WEST DES MOINES, Iowa -- "What we've noticed at the junior levels is that there aren't as many kids going out for football currently," said Craig Mahoney of the Iowa Orthopaedic Center and a team physician for the Valley Tigers. "I was able to gauge that based on my experience coaching my older son who graduated last year and then through my younger son, who's a current 9th grader. I would say participation is somewhere at the kind of 60-70% level relative to those two grades here in West Des Moines."
The people who run the Tiger Junior Football League for third through seventh graders know there's a problem and that parents are concerned about the safety of their kids.
"There's no denying that C.T.E. exists and that it is a product of the head-to-head collisions that are absorbed in football," said Mike Thomas, Director of the Tiger Junior Football League.
Thomas says that's why changes are being made to try and make the sport as safe as possible.
"We're switching our practice styles up," said Thomas. "Even ten years ago, we would have practices that were two hours plus with a lot of hitting drills. People are starting to change that up, you know, we've got to make changes in how much head-to-head contact a player has. Some of our practice, we don't even go in full gear, so we switched that up and that helps us a lot in lessening the load on that head-to-head contact."
Another big change is the way blocking and tackling is taught.
"The technique taught today is extremely different than it was in 1985," said Chris Wellman, Player Safety Coach for Tiger Junior Football. "It's just not the same."
The new method is called "heads up football."
"We tackle with our head up," said Wellman. "We don't tackle with our head down. Our eyes are up. We do drills with our eyes up. We don't drop down. In the old days, coaches wanted you to get down and get your shoulder pad in there."
Another difference is the the way safety equipment is built.
"Shoulder skills, many people think is up here," said Shane Christensen, Board President of the Tiger Junior Football League. "It's really tackling with the front, so that's how you're tackling here, so that changes how your shoulder pads are built, too. So everything is built with that keeping the head up mentality all the time."