High school football injuries have dropped for the third straight year, that's according to new data obtained exclusively by FOX 7. The majority of high school football injuries, according to the University Interscholastic League report, took place during games and not practices. Most did not require a trip to the hospital. And while the number of cases is trending downward, state officials are still looking for ways to make the game safer.
Winning a championship ring is a dream for most high school football players. 18 year old Nolan Foster has one but he paid a heavy price for it; the game itself.
"It was very hard, very hard on myself, still is," said Foster.
Before the 2012 state championship game Nolan Foster, who was a Cedar Park running back, had already suffered two concussions. The last one kept him bed ridden for 3 days.
"I laid on that hospital bed my junior year and I was thinking, why am I playing this sport? It kind of woke me up."
Nolan returned to the field - but during spring drills after he took another hard hit he decided to hang up his cleats.
"It's very hard to know I'll never be in a football helmet again,"
A little more than 12,000 high school football players hurt between 2010 and 2013. The report, compiled by the University Interscholastic League, which governs high school athletics, is not from every team in the state. It's a statewide sampling where each district provided data from one of its schools. There were a little more than 5,000 injuries reported during the 2010/11 season.
The following year there were 4,000 with the downward trend continuing to 3,200 cases in 2013. A sprain, which was the most common, declined during that time period from a high of just under 1,800 cases. Concussions were the second highest rated. The number of those cases dropped from 441 to 322. Broken bones and fractures saw a reduction of about a hundred cases over the past three seasons. Dislocations had a slight increase last year - although overall the number is still lower than what was reported three years ago. Officials with the UIL say more data is needed to determine if the drop in injuries is part of a longer trend.
God, country, family, and football--that's how a lot of people rank things in Texas. That passion is also one reason why it can be difficult in making changes to the game. But recently two new safety rules were adopted.
A few years ago, a player with head injury could return to a game after sitting out for just 15 minutes. Now, the benching includes a mandatory evaluation by a doctor and no action until symptom free for 24 hours. The state also limited full contact practice to only 90 minutes a week, which many programs were already doing.
"I think we are doing thing and making strides to make the game safer," said D.W. Rutledge, the Executive Director with the Texas High School Coaches Association.
"It is a violent game and it will continue to be that," said Rutledge.
The drop in injuries, according to Rutledge, may be the result of new safety education programs that have been launched. That focus - he says- could now even include youth football leagues.
"I think there is a lot of training is need there on heads up tackling and those types of things," said Rutledge.
Rutledge is also a member of the UIL safety committee and expects to discuss the new injury report during an April meeting. He is also interested in learning more about the use of padded skull caps. It can be worn directly on a player's head during practice. Cedar Park High School is using another version - called the guardian. It covers the helmet. The Timberwolf team is the only one in Leander ISD currently testing it, although Regents, a private school in southwest Austin, has also been using it.
While the value of new devices and new rules are debated, Nolan Foster says he doesn't regret his decision to play or to walk away from the game.
"I understood it was time for me to be done, I knew that, everything football taught me, I can keep it one with life and feel like I understood it was time for me to leave and be done with football and accept that for myself," said Foster.
And for those times of regret which may crept in Foster says he looks at the inscription inside his championship ring. It reads "stay strong" and is a reminder that life is more than what is on a gridiron scoreboard.