SPECIAL REPORT: Non-contact football options pursued in Corridor

As we learn more about the long-term effects playing football can have on a person, non-contact options are being pursued to begin a child's career.

For many in Eastern Iowa - and around America - football is a rite of passage.

But the hits come with risks.

"We used to think of brain injuries as simply concussions," Dr. Devin Smith of UnityPoint Health says. "When you had a blow that was sufficient to give you a concussion, we thought, 'Yes, over time, that's going to slow your cognition and have different effects."

But those thoughts have changed over the past years.

"Even before you get to the point where it's a concussive blow, there are some micro-structural changes that you can see on FMRI and different imaging techniques," Dr. Smith says. "That's where we really get into this area of chronic traumatic encephalopathy."

"CTE" has become a buzzword in the world of football over the past decade - with dozens of retired NFL players exhibiting signs of the degenerative brain disease. Some of even taken their own lives to spare themselves of the pain of the trauma.

If hits over long periods of time cause CTE, what would happen if the amount of time a player is hit was curbed - starting with their introduction to the sport?

"We hear 'Our kids aren't just ready for that contact yet,'" Marion Parks and Recreation supervisor Tony Ireland says. "'We don't want to expose him to that quite this young.'"

Taking away tackling isn't the only way Marion protects their youth flag league participants from contact.

"One of our big rules is that on fumbles, it's a dead ball," Ireland says. "We don't want our kids diving in their head first. That would be a nightmare."

The Eastern Iowa NFL Flag Football League was just introduced to the Corridor this summer.

"I know when I was younger, it was 'Let's get you signed up for tackle! Let's get you signed up for tackle!'" league vice president Chuck Crawley says. "Whereas a parent now - and knowing what we know - it's one of those things. I have to tell my son, 'Hey, let's hold your horses on that. Let's make sure we get you developed. Let's make sure we're putting you in the safest environment possible.'"

While Crawley agrees that keeping kids away from contact is important, he also says flag football lets players become more versed in the game of football itself.

"With flag football, children have the opportunity to play running back, play wide receiver, play quarterback," he says, noting that most youth tackle leagues shy away from passing and focus solely on running the football. "You can move them all around, move them around on the defense, and you can really develop these kids - and then maybe actually find out what a kid's really good at."

After all, the game of football brings positives - along with the risks.

"The parents that I've talked with, they understand that there's a benefit - socially, developmentally - to playing football," Dr. Smith says. "They understand that there are a lot of excellent, profound benefits. Just putting that in terms of, 'Well, what are the potential costs long-term?'"

"That's something we're learning more and more about."

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