By SAWAN DOUGE
From as young as 10, Sean Williams has been playing football. He started with a youth team in Brooklyn, and then played for South Shore High School.
Now 42, the Canarsie resident is the head coach and president of the Mill Basin Mariners youth football team, passing that same love of the game to his players.
“Football has always been part of my life. It is like another family member and I can’t see my life without football,” Williams said. “My sons play now and I love that I am able to coach them. I can’t lie; it is scary at times ’cause I hate seeing them get hit but it is part of the game.”
Even though there is mounting evidence that head traumas suffered on the gridiron can lead to serious long-term damage, football survives in youth leagues and high schools. Participation nationally is down, according to data reported by the nation’s largest youth football program, Pop Warner. But Williams says he has no more than a “little trouble” in finding players—no major difficulty.
For the past decade the sport has been under attack. Former National Football League players have sued over head traumas they have experienced along with the lack of care for their injuries. In April, a federal judge approved a settlement that is expected to cost the NFL as much as $1 billion over 65 years to deal with thousands of lawsuits.
Head injuries are nothing to take lightly. Although they may not show any serious damage when they occur, over time they can lead to insanity or even death. The NFL has made changes in the style of play in an effort to prevent concussions.
Currently, children as young as 5 years old are allowed to play in youth leagues. Critics say that children so young should not be playing a game that asks them to risk their health. Parents are scared that their kids will get severely hurt while playing, so many of them choose not to let them play.
The Esquire Network’s television show “Friday Night Tykes,” which portrays youth football organizations in Texas, has been highly controversial due to the hard hits that children as young as 5 and 6 take when they are tackled.
In an Associated Press-Gfk poll taken last July, almost half of parents said that they felt uncomfortable letting their child play football because of questions about the long-term impact of concussions. The poll, which surveyed 1,044 adults, found that 44 percent of the parents said that they are not comfortable with letting their child play football.
But that still has left many parents who encourage their children to play football, and young people who still take to the field with dreams of stardom. As a result, Williams and the Mariners play on, holding pep rallies and parties to build team chemistry.
Youth football organizers say they are trying to fix their style of play so fewer kids experience concussions and big hits. One way of improving the game was changing the technique for tackling. In past years many kids would lead with their heads down as they tackled an opposing player, thus exposing their necks. Now they are taught to always keep the head up and lead with the shoulder. The new rule is not only being used at the youth level, but also in high school, college, and the NFL.
“Injuries happen in all sports. You can’t run scared because the minute you think about getting injured while playing, that’s when you roll an ankle or dislocate a shoulder,” Williams said.
Last year, Newsday reported on Tom Cutinella, a high school football player on Long Island’s Shoreham-Wading River team who died on the field after a hit.
“About two days later, I go to a high school football game to ask parents if Cutinella’s death will make them think twice about letting their kids play,” Newsday reporter Laura Albanese recalled. “The answer was almost universally no.” The parents, she said, felt that “you can get hurt doing anything.”
Steve Orr, director of the Brooklyn Hurricanes youth football team, said he loves the support he is getting from the families who live in Marine Park, where the team has been based for decades. Orr is always accepting of new players coming into the program but he does know that some just are not prepared for the risk playing football has.
“Let’s be honest: This game isn’t for everyone,” Orr said. “Only families that are really dedicated are going to play and it’s easy to spot a dedicated family. I think that is why people hate football so much cause not everyone is made to play it.”
Other sports can also pose the danger of concussions. “Girls’ lacrosse is one of the most dangerous sports out there,” Albanese said. “It’s non-contact, so most of the girls don’t wear helmets, but once lacrosse sticks start swinging, there’s a good chance you’re going to get a bop to the head.”
But lacrosse, lower in profile than football, doesn’t get the same attention.
Despite the heightened scrutiny of football, Williams says his Mariners team continues to attract players and rarely loses any. The majority return season after season until they become ineligible to play, he says. According to Williams, he does not even have to recruit kids to join sometimes.
“My kids win and have a ton of fun. They tell their friends or some parents tell their friends about the team and next thing I know we have four new kids on the team. It amazes me sometimes but I love it,” said Williams.
It’s the same for the Brooklyn Hurricanes. With their home office only a block away from Marine Park, the team is visible in the neighborhood and continues to find football-loving families. Orr said that even after football season is done, parents still walk in to help their kids join the team.
“It doesn’t matter what sports season it is or what else is going on,” Orr said. “We will always get a mom or dad walking in with their son ready to sign him up for this season or the next.”
Photo: The Brooklyn Hurricanes at a practice session in Marine Park. (Courtesy of Brooklyn Hurricanes)