; the Security Life and Accident Insurance Co. of Denver, which insures some 800,000 high school athletes annually, and the National Athletic Trainers Association.
Football is a rough game, even though most injuries are accidental rather than intentional. Yet each year thousands of players require a doctor's care; an average of 18 youths die of injuries. Probably no one is more keenly aware of these hazards than the coaches and trainers themselves. They find that by far the greatest number of deaths (48%) occur during regular games, as opposed to sandlot (17%), practice sessions (10%) or touch football (4%). Head and spinal injuries account for seven out of every 10 fatalities; more than half involve teen-agers. Since 1931, the toll of gridiron deaths has dropped sharply. But the latest survey on injuries shows that they are growing more severe, and that the average player is banged up at least once a season.
Knees, ankles, thighs, shoulders, legs and head—in that order—are hardest hit. One out of every four injuries is a sprain; one of every 12 is a bruised muscle or bone. But more important is the. time an injury keeps a man out of action. For example, a fractured leg only ranks 31st in frequency, whereas it is third in severity, crippling a player for some 47 days.
Armed with all these statistics, the coaches have come up with a number of recommendations to make the game safer. Any parent can use them to determine whether his son's school plays safe or dangerous ball. 1) No boy should play football without a thorough physical examination and a study of previous injuries. 2) A team should have at least three weeks' preseason training and never scrimmage until after six days of fundamentals. 3) Immediately before the opening kickoff, but particularly after the half-time rest—the peak time for injury—players should warm up vigorously.
THE CULPRIT: POOR EQUIPMENT
Plain inexperience causes many a boy to get hurt, but coaches, doctors and safety experts unanimously agree that poor equipment is the core of injury problems today.
Lack of knee padding, for example, can cause knee injuries that may plague a boy for the rest of his life. Steel face masks, while protecting the wearer's nose and mouth, can be used to crush an opponent's jaw or knock out his teeth.
The most lethal weapons, however, are plastic helmets. These Martian-looking headpieces, say the experts, are dangerous on two counts. First, they are brutal on the opposition, and second, they don't protect the wearer.
For the past few years, researchers at the Cornell Aeronautical Laboratory have battered and bashed all types of helmets to see what happens. They find that while the top of most football headgear is strong enough, the sides and back are only about 1/300th as stiff as the average human skull. A blow in this area will "bottom" (dent in) onto a player's head, causing possible brain concussion. And the straps or padding in all helmets do not adequately absorb a blow.
The experts have now devised a helmet patterned after a pilot's. They call it a "Beam-Pad." Made of strong yet light Fiberglas with a new arrangement of support straps called "geodetic suspension system" (strips covering the head in a great circle), the newly developed headgear can withstand a 2,000-pound-per-inch blow. This is nearly twice the impact of the unstoppable fullback meeting the immovable guard. The outer shell is covered with padding material to protect "the other guy."
So far, it looks as though this helmet may be the answer. Now being field-tested by the Cornell football squad, it should be available for other schools for the '55 season. The lab's next project: to develop better protective gear for shoulders and thighs.
RIGHT IN THE TEETH
The average school annually spends from $90 up to outfit each player. Colleges spend as much as $200 or more. "But there is little if any protection," complain three Chicago dentists in The Journal of the American Dental Association, for the region where 52% of injuries occur—the teeth. While the trainers' association disputes this figure, pointing out that their study shows all head injuries total only some 16%, everyone agrees that chipped or knocked-out teeth are the most expensive of all injuries suffered on the gridiron.
This year, at least three newly devised mouth protectors are being tested. Each is patterned after a boxer's mouthpiece, made of rubber and molded to fit the player's mouth. Missing teeth almost cost one team victory earlier this season. During the Oklahoma-Texas Christian game, Jimmy Harris, who had had his two front teeth knocked out in practice, was at quarterback replacing Oklahoma's injured Gene Calame. "I couldn't make the team understand me in the huddle," says Harris. "Especially when I tried to call our 50 series (a hand-off from quarterback to fullback). I had to repeat it several times. I kept lisping 'thifty.' "
FACE MASK MOUTHPIECE
THUMB GUARD SHOULDER INJURY PAD GLOVE
ATHLETIC SUPPORTER AND METAL CUP
PANTS WITH THIGH AND KNEE PADS