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Injuries in high school freshman football

Posted by John Reed on

Many parents and some players are concerned about injuries in freshman high school football.

If you like this article you will probably also like my book Coaching Freshman and Junior Varsity High School Football.

Generally, football players can expect bruises and lacerations. These are painful, but it is the sort of pain that players are expected to ignore.

We have an excellent trainer in Kevin Amaral. He has nine years of post-high school education (bachelors and masters) in his field and we are fortunate to have him. All players who have injuries that might be serious must report to Kevin immediately. He will make a preliminary diagnosis then refer the player to medical personnel if necessary.

A top-notch, orthopedic surgeon sports-medicine doctor is also affiliated with the team. Parents are not required to use our sports doctor, but they are strongly engcouraged to use only a sports medicine specialist. Emergency room doctors and other non-sports doctors think nothing of placing a player in a splint and telling him to take six weeks off physical activity. Freshman head coach Jack Reed once took his son Dan to the emergency room after a knee injury in youth football. That doctor prescribed a splint and lengthy inactivity. The team’s highly qualifed trainer said there was nothing wrong with Dan. By the time a sports-medicine doctor confirmed that, Dan has missed a game in which the coaches had intended to rely on him more than normal. It turned out the injury was just a bruise.

Coaches have nothing to do with decisions on whether an injured player may play. Those decisions are made only by Kevin Amaral or doctors chosen by the family of the player.

Some injuries hurt, but do not affect the player’s ability to play. When playing does not risk aggravation of the injury, such players will generally be cleared to play.

Some injuries prevent a player from playing because they reduce his ability to move adequately. These players will not play even if there is no danger of aggravation.

Other injuries prevent a player from playing because they may be aggravated by playing or healing may be delayed by playing.

In 2003, we had about five players miss at least one game because of an injury. However, every player was healed and able to play in the final game and there were no injuries in that game.

According to an annual study of football injuries, eight high school football players died in the most recent year studied—2002. Three died from head trauma and four died from heart attack and one from an asthma attack. The latter five died from exertion that is common in all sports, not from any activity that is unique to football.

There are 1,500,000 high school football players. That is a death rate of 8/1,500,000 = 1/187,500. In other words, one player died for every 187,500 high school football players. If the Monte Vista Freshman football team has 55 players on the final roster as we did last year, it would take us 187,500 ÷ 55 = 3,409 seasons to have one death. Of course, such a death can occur this season and then not again for 3,408 seasons. But the main point is that deaths among high school football players are extremely rare.

The main cause of death among high school age kids is motor vehicles often when used in combination with alcohol or drugs. Monte Vista football does not allow players who use alcohol or drugs to be members of the team so our players have an additional incentive to avoid those dangers.

Heat stroke

Heat stroke is a frequent cause of death in football. There were no heat stroke deaths in football at any level in 2002, but this was unusual and was probably the result of several high-profile heath stroke deaths at the college and pro levels the previous year. Heat stroke is caused by not drinking enough water during hot weather exertion. All players must bring one gallon of water to practice each day.

To encourage the players to drink as much as possible, the water should be cilled and in a container like a thermos that will keep it cold. Players tend to drink sweet liquids like sugared kool aid more than plain water so sweetened liquids may help prevent heat stroke. Sports drinks like Gatorade are acceptable. They reportedly replace not only water, but also minerals and salts lost through sweating.

Here is an email I got from a former football player about heat stroke.

Mr. Reed:       

I wonder how many readers of your website have read all or almost of your web articles on coaching, and your entire 100+ page piece on whether to go to or stay at West Point, when they themselves (and none of their family) have any direct interest in either of these subjects?

I ask this because I am one such person.  Your writings almost always interest me, regardless of subject, and often make me smile and feel better about myself and my life.  Occasionally they make me feel worse about myself, but that's okay, too.  Reading your writings has helped me get through bad patches of my life.  I'm in one right now, on Christmas Eve, with a 96-year-old mother that I just put in hospice care at her home.  She is in very poor health, in a lot of pain, hasn't walked for four years, and in the last four months has come to the point where she doesn't recognize me or know who I am.

I admire your success but can make little similar claim for myself, as that honor would have to go to my grandfather.  He was the self-made man whose success allowed his children and grandchildren to attend the best schools they could get into and enjoy other comforts and advantages, without having to get on the "conveyor belt to hell," as you did.  

You regularly ask for corrections/additions/counter-arguments to your writings, and I'd like to give you a few.  First, a little background:  My two sisters (both Smith '68) are your age, while I am eleven years younger (Amherst '79).  I well remember the discussions I had with my sisters when they were in college, which were the same years you were at USMA, so reading that piece took me back to that time.       



