Youth football

Eighth grader Kennedy Rogers isn’t a football player. But she is a headstrong, young scientist dedicated to tackling one of the biggest issues plaguing the game from the youth level all the way to the NFL. Her work, which earned her a coveted spot in the finals at the nationwide BROADCOM Master’s Competition for science and engineering, showed that sometimes it takes an outsider’s perspective to solve a problem.

Rogers, who goes to school in Douglasville, Georgia, prefers the arts to football. Nevertheless, the young photographer, saxophonist, and violinist tells Inverse how watching the news with her mom impressed upon her the disastrous consequences of concussions for young athletes.

Most prominent is [chronic traumatic encephalopathy[(https://www.inverse.com/article/47896-how-big-of-a-risk-is-cte-for-hockey-and-football-players) — referred to in the media as CTE — a degenerative disease that arises from multiple blows to the head. It’s been shown to affect athletes from youth and college leagues all the way to the NFL, but monitoring the blows that lead to concussions isn’t easily done on the playing field. Rogers’ award-winning contribution to the science community — an ingenious tech-embroidered cap that slips under a football helmet — could change that.

“I heard a lot of things on the news about youth sports and concussions rising in recent years,” she says. “I really love to work with technology so when it came to decide what my science fair project was, I wanted to use what I love to do to help people.”

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Rogers presenting her project, a cap that can detect concussion-causing hits 

Most of us are familiar with these stories that inspired Rogers. CTE really became a household named in 2017, when 99 percent brain samples from of 111 deceased NFL players revealed signs of CTE. Even more recently, though, we’re finding that CTE isn’t the only way that a hard hit to the head can reap a tragic toll: this past fall, 16 year-old linebacker Dylan Thomas died from cardiac arrest after sustaining a hard hit in the middle of a high school game.

These tragedies have led scientists to take up the mantle of CTE research. They’re focusing on the youth: Recently, a team at the University of California, Berkeley published a paper in Neurobiology of Disease showing that just a single season of high school football creates microscopic changes in the grey matter of teenage athletes. While most eighth-graders would leave this issue to Ph.D.-bearing researchers and the NFL’s deep pockets, Rogers felt compelled to help out in her own way, sewing together a concussion-detecting cap containing a tiny circuitboard designed for wearable items, which she learned to program at summer camp.

Stitching away in her bedroom over several months, she integrated this chip into a homemade fabric head cap, carefully aligning the wires so the cap would both be wearable and functional. Getting wires crossed would render her design useless, she explains, describing how challenging it was to fit all that tech onto such a tiny slip of cloth. Her final product is a delicate cap that lights up and buzzes if it senses a force high enough to sustain a concussion.

young innovators concussion
Rogers sewing together her project 

Her device, though not the first of its kind, earned her the distinction of finalist in the BROADCOM Master’s Competition, a science and engineering competition for 6th, 7th and 8th graders. Out of 2,500 applicants, Roger’s made the top 300, and finished in the top 30 projects.

“I didn’t think I was going to make it, because there were so many good projects, so I was really surprised,” she added.

Rogers is still envisioning ways she might make the cap better. She wants to find a way to send the signals from her cap to a mobile device, allowing coaches to monitor their players off the field and know, in real time, exactly how hard the player was hit.

“It’s more of a prototype right now,” Rogers explains. “I’m working on getting it into an actual helmet or making it more usable for other sports. Concussions happen in soccer or sports where they don’t necessarily need helmets, so I’m working on making a headband.”

Rogers is a scientist at heart, but her chosen project has plunged her right into the middle of a debate that includes researchers, politicians and sports fans. As part of her project, Rogers has had to learn about the array of arguments that surround tackle football at the youth level. At the heart of the controversy is a single idea that’s anathema to some Americans: Should we get rid of football altogether?

CTE and other brain injuries are strong evidence that the rules of the game must, at the very least, be reevaluated for player safety. It’s promising that they’re already changing at both and the youth level, however slowly. In February 2017, the National Federation of State High School Associations eliminated the blindside block and “popup on-side kick” in an effort to protect players. Some argue, however, that the time has come to ban tackle football at the youth level totally.

But there will always be people who dig in their heels to protect one of America’s favorite pastimes. For instance, in Orange County, California, coaches rallied in opposition to a state-wide bill presented in 2017 that would ban tackle football. They cite changes to the rules and coach awareness that have made the game “safer than ever.”

Rogers is familiar with both of these arguments and sees her technology as a way to appease both sides.

“I know a lot of people think that the game is hard, and if you just can’t handle it than maybe you just shouldn’t play. I think this project is a win-win for both sides. If you want to change that game, that’s okay. But if you don’t, you’ll still have this device to help out.”