|Sean Waters of the Silver Lake Division 2 Mites puts on his helmet before playing Hanover recently. (Debee Tlumacki for the Boston Globe)|
Playing it safe
Area youth football leagues keep strict weight limits, and pay close attention, to minimize concussions and other injuries
It is a weekend ritual: Every Saturday and Sunday, at fields across the region, pint-sized football players take off their helmets, stand in line, and get weighed before their games. One by one, the young athletes step onto a medical scale so that league officials can make sure they meet the weight limit for that week’s game.
There is heightened interest in sports safety as colleges across the country and professional leagues such as the National Hockey League and National Football League take steps to reduce head and other disabling injuries.
Mandatory weigh-ins are just one of several safety measures employed by youth football leagues to keep youngsters safe on the field. Training for coaches, increased awareness of potential damage from concussions, and state-of-the-art helmets and pads are also helping football organizations protect young players from harm on the gridiron.
Size and weight have always been important factors in football, and they made headlines earlier this month when St. George’s, a private school in Newport, R.I., refused to play against Lawrence Academy of Groton, which had much bigger and better-skilled players. On its website St. George’s defended its decision to cancel the Oct. 8 game, citing safety concerns and describing the Lawrence Academy team as “a football powerhouse with a starting line that outsizes all of its league rivals.’’ Lawrence Academy’s varsity football team, which went undefeated last year, has three starting linemen who weigh more than 300 pounds, one of whom is 6 feet, 5 inches tall and 350 pounds.
High school football players don’t have to step on a scale before they hit the field — there are no weight restrictions.
But in youth football, weight is everything.
The Old Colony Youth Football League, an independent league founded in 1965 that includes 22 teams from Southeastern Massachusetts for children age 15 and under, requires players to be weighed at the start of the season and before every game. The rules are strict: Weigh-ins are conducted a half-hour before kickoff, and during that time, coaches and parents are not allowed within 50 feet of the weigh-in area, to prevent any outside influence on weight decisions. Only the two designated weigh-in supervisors — one from each town — are allowed to be near the scale. They’re required to check the scale with a 10-pound weight to make sure it is working properly and confirm that it has been certified and sealed within the current year.
Any player who exceeds the weight limit for that week has to remove his or her shoulder pads and sit out the game. Typically every player meets the weight requirement, and it is rare that someone is benched for being too heavy, according to Brian Evangelista, president of Silver Lake Youth Football, which competes in the Old Colony league.
“Most kids are fine,’’ he said.
Teams are made up of youths who are around the same age and weight, to ensure balanced competition and reduce the risk of injury.
“Each team is weight- and age-appropriate, so we don’t have 130-pound kids going up against 105-pound kids,’’ said Evangelista.
Under Old Colony Youth Football League rules, the maximum weight for Midget football players (age 14 and under) is 160 pounds. The maximum weight for Peewee players (12 and under) is 130 pounds, and the top weight for Mite players (10 and under) is 105 pounds. Those are the limits before the start of the season, when the players are not wearing their equipment.
As the season progresses, the limits go up by one pound per week, to allow for normal growth. For the first game of the season, the weight limit for Mites (while wearing equipment) is 114 pounds; for Peewees, 139 pounds; and for Midgets in full gear, 171 pounds. By the time the playoffs and Super Bowl season arrive almost 10 weeks later, the weight limits are 123 pounds for Mites, 148 pounds for Peewees, and 180 pounds for Midgets.
Pop Warner Little Scholars Inc., the nation’s largest and oldest youth football organization, which caters to the same age groups as the Old Colony league, sets similar weight restrictions and puts players in different divisions determined by their age and weight. Pop Warner rules require every player to be weighed in the summer, before the season starts. If they weigh more than the designated weight limit for their age, they can “play up’’ to a team with older members; similarly, players who are lighter can be placed on a team of younger, smaller players.
“Weight is a very, very big deal. It really is,’’ said Linda Avedikian, vice president and registrar of Westwood Pop Warner Football. “It’s all about safety and protection. . . . Safety is the first priority.’’
Avedikian said having children compete against others twice their size is a “recipe for disaster.’’
Like the Old Colony league, Pop Warner rules also require players to be weighed before every game. The weights are recorded in a thick binder that contains dossiers on all the players — a photo of them in their jersey, a copy of their birth certificate, age, height, weight, and other vital stats.
“It is our bible,’’ Avedikian said.
Just like people today who might find the original seats at Fenway Park to be rather small, officials in the national Pop Warner organization have had to adjust weight limits over the years as Americans have grown bigger, said Josh Pruce, national director of media relations for Pop Warner Little Scholars Inc.
“We try to encompass as many kids as possible,’’ said Pruce. The adjustments have been small. “We moved our weights up a few pounds just a few years ago; . . . 2007 was the last time we adjusted our weights. The whole thing shifted up five pounds.’’
Youth football rules have also evolved. In August Pop Warner adopted guidelines with specific protocols on how to deal with concussions and head injuries on the field. Under Pop Warner rules, if a concussion is suspected, it is up to the head coach to remove the player from the game or practice; and if an athletic trainer or medical professional is present, they can overrule the coach’s decision. Once the player is removed, they can’t play again until they are cleared by a medical professional.
Equipment has also improved over the years. Old Colony requires every player to wear shoulder pads, hip pads, a tail pad, thigh pads, kneepads, a helmet, and sneakers (screw-in cleats are not allowed). All players must wear mouth guards, said Evangelista.
“At Silver Lake, we try to use the best equipment that’s out there,’’ Evangelista. The school uses Riddell Revolution Speed helmets, which have “concussion-reducing technology.’’
Evangelista said today’s modern pads are much lighter and offer more protection than the gear he wore growing up.
“The equipment is 100 times better,’’ he said.
Coaches also spend a lot of time teaching children proper techniques on how to play safely.
“We teach the appropriate way to tackle,’’ said Evangelista.
As is being done by the NFL and NHL, USA Football, the national governing body for the sport at the youth and amateur levels, is taking concussions seriously, and recently beefed up its coaching curriculum to include more instruction on concussion awareness, proper hydration, and equipment fitting guidelines.
In September, USA Football launched a sports concussion awareness campaign called “Put Pride Aside for Player Safety,’’ to drive home the message that when a concussion is suspected, the injured athlete should be removed from play until he or she is cleared by a medical professional.
Pop Warner requires all head coaches to attend a USA Football coaching clinic or complete the USA Football online youth coaching course.
Making sure the coaches are well prepared is important, said Pruce. “We want to make sure everyone is as safe as possible.’’