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Nashua school official questions tackle football's future

Union Leader Correspondent

April 03. 2018 9:32PM
Cooper Doucette, paralyzed during a 2010 football practice, is shown during his 2013 graduation from Nashua High School North. (MARK BOLTON/UNION LEADER FILE)

NASHUA — Several months after the city paid a $1.3 million settlement to a former high school football player paralyzed during a 2010 practice, a school board member says the district should discuss transitioning from tackle football to flag football.

“One is more than enough,” board member Howard Coffman said of the injury that left Cooper Doucette, then a sophomore at Nashua High School North, paralyzed.

About 25 high school athletes attended a recent Board of Education policy committee meeting where Coffman expressed his concerns. Several of the football players voiced their thoughts, stressing that they feel safe and well-coached to handle tackle football.

At the start of the meeting, Coffman said, “I would like to have the school consider moving toward a recommendation of the National Football League as it projects toward youth sports, which is something like a transition to flag football or tag football or whatever is appropriate.”

However, he stressed that there is currently no proposed policy requesting the change.

Referring to Doucette’s injury, Coffman said, “On my watch as a board member, I don’t want any student to face that. We shouldn’t be in a situation where we are doing anything to encourage that.”

The district’s head athletic trainer, Jerry Holland, said that in the 28 years he has been with the district, there have only been two significant neck injuries — Doucette’s, and another incident in which a hockey player broke his neck more than two decades ago but returned to the ice six months later.

Impact testing and concussion protocol have been implemented since Doucette’s accident, Holland said; athletic awareness nights are held to discuss safety issues and emergency action plans are in place.

“Obviously, safety is key. We try to minimize (injuries) as much as we can with the equipment, strength and conditioning aspect, coaching aspect, decrease in the amount of actual contact during a practice — it is nothing like it used to be,” Holland said.

Director of Athletics Lisa Gingras echoed those comments, saying football players are aware of “heads up” tackling skills that are strongly and repeatedly emphasized by coaches.

In addition, she said new rules this fall will slightly delay the start of the football practice in August, explaining no contact will be allowed in the first several practices. Contact drills will then be phased in.

Coffman said he has concerns about the liability to the school district and how parental consent is gathered for athletes involved in contact sports.

“The consent form is pretty extensive. Does it remove all liability of the district? Probably not,” said Gingras. Still, she said it provides permission for injured athletes to be treated.

Board member Raymond Guarino said he would strongly oppose any proposal that the district move from tackle football to flag or touch football.

“Real football, tackle football, has been part of our culture for over 100 years,” said Guarino, adding it is up to parents and their children to determine the risk.

Speaking to players and administrators who addressed the panel, Coffman said,“I am greatly impressed with the safety measures and everything you described. I am not here to kill football.” He said he was simply looking for some reassurance.

Coffman said he doesn’t foresee any changes, but he was pleased to have a productive and informative discussion on the controversial topic.

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