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By JOHN CLAYTON
On Twitter @JCTweetsOn
High school football fans in the area won’t have to wait until September to get their football fix.
The 2013 edition of the Palmetto State Showdown is set for June 14-15 at the Byrnes High School fields in Duncan.
Twenty 7-on-7 teams representing 17 different high schools from as far away as New Jersey and as close as Union County and Greenville are set to compete in the annual tournament.
Host Byrnes will field two squads as will Bergen (N.J.) and Valdosta (Ga.).
Also set to compete are: Berkeley, Brunswick (Ga.), Daniel, Gainesville (Ga.), Greenville, Erwin (N.C.), Jack Britt (N.C.), Jefferson County (Ga.) and Lake Side (Ga.).
Also, Myrtle Beach, North Gwinnett (Ga.), Southern Durham (N.C.), Union County, and Wren.
By JOHN CLAYTON
Spartanburg High head football coach Freddie Brown spoke to his entire team after a live scrimmage against Lexington.
But he was also speaking to one young, inexperienced player.
The player, he said, dropped his head during drills, endangering himself and that is why he did not play in the scrimmage.
Brown could not – and would not – allow him to play until the player knew absolutely how to protect himself from potential head injuries.
And that is a national trend in the wake of a generation of former professional football layers joining in a class-action lawsuit against the NFL because of concussions suffered during their playing careers that are now affecting their post-football lives.
A concussion occurs when a blow to the head causes the brain to slam against the skull beyond the ability of the cerebrospinal fluid to cushion the impact. The impact that causes a concussion can cause bruising of the brain, tearing of the blood vessels and nerve damage.
As expected, football reports the most incidents of concussions with rate of six concussions per 10,000 times young athletes got on the playing field.
But football is not alone. Lacrosse and soccer are next, according to studies.
For girls, soccer led the way with 3.5 incidents per 10,000 trips to the field.
According to the American Journal of Sports Medicine, the numbers of reported concussions went up exponentially between 1997 and 2008.
Awareness may be one of the driving forces behind the increased numbers, and that is the mission of the Youth Sports Safety Alliance, which was formed in 2010 to “raise awareness, advance legislation and improve medical care for young athletes across the country.”
Locally, people are listening.
Dorman is one high school in the state performing “base-line” tests on their student athletes, a list that includes Beaufort among others.
“This gives us a base reading to make a comparison with if one of our student athletes sustains a head injury,” said Dorman Athletic Director Flynn Harrell. “It’s one more thing we can do to help doctors make the right calls in these cases.”
Harrell said the base readings are good for two years, but he wants to perform the tests again next year.
Athletes are bigger, stronger and faster than during Harrell’s playing days at Woodruff.
The equipment and medical training is better – Dorman has three athletic trainers on staff – but football is a violent game and injuries are a simple fact of life for the football player.
Riverside head coach Steve Eoute ran down a list of a half-dozen injuries that have occurred during practice over the past couple of weeks at a recent Touchdown Club meeting. Two of them were concussions.
No athlete, however, is immune to concussions, regardless of sport.
RISK VS. REWARD
Ian Metts’ helmet flew off into the Friday night air as he took the brunt of a hit from a Gaffney player on a kickoff return at Dorman.
Metts doesn’t remember a thing.
“I remember coming out of the locker room at halftime,” said Metts, now a freshman at South Carolina. “I remember the score on a board. I was just in a fog for the rest of the game.”
He played the rest of the game through the fog, but sat out the next two weeks with symptoms of post-concussion syndrome. During that time, he saw a neurologist before being cleared to play.
“I had to do a memory test and make sure I had feeling in my fingers and toes,” Metts said. “Then, he cleared me to play.”
Metts, who had also suffered a concussion during a scrimmage two weeks prior to the Gaffney hit, had been playing football since elementary school as had former teammate and current Dorman baseball standout Adam Renwick.
And Metts said he was aware then of the risks of competing in football at the Class 4A level – the biggest high school division and one of the toughest regions in a football-crazed state.
“The Dorman staff does a good job of making you aware of what the long-term effects can be if you’re injured,” Metts said.
He also said he would do it all over again.
“I’d play right now if they’d let me,” he said.
But Renwick, who is a Clemson baseball commit as a junior at Dorman, is playing a fall baseball season instead of football. He suffered a concussion during a football game last season.
He remembers all of it.
The devastating hit. The two months of recovery with post-concussion syndrome.
He was injured at the end of October and was finally back to his former self after Christmas, he said.
Aside from being able to remember the hit and the events immediately following it, Renwick’s case was by the book for post-concussion syndrome.
He said he couldn’t concentrate; he had headaches every day; he had blurred vision and sensitivity to light; and he was lethargic.
