Family 411: How young is too young to play football?

A youth football team. Photo: WJLA

CINCINNATI (WJLA) -- It's a debate going on in kitchens and family rooms across America. Should my son be allowed to play football? And how young is too young?

Becki Vieth's 11-year-old son Wyatt's been pushing his parents to play football since he was little.

Becki says, "He played select soccer and we waited as long as we could. Safety was my number one concern."

Now Becki and her husband are letting him play on a brand new team. Coaches of the Bandits are Heads Up certified through USA Football, the NFL's youth development arm. The training involves teaching coaches the proper way to tackle, hydrate, and concussion awareness.

Concussion awareness is changing the way parents look at football, but it's also changing the way kids are being trained for the sport. Training and safety are key because the Centers for Disease Control says more than half of all kids sports injuries are preventable.

NFL star Andrew Whitworth didn't play football until eighth grade. He says he and his wife and have decided they don't want their two sons to play until they're in high school.

Dr. Selena Hariharan of Cincinnati Children's Hospital says younger kids' necks aren't as strong, the muscles and their joints aren't as strong, they still have significantly open growth plates. How young is too young?

Dr. Hariharan says younger than 14. While there is a movement toward saving tackle football for older ages, certified Player Safety Coach Erik Johnson, the father of ten and eight year old players, disagrees.

Johnson says, "I think teaching them at this age and getting them to understand the importance of keeping their head up and making proper tackles is going to reduce the amount of concussions."

Troy Fryman, President of Northern Kentucky Youth Athletics, says, "The biggest thing we're dealing with is parents awareness."

No matter what families decide, Dr. Hariharan says parents should look for teams with trainers or player safety coaches and a policy of taking injured kids off the field.

"And then watch closely and make sure they follow through on what they say they're doing," says Hariharan.

She also says kids playing contact sports like football should get a baseline neurological exam.

Becki says her son's coaches do practice what they preach, and she's already seeing the lessons even doctors agree are learned from sports.

She added, "I'm looking for him to work with others and carry that on through life."