The concussion crisis has youth football at a crossroads but Montana’s parents and coaches want to preserve this opportunity for personal growth.
It's Saturday morning in Montana's capital city and Helena Small Fry Football games are underway. Bobbi Soper's eighth-grade son, Cole, plays tackle football for the Packers in the senior division.
"He started in flag football, I think, in first or second grade and really, really fell in love with it when he started playing tackle football in fifth grade," said Bobbi Soper.
Soper is aware of the potential risks that Cole could face while playing a full-contact sport, including concussions. HSFF said it tests players for brain injuries throughout the season.
"I do appreciate the fact that, as far as I've noticed, they haven't taken chances. If there's concern that a kid has gotten hit too hard and they may possibly have concussion they immediately jump on it and make sure that kid is screened," said Bobbi Soper.
A recent study from Boston University found that athletes who played tackled football before they were 12 were twice as likely to have behavioral issues later in life and three times more likely to suffer from depression.
HSFF Vice President and head coach Brian Michelotti said altogether about 500 kids from the fifth to eighth grade play in the program's junior and senior divisions.
"We're evolving. The sport of football is evolving. We understand that and we want to make it a safer and better game for everybody across our community," said Brian Michelotti.
Michelotti said the league is a member of USA Football, which offers resources to programs across the country to help make their games safer.
Helena High School head athletic trainer Paul Cullen said communication is key to diagnosing potential brain injuries.
"Not every headache that you have is a concussion. There's tons of symptoms that you can get that don't mean that you're concussed and I think to get it checked out and make sure that, hey, nothing's going on, you're okay to play, I think that's the smartest thing. Not every game is the Super Bowl and I think being safe and having fun is really the key," said Bengals head athletic trainer Paul Cullen.
Michelotti and Soper both said small fry football is a unique opportunity for their kids to grow and that is also why it must evolve.
"Our team keeps getting better and that's football and why we love it so much. That's why it's so important for us to make this a safer game," said Brian Michelotti.
"He's learned about hard work and discipline and good sportsmanship and those things have been as much of a focus as, you know, being competitive and winning. If I felt like my child was really at risk I wouldn't allow him to play. I just wouldn't," said Bobbi Soper.
The HSFF season wraps up Thursday, October 19th, with Championship Night for all divisions at Vigilante Stadium in Helena.