By BILL BUELL
CAPITAL REGION — The concern over head injuries in soccer is a relatively new issue, and while a serious debate over how to best deal with them has begun, the question has lingered for Niskayuna’s Gene Whitney for a half-century.
In the fall of 1964, Whitney coached the men’s soccer team at SUNY Delhi to an undefeated season in the program’s very first year. Soon after the season was over, however, Harry Wilkerson, a key member of the Delhi team, died suddenly of a brain aneurysm. His teammates had nicknamed him “Header.”
“He was the guy who was designated to get in there on the corner kicks to try to head the ball into the goal,” said Whitney, 89 and long retired from the state Education Department. “He was very skilled at it. Sure, people die from aneurysms, it happens, but it was my feeling and others, as well, that something happened during one of our games. A lot of us felt it was caused by soccer.”
Whitney isn’t calling for any drastic rule changes, but he feels some kind of headgear — a small helmet-like item — could go a long way toward reducing the instances of head injury among soccer players. At Delhi, which honored Whitney and his unbeaten soccer team from 1964 at the school’s Athletic Hall of Fame Banquet earlier this summer, athletic director Robert Backus thinks the idea is a good one.
“We’ve done some research, talked to our soccer coaches, and when our student-athletes come back, if they or their parents are concerned about this, we will provide some kind of headband-like helmet,” said Backus. “That option will be available to them, just like a chin guard or a face mask might be. I know that sometimes in this sport the culture says you play through headers, but the safety of our players comes first, and we’re going to be proactive about this.”
Delhi opens its men’s season Sept. 10 at Hudson Valley Community College. Backus said he has no idea yet how many players might be interested in any headgear.
“We are not making it mandatory, but we will continue to promote the idea,” he said. “I met Mr. Whitney at the dinner, and he’s a very nice individual. I appreciate the passion he has about this issue.”
While there doesn’t seem to be a strong movement in the game for helmets or any other kind of headgear, people at all levels of the game are asking questions. Justin Shaginaw, trainer for the U.S. Soccer Federation, brought up his concerns about concussion protocol during the World Cup in his blog, “Sports Doc,” and FIFPro, the union for international soccer players, called for FIFA to undertake a complete and comprehensive investigation into head injuries.
In 2010, Major League Soccer created a nine-member concussion committee and changed its rules, instituting mandatory baseline neuropsychological testing for players. While Whitney is happy to see these measures taken, some only address the issue after the fact. He wants to prevent players from getting hurt in the first place.
“I know there’s not going to be a strong move toward helmets for adults, so I’m aiming my idea at the grade schools, high schools and colleges,” said Whitney, who was also a business professor at Delhi. “That second year that I coached at Delhi, I wanted to change the rules so the guys wouldn’t head the ball. I got pretty obnoxious with some of the other coaches about it, but heading is such a big part of the sport, everybody was against that.”
At the Delhi dinner, Whitney used the occasion to bring up the issue of headgear.
“This has been a cross on my mind for years, and at the banquet, I thought, ‘This is a great opportunity to bring up Harry and wearing some kind of helmet,’ ” he said. “Your experiences change you, and that changed me. I went to see his parents after he died, and we all sat there and cried. I know the older players don’t want to change things, but maybe we can get the young kids to wear something.”
Heading the ball, however, is just one way a soccer player could sustain a concussion. Often it’s a collision between two players that causes the injury, and that’s hard to prevent.
“The collisions happen a lot when two players, in an effort to head the ball, go up and collide with each other,” said Italo Carcich, director of the Capital District Youth Soccer League, which oversees competition among more than 7,000 area players ages 7 to 18. “It happens more in the older divisions, where play is much more physical. And, we don’t encourage our younger kids to head the ball. At that age, it’s more about just helping them control the ball with their feet.”
Schenectady High School boys varsity soccer coach Terrence Sloan doesn’t see any major changes coming anytime soon in regards to headgear.
“Eventually, perhaps way down the road, they could come out with some kind of helmet that is discreet, but it will probably start with the [goal]keepers,” said Sloan, in his sixth year as Patriots coach. “I don’t see the parents that involved in something like this right now, but that could change if we see more and more concussions.”
What Sloan and Carcich both stressed is the care given a player after they have bumped another player or been involved in a collision and could be hurt.
“All of our coaches go to clinics on concussions,” said Carcich. “They learn guidelines and what to do if they think a player has been hurt. If a referee sees someone is a little bit woozy, they immediately stop the game. We go to great lengths to keep the kids safe.”
At the high school level, Section II coaches also undergo training regarding concussions.
“We had a girl who had a concussion in January, and she just got cleared to play last week,” said Sloan. “Rarely do I see one of our players get a concussion, but if they do, we watch them very closely.”
Jay Cummings and Donnelly Whitehead were members of Delhi’s 1964 team coached by Whitney and attended the banquet honoring them. Both are still big fans of the game, and they remember Wilkerson as a good friend. They don’t, however, draw the same conclusion about his death.
“I thought at the time there was definitely a connection,” said Cummings, who grew up on Long Island and now lives in Queensbury. “I’m not saying that everybody should stop heading the ball, but I think this is something we should definitely start talking about as an issue. We need to bring it to the forefront.”
“I heard those comments that there was a connection, but I don’t know, so I can’t pass judgment,” said Whitehead, a lifelong Watervliet resident. “I’ve seen too many world-class soccer players head the ball and keep playing. But I do believe there could be some lightly-padded headgear, some kind of device that might reduce the shock to your head. That could be very beneficial.”
This story originally appeared in The Daily Gazette.