Our Man in Arlington

September 5, 2018 2:15 PM0 comments

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Back-to-school rituals and football season for many hit hard this week.

The gridiron game, however, has evolved since my playing days.

Three area high schools this year canceled seasons due to low turnout, a University of Maryland player died this spring and both the NFL and NCAA have new rules on permissible helmet hits to minimize concussions.

I’ve never forgotten the blood I poured out in 1968 as a junior varsity lineman at Yorktown High School. An opposing defensive player rammed his forearm inside my facemask, breaking my nose. The resulting deviated septum wasn’t corrected for eight years.

Surprisingly in 2018, the new fears of injury have not suppressed football turnout in Arlington.

Dave Facinoli, the ace sportswriter for the Sun-Gazette who interviews the high school coaches, told me the signup numbers “in some years are up, some years down, or pretty much unchanged. This year, the Wakefield numbers are up, but Washington-Lee down a bit,” he said.

“Some parents do fear concussions and keep kids away from football, but I think that has leveled off. The growing knowledge of high school training staffs and the baseline testing for concussions have cooled fears a bit.”

At Yorktown, I’m told by veteran coach Bruce Hanson, signups surged to the point where he had to order 10 extra jerseys for the past two years. “I can’t explain it,” he said, noting that school enrollment is up, alumnus M.J. Stewart was drafted by the Tampa Bay Bucs, and “we won last year at all levels.”

But five years ago, Yorktown’s recruiting numbers began declining, and he has been seeing more players from “across the spectrum” of skills and a new demographic who didn’t grow up playing football. Injuries “are not a scare story anymore,” Hanson said, praising his trainers for monitoring at-risk players along with procedures that include frequent rest breaks and hydration.

Some credit goes to Debbie DeFranco, Arlington schools’ supervisor of health and physical education. School staff have attended USA Football training for certification, she said, which means in daily practices the players “don’t hit” more than one day a week, “concentrating on fundamentals.”

Helmet design, DeFranco added, has become more concussion-resistant, and Arlington has a policy of buying the most up-to-date and regularly reconditioning them. “We have no problem standing up to the families” when they get pushy. Affected players are monitored as they go through the standard concussion management system. That includes watching their rest and homework habits, she said. “Some want their kids coming back soon, but we err on the side of caution.”

The pipeline for football’s future remains promising, said Brendan Cullinan, commissioner of the Arlington Youth Football Club. But stories of concussions in pee-wee football “hangs it in a bad light.”

His regional competition club’s numbers have dropped slightly, probably due to some administrative changes to registration that deterred some families.

But another reason may be the county-run flag football alternative that Cullinan considers perhaps more dangerous. “The time commitment of tackle football” is not always clear to families, and the three two-hour practices per week includes making sure players in their protective pads stay safe. “In an era of overscheduling and year-round sports, football as a seasonal sport is hard,” he said. “But we deliver a product to the high schools that’s ready to go.”

***

Add another to the roster of music stars who once trod the streets of Arlington.

Charlie Daniels, the ace fiddler famous for country pop hits like “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” lived here in the late 1950s.

My friend Johnathan Thomas confirmed this backstage from the man himself, who recalled his Rosslyn residence: Arlington Towers (now River Place).

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