The one thing I think you should change or delete in this piece is in the section near the end where you have a list of the negative effects USMA had on your life.  One is the PTSD of recurring nightmares that you are back in school, unprepared for class, can't find where the test is, etc.  This isn't a West Point issue; EVERYONE has those nightmares!  I have them periodically about Amherst as well as private high school, and both those institutions had none of the BS rules-for-the-sake-of-rules nonsense you describe.  Ask around and I think you'll find that many people have these same dreams decades after graduation, regardless of institution.  Don't you ever have them about HBS? [Reed note: I acknowedged that civilian college grads also have nightmares about their college already in the discussion about nightmares. I asked my wife if she had nightmares about going to Drexel University. She said she did when she was a student, but not since. Most of my nightmares about West Point related to its military requirements, not academic. I never heard of any civilian college kid having nightmares about ROTC. I never had a nightmare about Harvard Business School in spite of that place being pretty intense. One of my sectionmates there once asked me which was harder, West Point or Harvard.]


Your West Point article often addresses the issue of the pressure on young people to avoid being branded a "quitter," and you urge rational thought in this area.  GET OUT of a bad situation if it is dangerous to your health and/or future, you advise.

This hit home, and it involves high school football, of all things.  You may find this story interesting.

The private high school I attended, [redacted], is a coed school with about 80 students per grade.  They play in what here is called the A-B-C League, where there are three teams per school for each team sport like football, field hockey, basketball, soccer, and baseball.  C Team is almost all freshmen, with a few of the smaller or less-talented sophomores.  B Team is mostly sophomores, a few talented freshmen, some juniors, and maybe a senior or two.  A Team is the varsity, almost all juniors and seniors with one or two exceptionally talented sophomores.  

I played C football in 9th grade (1972) as an offensive lineman in a T-formation, and was okay.  I started every game but that was no great feat as we didn't have a terribly deep roster.  The drills often struck me as boring and unrelated to actual football (such as using the blocking sleds) and I had no great love for the game, but football was what you did there in the fall unless you were hopelessly uncoordinated or underweight, and I was neither.  We lost our final game to our arch-rival … and ended up tied for second in our league.

The next year I played on the B team and what a difference!  The coach [redacted] ran what everyone called a Single Wing, an unbalanced line with a shotgun, where the quarterback was ten feet or so behind the center.  I think you say that a shotgun means the ball is snapped to someone else, not the quarterback, but that is how we did it. [Reed note: The single wing uses a long snapper who looks at his target through his legs like a field goal team long snapper and makes an extremely accurate dart like snap. The shotgun center has his head up looking at the defensive line when he snaps and does a not-very accurate lob.]

Under Coach [redacted], we almost never passed. He told us this would be the case on the first day of practice. I say almost because after three quarters of never getting a pass to intercept, one or more of the defensive backs would quit covering the receiver.  He told us this would happen on the first day of practice also.  And it did.  I do not recall a single incomplete pass the entire season.  There must have been some, but my memory of every pass that I saw was one of the ball going to a receiver with no one around him.

Our practices that year were shorter than either the C team or the A (Varsity) team by about a half hour per day. Gone were the mile long runs I hated.  With my short legs and lineman's build, I always came in at the back of the pack.  Instead we ran wind sprints (gassers?) of 50 yards or so, and I was pretty good at those.  At the end of one exceptionally good practice session in the middle of the season, where all of us seemed to be doing everything right, Coach [redacted] told us to break for wind sprints.  We lined up on the edge of the practice field and he blew his whistle from 50 yards away. About halfway through these sprints, he announced we'd had a great practice and we'd only need to do one more sprint before hitting the showers.  As we were all about to jog back to the start, I don't know what came over me, but I yelled out "Coach, I'll do an extra one for every guy that beats me!" His face was utterly blank, then split into a grin worthy of Jack Nicholson. He turned to our offensive line coach and yelled "Did you hear what your man just said?"

We ran our last sprint and at the end I yelled "How many, Coach?"  At least three guys had beaten me, but not by a lot.  "Too close to call," he said.  "Go take a shower."

Coach [redacted] had a policy that after every winning game the team had lunch at a small (and inexpensive) local independent steak house.  His team was informally known as "The Steak House Gang."  We ended the season league champions, 8-0.  I started every game and sometimes didn't get a substitute.  I even got called to play on defense one game and sacked their quarterback.  It was Coach [redacted] third straight undefeated season championship.  I think he went something like 34 winning games before he had a loss or tie.  Football with him was fun.

The following year I was on the A Team (Varsity) as a junior.  We were back to the T formation that my C-team coach had used two years before.  The previous year a donor named [redacted] had gifted the school a large tract of land about 100 miles south, in rural Missouri, to be used for educational purposes.  The school called it [redacted], built cabins and a mess hall on the property, and used it on weekends for 7th grade orientation, biology trips, etc.  They also decided to send the "A" football team down to [redacted] for two weeks of preseason practice in August, before school started.

