By Steve Jones
First come the helmet-to-helmet hits, followed by players walking around in a state of confusion or lying motionless on the ground.
It's an ugly sight, and the consequences go much deeper. As a result of this brutal style of play, concussions are on the rise, and football players who earn their living with their bodies may be having their brains permanently altered. The NFL finally began taking action on a situation careening out of control, issuing suspensions and heavier fines to players who abandoned the traditional "hit, wrap and tackle" method in favor of the monster shots to the head somehow always winding up on "SportsCenter."
But what is being done at the college level to curtail head injuries? When Stevenson University begins its first football season in 2011, athletic trainer Greg Penczek will be entrusted with treating these types of injuries.
"Our approach won't change much from what we've already done," said Penczek, who just concluded a "practice season" with the Mustangs' football team. "We've been proactive about concussion education and evaluation. Football brings a new set of challenges because it's a collision sport versus an impact sport. [The trainers] really don't teach technique, but we can get in the coaches' ear and make sure that they remind players about proper hitting."
Penczek is concerned about the effects of the professional style of play on the game's younger players.
"The NFL feeds down to all other levels," he said. "The collisions are much more violent there than in college and high school. These kids start playing at a young age, and they're hitting in their formative years. It might be beneficial for them to further develop their muscles and brains before starting to play. Maybe it's better for them to play flag or touch football and learn the skills of the game, and not worry about putting a helmet and shoulder pads on so early."
Penczek believes the NCAA has taken effective steps to educate players, such as bringing in officials to talk about technique and the rules of the game.
"The NCAA has passed a new amendment that says at any sport across all levels (Division I, II or III), that if you have any player that exhibits the signs and symptoms consistent with a concussion, they must be removed from play for that day and cannot be returned to activity until cleared by the appropriate medical professional," he said.
"That's very important because now everybody within the NCAA is starting to develop concussion education. You have to make sure you have the right return-to-play protocols and the approval of the team physician or athletic training staff. We clear all of our athletes with concussions through our consulting neurologist, as well as our two orthopedic team physicians."
Penczek also gives credit to the media, retired NFL players and sports medicine professionals for creating a greater awareness of the problem.
"They need to speak up and say that we need to treat these things the right way and be safe because we're worried about the long-term health of the athlete," Penczek said. "They're being more reactive than proactive, but you've got to put an end to it at some point."
"Hopkins has the best biomedical engineering program in the country," said Wodicka, a productive freshman wide receiver at JHU. "Academics are truly way more important than anything else. My dad, who played football and graduated from Hopkins, told me to work hard and get good grades, and as a result you'll have a lot more opportunities."
The proper perspective also put Wodicka in line for a prestigious national honor. In October, he was named one of five recipients of the National Football Foundation's National High School Scholar Athlete Award. Wodicka was nominated for the award by the Joe Tiller/Northwest Indiana chapter of the Foundation.
"When (chapter president) Jim Vruggink let me know about the award, I was completely shocked," said Wodicka, who was the valedictorian of his high school class. "My teachers really helped me out, and I learned from my brother, who plays at Case Western University, how to manage my time. To win it is a tribute to all of them."
Time management was crucial for Wodicka. At West Lafayette High, he played football, basketball and baseball, and was named Indiana's Mr. Football after his senior season. Wodicka also played cello in the school orchestra, mentored elementary school children and worked with a Down syndrome student. His many fruitful activities factored into his selection for the NFF award.
In addition to academics, Wodicka had other reasons for coming to Hopkins.
"The competitiveness of the team attracted me," he said. "They made it to the national quarterfinals last year, which was amazing. Plus, I see myself as more of an East Coast guy. Coach (Jim) Margraff was gracious enough to give me a chance to play football here."
Wodicka, who plans to go to graduate school and eventually obtain a PhD in biomedical engineering, has made the most of his chances. In the first eight games of his collegiate career, he recorded 26 catches for 389 yards and one touchdown.
Going Big Time
The schedules of all six Baltimore-area college basketball teams are dotted with noteworthy non-conference opponents.
Navy faced one of the nation's top programs when it traveled to Texas for the season opener Nov. 8, losing to the Longhorns, 83-52. Loyola heads to the Verizon Center for a Dec. 18 matchup against Georgetown. On Dec. 22, Towson will host Princeton while UMBC plays at Notre Dame. It will be the second matchup against a Big East team for the Retrievers, who visit Connecticut Dec. 3.
But the toughest non-conference slates belong to Coppin State and two-time defending MEAC champion Morgan State. Coppin began the 2010-11 campaign at Oklahoma, and in late December will play four nationally prominent teams in succession on the road: Connecticut, Wisconsin, Kentucky and Texas.
Morgan will visit Providence Nov. 18, then travel to Syracuse and Louisville in late December before closing its non-conference schedule at Baylor.
Issue 155: November 2010