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Skyline High School football players Golden Venters, from left, Tyrone Campbell and Kendrick Payne run wind sprints during afternoon practice, Thursday, Aug. 23, 2012 in Oakland, Calif. (D. Ross Cameron/Staff)

After months of troubling headlines about suicides, bounties and lawsuits, dire predictions were floated that nervous parents would respond to a mounting concussion crisis by deciding football had become too dangerous for their kids.

But as another season kicks off -- the first under California's new concussion law -- the pull of Friday Night Lights appears as strong as ever.

A sampling of Bay Area coaches and administrators indicates there has been no concussion-fueled groundswell against high school and youth football. Some programs, in fact, report that participation numbers have increased.

"I just haven't heard anything about concussions keeping people away," longtime Los Gatos High coach Butch Cattolico said. "Maybe it's a terrible thing to say, because every coach understands that concussions will happen, but I don't think parents are feeling that it's that big a deal."

Ray Lockett, president of the Redwood City 49ers Pop Warner program, was bracing for a drop in players even before Tom Brady Sr. told Yahoo! Sports in May that he would be "very hesitant" to let his son, New England Patriots star and Serra High product Tom Brady, play football if he were a teenager today.

Instead, the youth 49ers have about 45 more kids playing than last season.

"We thought it was going to be an issue, but it's not," Lockett said. "We've had very few parents express concerns."


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That is a concern for those who are trying to spread a message of concussion awareness in America's most popular game.

"I think most people still don't understand," said Chris Nowinski, co-founder of the Boston-based Sports Legacy Institute. "We're not saying that people should be turning away from football. But the parent market isn't overstressed about this by any stretch of the imagination. We're not seeing mass hysteria."

An online survey of 1,000 people conducted by ESPN in early August did find that 57 percent of parents said the concussion problem made them less likely to let their sons play in youth leagues. But that apprehension doesn't appear to be playing out in Northern California.

A public concussion seminar last week at Oakland's Skyline High, where Nowinski was a featured speaker, drew a sparse turnout of coaches and health-care professionals.

"Until it happens to their family and parents are personally touched by it with their child, there's not a sense of urgency," said Dr. Cindy Chang, the UC Berkeley physician who was just back from London where she was the U.S. Olympic team's chief medical officer. "Maybe parents are still seeing it as something that only happens at that elite level in the NFL and not down here at high school."

But in recent months, alarm bells have been sounding.

  • This spring former NFL players Junior Seau, 43, and Ray Easterling, 62, committed suicide, raising to three the number of ex-players who had taken their lives in the last 15 months. Any link between Seau's death and his 20-year pro football career remains unproven. But it was later discovered that Easterling was suffering from CTE, the degenerative brain disease associated with head trauma.

  • The NFL was rocked by the New Orleans Saints' pay-to-injury bounty scandal that has resulted in unprecedented suspensions, including a yearlong ban to head coach Sean Payton.

  • The number of retired players who have sued the NFL over the long-term effects of head trauma days has mushroomed and now numbers more than 3,200.

    Much remains unknown about concussions and their toll. But what used to be viewed as "dings" and "seeing stars" now is recognized as brain injury. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that concussions represent almost 9 percent of injuries in nine major high school sports.

    And a growing body of research supports what ought to be common sense: Repeated blows to the head, especially in developing brains, have serious consequences.

    "Most concussions have a complete recovery and kids are able to return to their sport quickly," said Dr. Anthony Saglimbeni, a San Francisco Giants team physician who has launched the California Concussion Institute. "But I think a nervous attitude is healthy, because this shouldn't be taken lightly. That's much better than parents I see all the time who tell me, 'There's nothing wrong with him and this stuff about concussions is overblown, so get him back out there.' "

    It's also clear that football remains as popular as ever.

    "Starting this week you're going to be seeing games on television six nights a week between the NFL, college and high school," Serra coach Patrick Walsh said. "Football is just in our blood. It's become who we are. This really is America's passion."

    And while football is a violent game where injuries inevitably occur, Walsh added it still can be relatively safe when coached and monitored properly.

    California has joined 37 other states with a law that requires parents and high school players to sign a concussion information form. Any athlete who is suspected of suffering a concussion must be removed from play for the rest of that day and cannot return until receiving written clearance from a health-care provider.

    Meanwhile, the national Pop Warner organization has limited the amount of contact in practice as well as banning intentional blows to the head. The head of USA Football, the umbrella organization for all youth football leagues between the ages of 6 and 14, said the proactive measure is why their numbers remain steady at 3 million kids playing nationally.

    "I hear some people say, 'Let's just cancel football and any other contact sports,' and I don't understand that attitude," said Scott Hallenbeck, executive director of USA Football. "We have to find appropriate outlets for kids. We've got a huge obesity problem in this society."

    But there also remains a disparity in the quality of concussion care for athletes in California. Last year, only 19 percent of state high schools had certified athletic trainers on campus each day, according to the California Interscholastic Federation. More affluent schools have neurocognitive testing that helps diagnose concussions and allows doctors to better evaluate when kids are ready to return.

    Parents who can afford it also are spending hundreds of dollars for the latest model of helmets -- although there is no such thing as "concussion-proof" headgear.

    "We had some parents buy them, then others decided they wanted them, too," said the Redwood City 49ers' Lockett, who estimates about 80 kids in his program will end up using their own helmets this season.

    But Russell White knows two boys who won't be playing football anytime soon: His sons, who are ages 7 and 5.

    "No, no, no," said White, the former Cal star running back and new commissioner of the Oakland Athletic League. "Maybe when my oldest son is 12 or 13, and he begins to grow into his body. But not until then."

    White said numbers have been down on Oakland high school teams the last couple of years, something he attributes to a lack of interest in sports and not fears about concussions.

    "But I wonder where football is going to be in 20 years," added White, who spent parts of two seasons in the NFL. "Is it going to be the same game? Who knows, it might be the Flag NFL by then."