INDIANAPOLIS — It's inevitable. When people see 5-year-old Hank Senseny in action, they tell his mother he has football player written all over his 4-2, 62-pound frame -- a full six inches and 20 pounds bigger than the average boy his age.
Each time, she cringes.
"If mama has anything to do with it" -- and so far, she does --"we do not have a football player on our hands," Amber Kleopfer Senseny said. "I think years from now we're going to look back on this and it's going to be how we look back at cigarettes.
"I think that's how we're going to feel about little kids taking all these hits."
Moms aren't the only ones worried about the long-term effects of blows to their children's heads. Former NFL quarterback Kurt Warner recently voiced concerns about his kids playing football, and Tom Brady Sr. said he would have been "very hesitant" to let his son, now the star quarterback of the New England Patriots, play the sport growing up based on what is now known about concussions. And nationally, the number of youths taken in for emergency treatment for sports-related concussions has risen dramatically.
Concussions occur when a hard blow jars the brain against the skull. They sometimes lead to permanent mental and physical damage, even death on rare occasions.
Former NFL players' struggles with neurological issues recently have raised awareness about concussions, including speculation they contributed to the suicides of six-time All-Pro linebacker Junior Seau and Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson. More than 2,000 former players are plaintiffs in a lawsuit that alleges the NFL failed to address the risks of concussions and concealed information from players.
The debate has reached living rooms as parents try to figure out how risks at the sport's highest levels translate to their children.
The younger a player is, the longer it takes for a concussion to heal and the greater the risk for long-term damage if subsequent concussions are suffered before the first is healed. Doctors think this is because the brain is still developing, which it does up to age 25.
Youth football organizations are moving to improve coaches' ability to recognize concussions and their understanding of the importance of keeping players off the field until they have been cleared to return by a trained medical professional. Some leagues are limiting contact in practice and others are offering free baseline testing to better determine when concussed players are safe to return. A greater emphasis is also being placed on helmets and properly fitting equipment.
Indiana and other states have adopted laws that mandate the treatment of concussions before players return to the field. Indiana's law covers high school players; other states have extended the rules to cover younger athletes as well.
"Sometimes we have ignored concussions in younger athletes and we now realize those athletes are most significantly affected," said Dr. Daniel Kraft, director of Riley Hospital for Children Sports Medicine at Indiana University Health and one of two doctors who helped push for Indiana's legislation. "I think coaches are making an assertive effort to do a better job of recognizing concussions and trying to get their athletes taken care of it all sports.
"That's a very good thing."
Many experts think football is safe at the youth and high school levels if proper precautions are taken, but conflicting research is being published.
"Everybody individually has to weigh the pros and cons whether it's the right thing for their children to play that sport," said Kraft, whose daughter suffered a concussion playing basketball but continues to participate. "But I don't think there is information out there yet that says that it is overwhelming that we should not have athletes play football.
"If I had a son, I would allow him to play."
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