It was awful.  The players immediately re-christened the place "Die [redacted]."

As I recall we ran three miles every morning before breakfast and then had four two-hour practices a day.  I was in constant fear of heat exhaustion, compounded by the fact that we were NEVER allowed any water during each practice session, despite being in full pads and 95 degree heat. I threw up more than once, and I wasn't the only one.

About a week into the session I was walking to breakfast after our morning run and I scraped the side of my ankle on something.  I was so dead tired that I didn't pay any attention to it and got on with the day, although I felt even worse than usual during every practice.  I got yelled at, specifically by name, several times that day.  My former coach [redated] had only yelled at me specifically twice in the entire previous season.

The next morning I woke up with a fever and drenched in sweat.  My foot and ankle were almost double size, and it appeared my foot was infected.  I couldn't put my shoe on.  When the assistant coach saw this he took me immediately to a small town clinic about twenty miles away, where the doctor examined and questioned me.  I thought my scrape had become infected, but the doctor said I had been bitten by a poisonous snake, probably a copperhead.  He gave me antibiotics and told me to stay off it until it looked normal again.

The snake bite kept me from practicing for about two weeks.  After I got back on the field, I only started in two games, and got subbed out quickly in both.  Our practices seemed longer and less fun than any I'd ever had.  I don't remember what our season record was.  Middle of the league, I think.

The next year I was a senior, and I thought with the additional size and strength I'd gained from the previous year, I'd be able to handle the two weeks of hell in preseason practice at [redacted] better than I had the year before, and be a decent player for the team .      


It seemed even worse than my memory of the previous year at [redacted].  One player collapsed during the last practice of the second day, though he seemed to be fine once he got some water in him and rested for a bit.  Once again I felt as if heat stroke might hit me at any moment during every practice.     

I went to talk to the coach in private after dinner on that second night.  I told him that I didn't want to play football any more.  I told him that I'd thought about it for a long time, and that I'd realized I wasn't getting anything out of football that made me think I was improving anything about myself in any way.  I told him that I hadn't thought of myself as the person in the worst physical condition on the team, but that I must be because I often felt that I literally might die during practice.  I told him I thought if I stayed on the team I would make the team worse, rather than better, and though I realized that I was letting him down, I would almost certainly let him down even more if I stayed around.

To my surprise he seemed neither angry nor argumentative.  He seemed preoccupied, as if he were only half listening to me.  He didn't try to talk me out of it.  He looked me in the eye and said "I understand."  I then told him I didn't think it would be good for me to hang around the team for twelve more days and if he could get me to a phone, I could call my uncle to make the two-hour trip and pick me up immediately (I was going to call my uncle because my dad had died four years earlier and my mother was not too good at driving after supper.)  He seemed startled and a bit flustered at this, and explained that one of the assistant coaches had a family issue he had to take care of, and I could ride back with him in a few minutes if I was ready.

I had a mild dread about the ride home, but the assistant coach was nicer than I'd ever seen him, and preoccupied, the way the head coach had been, the entire ride back.  I assumed it was about his family issue, which I didn't ask about.

I wondered if any of my classmates would give me a hard time when school started, but nothing like that happened.  A couple of them actually laughed and thanked me, explaining that the practice sessions had instantly become more about executing skills and not about exhaustion.

The team ended up with a better record that year, despite the fact that it had quite a few sophomores on it, which was unusual for the top teams in our league.

The next fall, in 1975, I went off to Amherst College a thousand miles away.  Trying out for the Amherst freshman football team never once crossed my mind.  Memories of near-exhaustion in full pads were far too recent.  I discovered the school had a rugby club, one that played other clubs from around the area, and I joined that and did pretty well.  Our coach was one of our players, the college Dean, an Englishman named [redacted], who was a great guy and probably our best player.  Our most memorable game, to my mind, was when we played a team from a New Hampshire private men's club.  They beat us by some ridiculous score, and their average age was maybe 55.  A lot of them had grey beards and were bald, and this was many years before white guys shaved their heads as a fashion statement.  During the game, they were giving us genuine advice on how we could play better.  Then they treated us to drinks and dinner at their private club, which had the first projection TV I had ever seen.  Rugby was great.

I came home on semester break to discover that my high school football team had been undefeated the entire season, went on to win all the other games they were in, and were now State Champions.  This flabbergasted me, and then one parent made the comment "This year, they had a team that just didn't know how to quit."

I am sure the man who said this didn't know who I was, and I would bet money that he didn't even know that one of the team members from the year before had dropped off the team before the first game.  He was just using a timeworn phrase to talk about a hard-charging winning team.  However, his words made me think "Yeah, you're right. The team got better when I left."

