Quality always wins out in the end

August 6, 2013 

One of the best things about playing high school sports in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro area is the way athletes are treated like champions.

This doesn’t mean that squishy sentiment that suggests every child get a trophy just for showing up.

It means that athletes in the local school system are treated as if they’re important, valuable.

Not all that long ago, football players had to endure preseason workouts that more resemble a pre-dawn basic training session for Marines on Parris Island than it did a high school practice.

The idea, promulgated in great part by coaches who were World War II or Korean War veterans, was to drive off the weak and to make the strong even stronger. Some coaches weren’t satisfied that their players were working hard enough until at least one fainted.

And we’re not talking about bad coaches, either.

Bear Bryant infamously worked his first football team at Texas A&M – the Junction Boys – so hard in the triple-digit heat of drought-stricken, central Texas in 1954, many of the players quit. That fall, Bryant had his only losing record.

While Bryant abandoned such tactics (and wore a gold ring inscribed “The Junction Boys” until the day of his death) that bad coaching technique lasted into the 1970s.

Here in Chapel Hill, the 1971 death of lineman Billy Arnold from heat stroke following a football practice had a profound impact on college sports.

After some self-examination, football coaches changed their ways. Mandatory water breaks became the norm.

These days, local coaches treat physical training as if it were a science.

Today, the University of North Carolina’s Matthew Gfeller Sport-Related Traumatic Brain Injury Research Center sits in the Sports Medicine Center, sharing the building with the Billy Arnold Atrium.

The Gfeller Center is a perfect example of the benefits local athletes receive. Kevin Guskiewicz, who heads the center, is leading a research project that includes the monitoring of the impact to football players’ heads during practice and play.

This is top-of-the-line, state- of-the-art research. It’s not reserved for Chapel Hill High School students, but being so close makes it easy for local athletes to take part.

The Chapel Hill school system has been securing such benefits for its athletes for quite some time.

In the 1970s, Chapel Hill High’s football team was among the first to receive football helmets padded by matchbook-sized plastic pockets, inflated by air. Up to then, elastic webbing inside the helmet was considered great stuff.

The president of Riddell came to that year’s first day of workouts, personally fitting each helmet on the individual player, hand-pumping a little bulb that filled the air pockets and conformed them to the skull.

“We may not always have the prettiest uniforms,” then-head coach Bob Culton told his players as they were fitted, “but we’ll always provide you with the best equipment available.”

True, back then some players grumbled quietly about the unfashionably plain uniforms worn by CHHS teams. But they were manufactured of the highest quality possible.

They were emblematic of the commitment of the local schools to provide the best for their students.

These days, local high school athletes reap the benefits of current studies on brain injuries, UNC’s arm-injury prevention program and its ongoing research into proper physical training and therapy, just to name a few.

The project names are often a mouthful of scientific terms, sounding mundane to laymen.

But, like Chapel Hill uniforms, the quality of the work serves students well.

Warnock: 919-932-8743

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