Padecky: Is long football season a health hazard?

Cardinal Newman's state title game against Oaks Christian in 2006 was the 15th game of the season. (Photo by CRISTA JEREMIASON, The Press Democrat)

Cardinal Newman’s state title game against Oaks Christian in 2006 was the 15th game of the season. (Photo by CRISTA JEREMIASON, The Press Democrat)

By BOB PADECKY
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

The contrast took me aback.

If Notre Dame becomes the NCAA champion in football, the Fighting Irish will need 13 games to do it.

Last Friday, Granite Bay of Sacramento became the CIF state championship in Division 1 by playing and winning its 16th football game.

It takes three more games to win a high school state championship than the biggest prize in college athletics? What da hey? That’s just not an imbalance. That’s illogical, absurd, dangerous and, frankly, disgusting. Playing three more high school football games is very different than playing three more high school basketball games or baseball games or soccer games. No one calls basketball, baseball or soccer a violent sport, although violence can happen.

A 16-year old body is literally a work under construction.

“A 16-year old is typically nearing the end of his growth spurt,” said Dr. Ty Affleck, team physician for Sonoma State and Santa Rosa JC. “But there are open growth platelets because, while the bones have stopped growing, the muscles supporting them are still being developed. Consequently, the bones are prone to cracking or fracturing because they don’t have the necessary strength around them to support them. That’s why when athletes go off to college, the first thing coaches do is get them in the weight room to develop that strength.”

I interviewed NCS commissioner Gil Lemmon and three Empire high school head coaches, Cardinal Newman’s Paul Cronin, St. Vincent’s Gary Galloway and Casa Grande’s Trent Herzog. None thought a high school kid playing 16 football games in a season is a good idea.

“I’d love to have a study conducted,” Herzog said, “of the academic progress of a player for the first six weeks of the season compared to the last six weeks of the season. When the body gets tired, the mind gets tired. Think of what we ask of them. Two hours of practice. Half hour of film. Half hour of class. That’s three hours a day. Five days a week. For 16 weeks (counting training camp).”

“We played 15 games when we went to state in 2006,” Cronin said. “We saw the kids getting tired. We had to change our practice routine to keep them crisp. We started with no contact on Monday. We now have no contact Thursday or Friday, either. On Tuesday and Wednesday we have a total 45-60 minutes of uncontrolled contract. That’s it.”

“It is a concern,” Lemmon said of the season’s length. “We have to continue to monitor the situation.”

“That is too long,” Galloway said of a 16-game season. “But what are you going to do?”

Cronin has a proposal. Hold two playoffs once the regular season ends at 10 games.

One playoff will contain the top eight teams in each division in Northern California. The teams will be ranked by Cal Preps, which Cronin called a credible source. The Northern California winner then plays the Southern California winner for the state championship.

The other playoff will be for section championships, the playoff brackets filled with teams ranked ninth or lower by Cal Preps. Four things will be accomplished.

“You reduce the season (for a state champion) from 16 games to 14 games,” said Cronin, thereby decreasing the opportunity of injury on open-growth platelets.

“You make the first-round (NCS) games much more competitive,” Cronin said.

The top three seeds won their first-round NCS playoff games this postseason by astonishing margins: an average of 33.3 points in Division 1, 23.7 points in Division 2 and by 42 points in Division 3. Four teams with losing records played first-round NCS games. Five others played with 5-5 records. That’s nine teams that shouldn’t have been in the playoffs.

“By shortening the football season,” Cronin said, “you create more opportunity for multi-sport athletes.”

Advancing in the NCS typically will cost a football player up to 10 basketball games and practice.

“The NCS winner will change much more frequently than it does now,” Cronin said.

Of course, gripes will be made. Especially by the team seeded ninth by Cal Preps. Well, Cronin said, that won’t be the first time people complained about playoff seedings. Griping is as American as apple pie.

When told of Cronin’s plan, Lemmon’s reaction was immediate.

“I like the idea,” the commissioner said. “Paul should bring it up to his league people.”

Therein lies the rub. Lemmon takes his cue from the high schools in his section. It’s fairly clear, he said, what his schools want.

“There is so much desire right now for schools to participate in the current playoff system,” Lemmon said.

Whether it’s administrators, coaches, parents or booster-club members seeking additional school revenue or simply more face-time on Max Preps or Cal Preps, a fact needs to be addressed. This is high school sports. For 99.9 percent of the kids, this isn’t the next step on the way to a college scholarship. Consider this to be the cold shower for all the zealots out there: An athlete pays the high school to play, not the other way around.

“I think our bodies have another game in them,” Granite Bay coach Ernie Cooper told the Sacramento Bee before the state title game.

That is not the sentence any football coach should be uttering before his team’s most important game of the season.

You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or bob.padecky@pressdemocrat.com.

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