By Michael Kruse
Berkeley Preparatory's Robert Klein, fast, tough and committed, took the handoff and raced toward the end zone. Crack! The running back spun off the first tackle and darted to the left and accelerated over the goal line. Crack!
Klein's father, who played football in high school and college and is now a cardiologist, stood with a video camera on the top row of the bleachers.
Under those bleachers, in the athletic trainer's room, a computer recorded the same play in a totally different way. On the screen were statistics and color-coded lines from six sensors embedded in Klein's helmet.
The data are part of a seasonlong University of South Florida study involving Klein and six other high school players at Berkeley. The study is measuring the number of hits and their severity — and their effects on the players' brain function.
Talk of head trauma in America's most popular sport has spiked this fall, in large part because of a spate of exceptionally violent tackles in the National Football League and also the plight of a young man from Rutgers University who last month went from defensive lineman to quadriplegic.
But USF is focusing not on the occasional concussion or catastrophic injury but rather on the smaller hits to the head that are more unavoidable and intrinsic to the game.
Klein's mother, Pam, is a nurse.
"I'm nervous because every day we're hearing more and more about the consequences of the trauma to the head. We're hearing about football players killing themselves," she said.
Chronic traumatic encephalopathy is football's version of boxing's "punch-drunk syndrome."
In April, Owen Thomas, a 21-year-old football player at the University of Pennsylvania, committed suicide. Analysis of his brain showed the condition. He had never had a concussion.
Then a Purdue study documented decreased brain function in Indiana high school players who also had not had concussions. The longer the season went, the poorer their cognitive exams.
"Just because someone hasn't shown any symptoms," Purdue professor Tom Talavage said last week, "doesn't mean everything is fine."
In the USF study, the seven Berkeley players took baseline electroencephalography tests before the season. The sensors in their helmets measure the head hits they take in every practice and every game.
The players decision to participate also sounds altruistic. They owe it to the game, they seem to say, after what the game has given them. The friendships forged, the lessons learned — they say they're worth the injury risks.
"You can manage with a bum knee," Gianluca Del Rossi, the lead researcher on the USF study, points out. "But how do you manage with a bum brain? You don't."
Trauma to the brain happens when it pushes against the skull or its tissue stretches or tears. Cells die. Too many dead cells and other cells can no longer compensate. The still-developing brains of children and adolescents are the most susceptible to trauma.
The USF researchers ask the Berkeley players to come in on weekends for a cognitive test if they receive a hit that registers 98 g's, the average for a concussion. A severe car wreck registers at about 120 g's.
Pam Klein says this fall she's been to USF "almost every weekend."
In South Tampa, at Plant High, shirts worn at a recent practice said PREPARE FOR COMBAT. Offensive and defensive linemen, a pair at a time, worked on springing out of their stances and ramming into each other. The biggest impacts elicited the loudest cheers from the people who always matter the most in a moment like that. The players' peers.
And over at Berkeley, Klein said before a practice, "I'd like to think most of my hits are given, not taken."
According to a University of North Carolina survey of former NFL players, those who suffer three concussions have more than three times the rate of depression and five times the rate of some cognitive impairment.
In the U.S., at the high school level, about one in eight boys plays football.
"It's entirely possible," Chris Nowinski writes in his book Head Games, "that a whole generation of children will soon suffer the behavioral, emotional and cognitive problems caused by the game."
It's also possible, he notes, that the risk isn't as great as many of the early studies indicate.