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The Hardest Hit: Football's youngest players learning safety as science grows

Rick Devens (WGXA)

Football is a way of life in the South. In a full stadium on a Friday night, you’d be forgiven for thinking football was a religion.

But the conversation has changed. Youth football fields around the country are seeing a decline in athletes, and a shift is being made to flag football and other non-contact sports.

Tyler Jenkins is a Middle Georgia dad who said despite safety concerns, he lets his son play.

“It’s kind of just a 'be careful.' Tackle with your arms, never head first. And if you’re feeling faint, to take a knee man, sit down, get some water. Catch your breath,” said Jenkins.

That’s the message Jenkins has for his son before football practices. The way we look at football has changed as concerns grow about head injuries and reports continue of former NFL players diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a degenerative brain disease.

“It’s almost like when you look at climate change. You have this scientist with a PhD from Harvard that says it’s false. This guy with a PhD from Yale that says it’s right,” Jenkins said. “I think it’s real important that we stress the safety, you know there’s been improvements in football helmets. There’s now concussion protocols. If you think you have a concussion you have to get checked out, if you did you have to sit out.”

Jenkins has earned his Master’s in Mental Health Counseling and he respects the science. But when his son came to him asking to play tackle football, he couldn’t say no.

“He loves the game. My dad played, I played, my brothers played. It was almost a family tradition,” Jenkins said.

Jenkins was a two time state champion in high school and said football helped make him the man he is today. He wants that for his son.

“I graduated from Hawkinsville High School. The coaches I had in high school, from coach Campbell to coach Greg Ellison, those guys shaped me,” Jenkins said. “There’s not one day that goes by that I don’t lecture myself over something they told me in the locker room.”

The NFL has made headlines this season for what many consider excessive flags or being overprotective of quarterbacks. Jenkins feels like this is the game evolving, and said it’s necessary.

“We need to teach the kids in the peewee leagues tackle with your arms, tackle with your shoulders, don’t go head first. We need to really drill it into them early, so when they get to high school they’re not getting the flags,” he said.

There’s a lot of talk around the country about what will happen to our kids if we let them play football. But in the South, where football is a tradition, what will happen to our kids if we don’t let them play?

“Carson Wentz, wearing the little wristband for a kid who was dying of cancer, these are his heroes now,” Jenkins said. “And if he wasn’t able to play the game that his heroes played, I don’t know what kind of person he’d be either.”

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