The death of a sophomore running back in Linden. A severe spinal cord injury for a senior out of Holmdel. Controversy surrounding an NFL player's return to the field after suffering head trauma. All in the matter of one week.

The spate of concerns has once again sparked a debate in New Jersey over the risks of putting kids on the football field.

Figures suggest there are fewer students participating in the high-collision sport at the high school level. But advocates suggest the sport is safer than ever, thanks in part to updates made over the past few years, even weeks.

"When I look at the large scope of everyone who's playing the sport across the country and across the world ... I feel strongly that it's still a safe sport to play," Dr. Jason Krystofiak, medical director of the Matthew J. Morahan III Health Assessment Center for Athletes of RWJBarnabas Health, said of football.

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Krystofiak said he's getting more questions from parents of late, related to safety concerns surrounding football. The most popular question he receives: would you let your own kid play football?

"The answer is yes. It's always been yes. It's always going to be yes," Krystofiak said.

Guidelines adopted by the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association in 2019, and touted by the association as the most restrictive in the nation, significantly cut down the amount of time that teams can spend on full-contact drills in a week. There had already been a ban on full contact during spring and summer practices in the Garden State.

This September, according to, high school quarterbacks were afforded more protection with a rule that says they no longer have to throw in the vicinity of a receiver when outside the tackle box in order to avoid intentional grounding. Advocates suggest this could reduce the number of big hits absorbed by QBs.

"Where we were years ago, to where we are now, is really leaps and bounds," Krystofiak said.

Down from more than 25,800 in the 2009-2010 academic year, about 21,700 high school students participated in 11-player football throughout the Garden State in 2021-2022, according to the National Federation of High School Associations. Taking the coronavirus pandemic out of the equation, participation counts declined each year from 2013-2014 through 2018-2019.

Catastrophic or fatal injuries in high school football are "extremely rare," Michael Cherenson, spokesman for the NJSIAA, told us following a pair of headline tragedies in the state.

When injuries occur, the "NJSIAA works with the NFHS Sports Medicine Advisory Committee and the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research to collect information that can be used to assess potential rule and policy revisions – all in an effort to keep student-athletes as safe as possible," Cherenson said.

Xavier McClain, a sophomore at Linden High School, suffered a brain injury during a September 9 game against Woodbridge and succumbed to his injuries days later. On Sept. 23, Saint John Vianney High School senior Aaron Van Trease was airlifted to a hospital for a spinal cord injury he suffered while attempting to make a tackle.

An online fundraiser that had collected more than $133,400 as of Monday evening noted that Van Trease is recovering from surgery that removed a fractured vertebrae.

With previous reporting from Erin Vogt

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