By Stephanie Gosk, Tracy Connor, Aliza Nadi, Hannah Rapplaye, TODAY.com
After 25 years of playing football, six of them in the NFL, former Minnesota Viking Greg DeLong feels like a "walking time bomb" who could end up with brain disease from all the hits he took on the field.
And now DeLong has another reason to worry: His 12-year-old son Jake has followed him onto the gridiron — and is part of a groundbreaking study that found brain changes in children after just one season of suiting up.
The more head blows a child sustained, the more changes were seen in their brain tissue, according to the study released Monday. The effect was seen even in young players who did not have a concussion.
Although the preliminary findings don't show whether the brain changes are permanent or will cause disease, they have some parents like DeLong questioning whether the sport is worth the risk.
"Football's important to us, but there are other things out there that are more important," he said.
Three million American kids take part in tackle football programs, and research has largely focused on the long-term effects of concussions, a form of traumatic brain injury.
A team from Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center decided to look beyond concussions to the hundreds of less serious head blows a player might receive during practices and games over the course of a season.
"This is important, particularly for children, because their brains are undergoing such rapid change, particularly in the age category from maybe 9 to 18. And we just don't know a lot of about it," said Dr. Chris Whitlow, one of the lead researchers.
The Wake Forest group studied 25 players between the ages of 8 and 13 in the South Fork Panthers youth football program in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
Each boy was given a helmet outfitted with sensors that measured the frequency and severity of impacts — 60 percent of them absorbed during practice — and transmitted the information to a laptop on the sidelines.
Dr. Alex Powers, a pediatric neurologist involved in the research, said it was surprising to see how forceful the grade-schoolers' hits were.
"They are hitting at extremely high levels," he said.
The collected data was analyzed against pre-season and post-season MRIs of the players' brains. The high-tech scans looked for tiny changes in white matter, which is the tissue that connects the neuron-rich gray matter, the researchers said.
"We have detected some changes in the white matter," Whitlow said. "And the importance of those changes is that the more exposure you have to head impacts, the more change you have."
Archbishop Murphy High School of Everett, Wash., has six players who weigh-in at least 250 pounds, along with three who weigh at least 300 pounds, prompting many parents and schools to raise safety concerns.
Controversy is brewing in Texas over the sky-high cost of high school football stadiums that has some critics saying the money would be better spent on education.