Jody Farias was on hand to see any parent’s nightmare scenario unfold.

She saw her son, Eli, remain on the ground after a hit in a Gardiner Youth Football game Sunday at the Topsham Fairgrounds. She heard him complain in between sobs of pain in his neck, shooting down toward his lower back. And she was with him as he was first taken to the emergency room at Maine Medical Center, then subjected to one test after another over the course of an 11-hour hospital trip.

Eli Farias holds on to a football during a Gardiner youth football game Sunday against a Brunswick Area Youth Football League team at the Topsham Fairgrounds field. Contributed photo

It was a scare, but ultimately, little more. Eli, 11, was home that night, back in school Monday and watching practice Tuesday. But it could have been worse, and for Jody, knowing that left a mark.

“It definitely makes me worry a little bit more, especially where I feel like he’s a little more vulnerable to injury right now because he’s had that injury,” she said. “Will it happen again? That’s definitely heightened my awareness for that.”

A new study conducted by Boston University researchers suggests children 12 and under who play tackle football are at greater risk of depression and developing behavioral problems than those who take up the contact sport later. Furthermore, the study showed that these children on the gridiron could struggle with problem-solving and organization as they mature.

Jody Farias acknowledged that the latest research that links football to brain injuries is unsettling.

“It’s definitely scary to think about, for sure,” she said, adding that Eli will continue to play football. “I start reasoning it in my head and it does make sense. Their brains are still growing and there’s still room for it to move inside that skull and hit.”

Health in youth football — including high school — is ongoing discussion, and the subject is in the forefront again as participation numbers dwindle nationwide.

While data on youth football participation is unavailable in Maine, the Washington Post reported that flag football has seen an increase of 225,000 players nationwide in the last three years. According to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, participation in tackle football among 6- to 12-year-old boys has dropped a whopping 20 percent.

Although these statistics indicate a shift away from the sport, some parents are unfazed by the latest research, saying that more attentive coaches and program directors keep their confidence high.

“It’s worrisome to hear something like (the study). But all the people who get them fitted for their equipment have all gone through extensive certifications. That’s enough to ease my mind,” said Winslow’s Katie Hall, whose son, Benjamin, plays on the 3rd- and 4th-grade team. “On the (program’s) Facebook page, they have actually posted articles concerning this, and most of them have said you only see those types of cognitive impairments in people who have been hit multiple, multiple times.”

“The biggest thing for our kids is if the coaches suspect a concussion, they’re on the bench, or they’re on the way to the hospital,” added Jessica Fortin, whose son Liem plays alongside Hall. “Either way, they have to be re-checked before they can even return to the sport.”

Chris Sementelli, the program manager for Maine General Sports Medicine, said safety today is a much larger concern at all football levels then compared to decades ago.

“You have to put it all into context,” he said. “You’re taking people in their 50s who played football under different rules and competed with equipment that was substandard. Would you see that same result 40 years from now? It’s really hard to say if it’s relevant to today’s game, but there’s interesting data that needs to be studied.”

Sementelli added that he sees more student athletes with concussions from soccer, but added the larger number of students playing that sport is a factor.

“All sports have an inherent risk,” he said.

Sementelli said Maine General offers free classes for youth sports coaches, covering first aid and how to be aware of head injuries.

“We spend a lot of time on head injuries. We’re taking a pro-active approach.”

A Gardiner youth football player hits a pad during practice Wednesday in Gardiner. Staff photo by Andy Molloy

METHOD OF SAFETY

Area youth football program directors say there is increased focus on head injuries and that it has pressured those in the sport to find new ways to make the game safer.

“If you’re not going to step up and look at proper techniques or classes for coaches or whatever, then you’re not going to have a youth program,” Brunswick Area Youth Football League president Dean Jusseaume said. “So it’s put pressure under us, but it’s been good pressure because everybody’s gotten on board and said ‘hey, this is a much better way of doing it.’ ”

Isaac LeBlanc runs Waterville’s youth football program through the Alfond Youth Center. LeBlanc said his league has focused on safety through proper coaching for four years. Each youth coach in Waterville must get health and safety certified through a USA Football online course, and each much take a refresher clinic with LeBlanc before the start of each season. In the summer, LeBlanc attends a USA Football master training class so he can update his coaches on any safety developments.

“In past generations, there was not that type of structure,” LeBlanc said. “Where safety is not considered a priority, there is a greater risk of injury.”

LeBlanc added that proper technique is paramount to keeping players safe.

“The head does not need to be a part of that. We’re not teaching kids to stick their heads right into a guy’s chest. That’s not a good thing,” LeBlanc said.

A player in a knee brace listens to Gardiner youth football coach Dan Burgess during practice Wednesday night. Staff photo by Andy Molloy

It’s the same in Gardiner, where all coaches are likewise certified, many going through clinics at Bates or Colby College, and where the technique has been shaped by the same USA Football guidelines in use at Waterville.

“It’s always eyes up, it’s never ‘put your helmet on the ball,’ it’s never ‘put your head in front to lead for a block,’ none of that stuff,” Gardiner Youth Football president Dan Burgess said. “We don’t use the word ‘head’ anymore. We took the word ‘head’ out of it completely. … It’s pretty much the standard across the state.”

LeBlanc acknowledges nothing can guarantee 100 percent safety, but he stands by Waterville’s track record since it began using USA Football-sanctioned instruction. The league has not had a player suffer a medically diagnosed concussion in four years, LeBlanc said.

“It helps parents if they see there’s a method to the coaching,” LeBlanc said. “We’re not letting a volunteer just show up and have the kids knocking heads.”

Burgess said Gardiner also hasn’t seen a concussion at the 3-4 or 5-6 levels in the three years he’s been president, and said that switching to safer air helmets has helped, in addition to technique adjustments.

“All of our new helmets that we purchased over the last three or four years, we send them out every year to be inspected by the manufacturer,” he said. “The helmet has a seven-year shelf life, they warranty it and we have coverage due to insurance and things for the helmet as long as it’s certified every year.”

The work done to make football safer has been extensive, Jusseaume said, and he added that that progress often gets overshadowed with each alarming study that comes out.

“It aggravates us because all we ever get is a negative. We never hear that you helped develop these kids into something they never thought they could be,” he said. “I’ve been with the program for over 10 years, and it’s night and day now. Ten years ago, it was let’s slap on the equipment and let’s go, smashmouth football.

“Football, as any sport, is as safe as the program and the coaches are going to teach it, and what they’re going to put into the program.”

People appear to be listening. Burgess said Gardiner’s numbers have started to tick back up after an initial hit, and Jusseaume said he thinks Brunswick’s — and the state’s — will rise as well.

“I think you’re going to see a rebound in the numbers,” he said. “Probably not huge, but I think you’re going to see a steady increase over the next few years of football players coming back.”