Mr. Reed, I have had enough successes in life that I have never felt I was a "quitter," and I have always felt I did the right thing when I stopped playing football.  Two things have recently made me feel that I did more than just the right thing FOR ME, and instead made me think I may have done the right thing for everyone in 1974 when I quit football.  The first was a few days ago when I read your comments about "Bataan Death March" philosophies of West Point and some football coaches.  "Right on!" I thought when I read that.  Then something else happened last night.

It has now been 35 years since 1976.  Members of the class of '76 were seniors on the football team that became State Champions in the fall of 1975.  I happened to run into some of these people at a restaurant, where they had had an informal 35 year class reunion.  There were several former players, and a guy who had been a very low level assistant in the athletic department back then.

They were talking about that championship season, and the former low-level assistant nodded towards me and said, "Here's the guy whose name should have been engraved on the trophy."  The others nodded, then saw my look, and the former assistant said, "You mean you don't KNOW?"

"What are you talking about?"

"When that kid collapsed in practice at [redacted], and then a few hours later you quit the team, and told the Coach you felt like you were literally about to die during every practice, the staff freaked.  The assistant coach you rode back with didn't have some family problem; he went back to talk to the Board of Trustees about potential damage control, in case the kid had some permanent brain damage or something. [redacted] was already worried about his job because he hadn't had a League Championship yet, like we'd had many times before he was hired, and if he ended up having some kid get permanently crippled from his crazy practice sessions, the parents would sue the school out of existence.  Or worse."

"But what does that have to do with ME? If anything, the guy that collapsed would have been the wake-up call."

"Nonono.  Coach said at the time he just got worn out.  When you quit, and wanted to go home immediately, and were going to call your uncle to come pick you up, that set the alarm bells off.  Had you ever quit ANYTHING else?  No.  And the light bulb went on that your uncle would have KILLED him if you'd had a heat stroke because of his crazy shit, and there were probably other fathers who would have done the same thing, except they would have contracted it out."

This last comment was a reference to my uncle's involvement in WWII as a sniper who killed (among other enemy soldiers) the German equivalent of a four-star general at over 500 yards from a church bell tower at dawn at the very outset of the D-Day invasion (the bell tower was leveled about 45 seconds later.). "THAT's why [redacted] leadfooted it back to the city, not because of some family problem.  You saved the coach's career, and maybe his life."

I sat there with my mouth hanging open.  I have no idea if the things I was told last night are an accurate representation of what really happened back then, or if they've been distorted by the passage of 35 years.  In any event, both they and you have made me feel good about something that has been a tiny pinprick in the back of my mind for two-thirds of my life.

Again, thanks for your writings.

P.S.  I laughed out loud when I read how your friend at the reunion asked "if you had ever had an unpublished thought."


We did not have any cramping last season among the freshmen players, but the varsity had lots of cramping. That suggests it is age related. A study done at the University of Oklahoma football team recently found that cramping is caused by genetic predisposition combined with lack of sodium. Some people sweat more than others and some people’s sweat contains more sodium chloride than others. See

Sodium exists in human bodies mainly in the form of sodium chloride (table salt). The average adult has a half pound of salt in his or her body. This is crucial to proper functioning. Heavy exercise like football cause the body to lose 10% to 25% of its salt.

Cramping is not caused by lack of potassium as many think, therefore eating sources of potassium like bananas has no effect. Taking salt tablets was common in the past, but it is no lengor recommended. Rather, players should eat more salt in their food when they are engaging in football training or play. Some teams now provide pretzels and potato chips for that purpose. Sports drinks also provide some salt.


Parents are also concerned about paralysis in football. Paralysis is caused by making contact with the top of the head while the chin is near the chest. Such contact usually does not result in injury, but all football neck injuries are the result of such contact. To prevent such contact, we show the players a viedo on that subject (“Prevent Paralysis: Don’t Hit With Your Head”) the first day of freshman summer camp. We also admonish the players daily to keep their head up in hitting drills and we go ballistic whenever we see a player lower his head for contact in practice or a game. If necessary, we will cut a player from the team for cause if he habitually lowers his head when making contact.

We use a number of different phrases to get this point across:

  • See what you hit
  • Eyes to the sky
  • Keep your chin away from your chest.
  • Make the back of your helmet touch your shoulder pads when you hit.
  • Head up! Head up!

85% of paralysis injuries occur in motor vehicle accidents, violent crime, and falls. 7.5% result from sports injuries. A teenage football player is more likely to be paralyzed in a car accident, fist fight, or fall than in football practice or a game.


Taping of ankles in common in football. It is not recommended unless the player has a particular injury that requires such temporary extra support. The tape adds weight and restricts movement. More importantly, it wastes time and tape. Players who are late for practice are punished. If an uninjured player is late because he was getting taped, he is punished. Only players for whom taping is a medically indicated therapy may be excused from being late for taping. No player, injured or otherwise, may put any tape on the outside of his shoes or uniform.

Always keep your head up when you hit.

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