“All that night and the day after, I felt fine,” he said. “But that Sunday after church, I first felt it. It just hit me like a brick wall. The night of and the day after, I think I was just in shock, pretty much.”
Renwick said the concussion made him realize the risk he was taking. With his baseball future in the balance, he is now a one-sport athlete.
“It kind of opened my eyes,” he said. “With my baseball future, I knew I had to give football up.”
Like Metts, he had also suffered a mild concussion in the summer, and studies have indicated that those who have suffered concussions can be more prone suffering more of them.
Though he decided to give up football, Renwick said he would probably choose to play again if he had it to do over.
But if he had a son who wanted to play?
“I’d definitely make sure he was aware of what could happen,” Renwick said, alluding to a culture of football in which many players will not admit to being injured, allowing concussions to go undetected.
“A lot of guys will get hit and go back in the game,” he said. “But you need to tell somebody if you’re hurt, so they’ll do the right thing.”
Professional football could be at a crossroads that finds the violent hits that have been its calling card for generations no longer at terms with the injuries they can cause.
Super Bowl winner Jim McMahon and perhaps the late Junior Seau, who committed suicide earlier this year, are just two of the former players who have suffered from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopahy (CTE), a long-term result of multiple concussions.
But college (it has been estimated that a college lineman experiences over 1,000 subconcussive head hits in an average season) and high school football fields can also be danger zones.
“I have patients now that are former football players that haven dementia, and you have to wonder if some of it came from the bumps they got on their head 30 or 40 years ago,” wrote Dr. Paul Schulz, associate professor of neurology at the University of Texas-Houston Medical School, in a blog.
At Dorman, Harrell said the discussion that has been going on due to NFL injuries has made everyone more aware of the dangers and is making all sports safer.
“There is risk in all sports — that’s why we gave the base-line tests to everyone,” Harrell said.
To that end USA Football, an NFL sponsored entity, has started its “Heads Up” program to teach young people how to play football with an emphasis on safety.
But the most important ingredient is parental involvement, said USA Football Executive Director Scott Hallenbeck at a recent panel discussion in New York City.
“Parents need to be a part of the equation if we want to change the culture,” Hallenbeck said.
As the son of Southern Baptist missionaries, Joel Bell always needed a passport and a Bible.
Years later, Bell still needs both as he doggedly pursues a career in professional football and begins study for a life after the sport dedicated to the ministry.
He is playing for his fourth team and in his third league and is back North of the border for a second stint in the Canadian Football League, but has spent most of this season on the Edmonton Eskimos’ injured list.
“I’d like to continue playing football for a while,” said Bell, who is in the first year of a two-year contract with the Eskimos.
The dream of the NFL for the former Furman standout is still there, having survived the financially strapped United Football League, where Bell was the 2012 first-round draft pick of the league’s Las Vegas Locomotives.
It’s still alive after two Grey Cup losses with the Saskatchewan Roughriders.
But Bell says it is no longer the only thing, and that’s why he enrolled for online courses at Southern Seminary in Louisville, Ky., where he plans to attend physical classes in the offseason.
“I thought I was a Christian, but I really wasn’t,” he said. “After I left Saskatchewan, I truly heard the gospel and what it really is, and that’s when my heart changed.”
After graduating from Furman, Bell, who spent much of his childhood in foreign lands such as Croatia and Egypt with his missionary-veterinarian family, got a shot with the NFL’s Buffalo Bills, but was released in training camp. He has since gotten looks from several NFL teams, including the Dallas Cowboys, but no contracts.
Even so, he has continued to work, honing the skills of a professional offensive lineman and hoping for another phone call from the NFL after his injuries heal and after playing the 2013 season with Edmonton.
Meanwhile, he will be pursuing his work in Louisville for the next four years or so.
“I feel like, as a Christian, that Christ is the one that we should draw our worth and joy from because He will satisfy you for all eternity,” Bell said. “A lot of us try to fill that void with other things.”
While football is still Bell’s profession and an important part of his life, making it to the NFL is no longer the “idol” Bell said he had made it earlier in his career.
“A lot of us make idols of other things when our idol should be Christ,” he said.
Bell said his belief that Christ is the center of all things gave him the mentality to face the severe ankle injury that has sidelined him for this season.
And if his position as a professional athlete can be come a pulpit, then so be it.
“Being an athlete is a good way to speak with people and get into their lives,” he said. “I’m encouraged about that. . . . I want to try an glorify God with whatever I do. There’s way more to this than we expect in modern Christianity. We have to work more for God and listen more and pray more. If we do that, the closer to God we become.”
Bell said he found several coaches and players of similar faith in Edmonton and felt at home early on with the team.
