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Tony Bartolomeo and his family stopped to grab a bite to eat a few weeks ago at Wendy's.

The good food and family time, however, got a blindside hit soon after sitting down.

The Lake Central football coach looked up at the flatscreen television and in an instant his blood started to boil. He couldn't hear what the news report was saying, but he saw the headline across the screen.

"Football causes brain damage."

"There is a media assault on football right now," Bartolomeo said.

A recent study from Boston University on 202 former football players showed that most suffered from some sort of brain disease linked to repeated blows to the head.

The 2015 release of the movie "Concussion," in which Will Smith played Dr. Bennet Omalu, a forensic pathologist who uncovered chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, in former NFL players highlighted the studies.

But Bartolomeo and most defenders of America's most popular sport point out that those studies were done on men who played the game at a different time when lack of knowledge put player's health in severe danger.

"Football has never been safer than it is now," Bartolomeo said.

School coaches and administration are trained on how to detect concussions extremely early. There are limits to the days when teams can hit, unlike the old days. Helmet technology has evolved to a place where the head is protected like never before.

These alterations do not change the fact that football is a tough, violent sport.

"I love this sport," Lowell coach Keith Kilmer said on opening day of the season. "We're doing everything we can to make it safe and keep it alive."

Coaches say that the news stories and movies are taking a toll in the United States. Youth football numbers have dropped over the last five years. National Federation of State High School Associations reported a drop of 25,901 participants in the sport during the 2016-17 school year.

Football is a numbers game in the Region, too. Fighting the decline in total players around the area is a big part of the overall game plan.

"We're a little down but our numbers are good," Kilmer said. "But the coaches I've talked to in our area say it's a problem. It's something we're going to have to deal with. Football isn't an easy sport.

"But I think it's the greatest sport there is."

Several members of The Times Preseason All-Area team agree with Lowell's coach. They've read the articles and seen the movies, but they cannot wait for opening night, which will kick off on Friday.

Portage quarterback Anthony Maceo understands there is a risk involved under the Friday night lights.

"At first I was kind of worried, it shows how serious of a sport football is," Maceo said. "I try to play smart, do the right things. I think everyone is doing the same thing. But if there has to be contact, you just have to do what you've got to do."

Former Steelers' lineman Mike Webster was the first player studied in the movie "Concussion." Constant hits every day in the old days certainly play a part in Webster's demise.

Chesterton center Alex Scott doesn't listen to the studies.

"I just play the game," Scott said. "If you love the game that much then it won't affect you that much. I get hit in the head on Friday nights. I don't notice it. It's not like I get dizzy."

Merrillville's coaching staff took a day after the report came out to reteach the fundamentals of tackling.

The Pirates' Justen Ramsey, a junior defensive lineman, said assistant coach Josh Sabinas worked for quite awhile teaching how to tackle without leading with your head, a more rugby-style approach to taking down the opponent.

"He told us if you (tackle) the right way it won't happen," Ramsey said.

Chesterton certified athletic trainer Bernie Stento said in January that treating concussions has helped limit the overall damage.

"Football is not this horrible, evil thing," he said. "We feel there's a great benefit to playing. You hear really scary things in the news, but there are thousands who have recovered when it's handled properly. You never hear about all the kids who continue their careers and go on to become doctors or lawyers. Despite all the negative things, you shouldn't take one person's perspective and make it the rule for everybody in the sport."

Lowell's Jordan Jusevitch, an Indiana recruit, has been one of the Region's top players the last few seasons. The senior defensive back plays the game hard and doesn't just tackle, but he hits foes hard.

He's as old school as a leather helmet. Consequently, recent attacks on football do not faze him.

At all.

"It doesn't concern me," Jusevitch said. "You just have to play through it. You're going to have your headaches. I don't let it bother me. Some guys use this as a reason to miss practice.

"I love playing football and my brain is pretty good. That's it."

It isn't just health concerns that are crunching the numbers of the game. Year-round travel baseball and basketball has taken many away from the game.

IHSAA commissioner Bobby Cox understands that in some ways football isn't trending up in America. Is this a cycle or a long-term issue? Only time will tell.

"Football in the state of Indiana has never been better," Cox said.

While some states' participation numbers are dropping, Indiana's numbers have stayed level for several years. There are 325 schools competing in this year's state tournament, the highest number in history.

Football revenue in Indiana is also at an all-time high, along with money returned to the schools during the tournament.

Cox credited the IFCA for coming up with a plan to make the game safer a few years back and the changing of rules has reduced contact during the week.

"There's always going to be scrutiny and that's fine," Cox said. "I'm not sure there are more concussions today than before or are we better at detecting them. I know we are a whole lot better than we used to be."

Zach Prairie has seen lower numbers at Kankakee Valley, but he and his coaching staff are working hard to keep the game alive. They are putting flag football in place at the younger levels, so smaller kids are learning the game and finding the joy of it without contact at the start.

The old-school Neanderthal drills like "Hamburgers" or "Oklahoma" are no longer a part of daily practice.

"We all are concerned about the kids we coach," Prairie said. "But these studies, I don't think, are absolute. You have to question how they selected those who participated in it? Or did they all experience head trauma before the study? We all have to ride this negative publicity and see the game grow."

One thing is for sure: on Friday the stadiums around the Region will be packed as communities come together to celebrate their teams and collective heritage. The same will occur when the college and NFL seasons begin.

"Football isn't going anywhere," Kilmer said. "We just have to take care of it and the kids who play it. I love this game and I know the guys on my team do, too."


Sports Reporter

Steve has won awards during two different stints at The Times. In addition to being the Prep Beat columnist, he covers football, boys basketball and boys track. He is a long-suffering Cubs fan.