When NFL player Junior Seau was found dead in his home because of an apparent suicide, the world learned a new term: chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. CTE is a brain injury that occurs from repeated concussions or near concussions. The repeated stress on the brain of impact after impact is what causes eventual damage.

For younger players, this attention to the ongoing effects of brain injury on football players is a good thing. Statistics show that the average football player who plays in high school and college could sustain 8,000 head-jarring hits in the eight years he plays for his schools. This does not account for the hits he likely experienced playing in leagues for younger kids.

This is a very real concern for parents of kids who want to play football. While 9-year-olds are not going to hit with the same force as professional NFL players, hits to the head still occur, and some are hard enough to cause a concussion. Research into CTE seems to indicate that even more minor hits, those that do not warrant a trip to the ER, can have a lasting impact.

So what does this mean for youth players and their families? First, it means that proper headgear is absolutely essential. Never sacrifice the quality of your son’s helmet to save a few dollars, and do not let him play if the team does not have quality gear.

Second, it means that new rules may be forthcoming in leagues catering to young players. While hits to the head are an inevitable part of the game the way it is played, they should not be encouraged, and they certainly should not be a part of practice. The more these can be limited, the better the result for these kids as they grow into young men and, eventually, adults.

Parents also need to be aware of the signs of CTE. Kids with CTE will exhibit mood changes, erratic behavior and memory loss. If you notice your son exhibiting some of these symptoms, have him evaluated by a doctor to determine if CTE could be a possibility. Also, if your son experiences a concussion, do not treat it lightly. Go to the ER, and then follow up with a neurologist, because any head injury is a cause for concern.

Head injuries are a very real concern in football, and by allowing your son to play, you are allowing him to take on this risk. Know what CTE looks like, treat all concussions as serious medical events and invest in proper head protection, and you can help take a proactive stance against this very real risk for your football playing son.

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