“I felt like this was really where God wanted me to be and that this would be a good season,” Bell laughed. “Then I got hurt. You never really know God’s plan.”
By JOHN CLAYTON
The dew is barely gone from the football field on a Saturday morning at Duncan Elementary School, and the Rebels are playing the Rebels.
“The kids want ‘Rebels’ across their chest,” said Johnny Owens, youth athletic director and football executive director for Spartanburg School District 5. “They wouldn’t have it any other way.”
If you’re not born a rebel — as the song goes — around here, you’ve at least embraced the concept by first or second grade.
But that is part of the goal as youth football begins here with flag football for first- and second-graders and continues with tackle leagues through sixth grade before the players move on to middle school and then to the high school levels.
It’s the part of the Byrnes playbook most people never really see, and, like other programs in the area such as Dorman and Spartanburg, success at the highest level is bred from the skills and attitudes that are taught from the beginning.
Bobby Bentley, former Byrnes head coach and current offensive coordinator, said the “esprit de corps” of Rebel-dom is an ef[gallery columns="4" orderby="rand"]
fort to bring the several communities served by Byrnes together under one banner.
“It’s a rallying point,” Bentley said. “It unites us as a district.”
Getting behind the Rebels has been easy. Under Bentley and his successor, Chris Miller, as head coaches, the Rebels have won seven state championships over the past 11 years.
But much of that success has begun here, on Saturday mornings.
Bentley said the young Rebels begin learning basic formations and basic terminology used by their older counterparts at their earliest stages.
While that has been an important component of the success Byrnes has enjoyed, Bentley said it is not the most important thing.
“We try to do a really good job at character development,” he said. “With all the success we›ve had, character continues to be the focal point. . . . Look, we won a state championship last year and didn’t have one kid sign a (NCAA) Divison I scholarship.
“I have parents coming up to me wondering how to get their kid a scholarship, and he›s in third grade. We’re trying to teach them life skills — how to be better men, better fathers and better husbands.”
So is Freddie Brown, head coach at Spartanburg High School who occupied that same position in Woodruff, a football-obsessed community that was home to legendary coach W.L. “Willie” Varner for nearly half a century.
Varner, who won 383 games and 10 state titles at Woodruff, had similar philosophies. His veer offensive system was taught early on in youth leagues and then run by such luminaries as Tony Rice, who went on to win a National Championship at Notre Dame, at the varsity level.
“Building a team, that›s the easy part,” said Brown. “Building a program, that’s tougher.”
Spartanburg High and the City of Spartanburg work in partnership to put together viable youth leagues — District 7 supplies the facilities for games and the city works to keep the leagues supplied with equipment.
Brown said his focus is on building better young people, a few of which might help the Vikings.
“We hold a lot of camps in the summer,” Brown said. “We focus on character development as well as athletic development.”
Brown said teaching children about work ethic and conditioning at a young age is more important to him than teaching them how to run a Wing-T offense.
“We want to give them structure at practice, teach them tackling fundamentals and things like that,” Brown said. “But learning about character and sportsmanship and conditioning is more important.
“We’ll teach them systems when they get here. Learning to win is important, but if they don’t have those other skills, they’re not going to beat the teams they have to play around here.”
Brown said the youth programs within District 7 are “booming.”
Prior to the season, Dorman head coach Dave Gutshall said his coaches and busy youth league coaches have coordinated their efforts over the years before the youth league players arrive one of several middle schools that are direct pipelines for the Cavaliers.
D.R. Hill Middle School, located on a sprawling new campus on Highway 357 north of Lyman, is such a program for Byrnes.
“We run the same offense and defense as Byrnes,” said D.R. Hill eighth-grade coach Ron Simmons. “All the warm-ups and drills are the same.”
Simmons said the fact that the youth league players have a basic knowledge of the system when they arrive at D.R. Hill (where they have kept the traditional “Tigers” mascot and nickname) makes the transition seamless when they arrive as seventh graders.
The youth leagues within District 5 include 22 teams and about 400 players, Owens said.
While those leagues teach the basics, coaches have to continue to learn as well, Brown said. He recalled the early stages of current South Carolina running back and Heisman Trophy candidate Marcus Lattimore at Byrnes.
Lattimore was a linebacker, who finally got a chance at running back.
“He kind of broke out against us at Woodruff,” Brown said. “It was something of a surprise, and the coaches said, hey, this kid could be a pretty good running back.”
But those discoveries — and those types of players — are difficult to find, making the teaching of teamwork and other life-building skills even more important to Bentley.
“In some ways, our success has become an enemy,” he said. “We have some kids who show up and they want their moment or to get the headlines. That’s not the way teams are built. . . . That’s why we have to continue to have character-building as our focal point.” GD