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April 16, 2005 - Football & SCI

Todd Hart never had any qualms about his son playing high school football. Not once did they talk about the possibility of a serious injury.

"Never even came up," the San Juan Capistrano father said. Then he added: "I know that sounds strange."

It sounds strange because, in 1982, Hart was playing defensive back for Long Beach State when a violent collision with two other players left him slumped face down on the field. He has been in a wheelchair ever since.

Hart and his son, Steven, figure they never talked much about that day because "it was just such a freak accident," he said.

Each year, an estimated 1.8 million Americans play football, from the sandlots to the NFL. On average, only about seven suffer spinal cord injuries, researchers say.

In pure statistical terms, that is a very small number. But the death of an Arena Football League player on the field last Sunday offered a stark reminder that catastrophic injury is a part of the game that experts doubt will ever go away.

Of the 11,000 Americans hospitalized for spinal cord injuries each year, the majority are hurt in car accidents, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 18% are hurt in some form of sports or recreation, many in unsupervised diving.

The majority of football injuries occur in high school football, where athletes are far more numerous, the surveys show.

And the most dangerous activity is tackling, which accounts for about 69% of reported catastrophic injuries. The players who do the most tackling -- defensive backs and linebackers -- are most likely to be hurt.

One prevention technique is for athletes to spend more time working on strengthening their necks and upper backs. Equipment, especially helmets, which have improved dramatically over the years, also plays a role.

An executive with Schutt Sports, a major manufacturer of football equipment, said his company has sought to make helmets lighter -- thus less stressful on the neck -- by using lighter materials for facemasks and padding.

"That's certainly one of the design criteria that we take into account," said David Jones, director of marketing.

Asked about the day he was paralyzed more than 20 years ago, Hart uses words such as "devastating" and "traumatic." He and a teammate were charging toward a UCLA receiver at the Rose Bowl when all three players collided. He fractured two vertebrae at the base of his head.

Now an attorney working for the Orange County district attorney, he said: "I could remember a panicky feeling coming over me ... the reality was setting in that I couldn't move my arms and legs."

Before going any further, Hart wanted to make something clear: He still loves the game of football. He watched Steven play all through high school, through his last game as a senior in the fall.

"I never had any reservations about that," he said. "I think young kids are able to learn a lot through sports."

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