For the Brandon Cowboys, like most other youth sports organizations in the county, player safety is paramount.
But the Cowboys aren't just playing it safe — they're playing it SMART.
With area youth football set to start this weekend, the Cowboys and USF's Sports Medicine and Athletic Related Trauma, or SMART, are again partnering to educate players, coaches and fans on injury prevention. This is the third season SMART has been involved with the Cowboys.
"Our coaches and parents have had access to top-quality information," Cowboys athletic director Jason Johnson said. "We've learned something new each year."
The SMART program offers experts who provide information to improve sports safety and reduce needless deaths on the playing and practice field. The institute, backed financially by the state Legislature, was conceived in 2004 and took shape in 2006.
Dr. Barbara Morris, who oversees the SMART Outreach Program, said partnering with the Cowboys has helped give those involved with the program a broader wealth of knowledge.
"God bless these parents who come out and volunteer their time," she said. "But most have had no formal training, and we can provide them with those tools."
Morris has spearheaded seminars with the Cowboys on some of youth football's biggest safety concerns: heat illness, concussions and infectious bacteria.
"She opened a lot of eyes," Johnson said. "Every time she has come here, the coaches have left shaking their heads saying, 'I hadn't thought of it that way.' "
With temperatures spiking throughout the summer, Morris said heat illness education is critical at this time of year.
"Children don't always make the best decisions when it comes to hydration, so it's up to the coaches to be able to identify the signs," she said. "The No. 1 thing we want to get across is that death from heat illness is preventable if treated immediately."
Morris also has consulted with coaches to better help them spot concussion symptoms, and she provided handy laminated cards to help.
"We want the coaches to be observant," she said. "But also to have the kids be aware of signs as well. Kids on their own team can be important in spotting these symptoms in their teammates."
Another problem is MRSA, an infectious bacteria that is spread through skin-to-skin contact and thrives wherever sweat and athletics collide. Johnson had all of the program's uniforms and equipment disinfected last season after a potential outbreak.
"And we were able to pinpoint that from Dr. Morris' class," he said. "Once we saw the second kid with the same rash, we had everything cleaned with hospital-grade sanitizers."
But the SMART Institute isn't limited to physical ailments. It also deals with sportsmanship.
"If you think about it, a number of things can happen through the lack of sportsmanship by players and parents," Morris said. "Things like flagrant fouls and chop blocks in football usually stem from a lack of sportsmanship, so that's something we focus on as well."
Johnson said he noticed an immediate improvement around the complex after meeting with the SMART Institute.
"A lot of people weren't even aware that the type of comments they were making could be taking so negatively by opposing players and parents," he said. "And we want to create the best possible environment for everyone out here."
Morris said she initiated visible signals for others regarding sportsmanship. For those who take the class, a green-and-gold bracelet is given out. The idea is that if a person wearing one of those bracelets is acting up, someone who has taken the class can pull them aside.
"And they'll let them know they are being inappropriate," Morris said.
In addition to its work with the Cowboys, SMART has staged a number of other clinics and community outreach efforts over the years, including for the Brandon Youth Bulls Hockey, Florida Revolution Soccer and Synergy Volleyball.
All this is done to keep kids who are playing sports as safe as possible.
"It's all worth it," Morris said, "if what we're doing can have an effect and save one life."