EAST PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — When one East Providence High School football player left a game with a head injury this fall, volunteer coach Shane Messier said the player was told to sit out for three weeks to ensure he was okay.

Messier, who’s also a parent to one of the team’s players as well as the school’s assistant principal, said it’s unlikely that would have happened back when he began coaching in 2005, a time when an injured player likely would have stayed in the game.

“We took him out, and then a week later, he kept getting headaches,” Messier said. “There was definitely an issue there that wouldn’t have been identified before.”

The shift in approach to play safety may be one reason participation in tackle football is on the rise again in many of Rhode Island’s largest school districts. The number of students playing in Providence, Pawtucket, East Providence, Cumberland and West Warwick are all at or near record highs.

Though down from five years ago, Cranston is on the upswing again, while Warwick and Woonsocket saw slight decreases in their rosters.

(Story continues below.)

Target 12 reported in 2019 that tackle football numbers were decreasing statewide due to fears over concussions and other injuries.

In East Providence, the high school team dropped to 60 student athletes in 2019. This fall, it spiked to 88 players — the most since at least 2014.

Messier said after former NFL players Junior Seau and Aaron Hernandez died in 2012 and 2017, respectively, the team saw numbers decline.

Both Seau and Hernandez were found to have Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease linked to repeated blows to the head. In October, the National Institutes of Health acknowledged for the first time that there’s a link between head trauma and CTE. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recognized the link for years.

“I think a lot of the parents got a little bit afraid to let their kids play,” Messier said.

But he said recent changes to player safety, especially at practices, may be reversing those declines in Rhode Island.

Whereas all practices were full contact in 2005, Messier said, only about 10% of practice was full contact this fall, and he said coaches are required to go through many more trainings on concussions than even a few years ago.

Those changes made him comfortable when his son snapped on a helmet for the first time last year.

“When he started to play, I didn’t have any concerns, because I love the game,” Messier said. “If he does get injured, we know how to deal with it now.”

‘You’re just a little dazed’

Jason DeLawrence has coached football for 22 years, and he’s been the head coach at Tolman High School in Pawtucket since 2015.

“Especially when I played, it was, ‘rub some dirt on it and go play some football,'” DeLawrence said of his years playing growing up and in college at URI. “You’re just a little dazed.”

He said if a player is injured these days, they’re out, and he instructs parents to reach out if their son is hiding an injury.

“Sometimes a kid won’t tell me that they’re hurt or they have a headache, because they want to be the big, bad guy,” DeLawrence said. “But they’ll go home and tell their mom.”

Tolman had 60 players this fall, double the number it had in 2019 and the most its seen since at least 2012.

“Now it’s more scripted, you know we have maybe a 10-minute live period — that’s it,” DeLawrence said. “And then everything else is just technique.”

‘We’re almost never in full pads’

At Central High School in Providence, head coach Mike Washington has seen the program doubled from 40 players in 2017 — his first year coaching at his alma mater — to 80 student athletes this fall.

“It’s very different than how they were before, we’re almost never in full pads,” Washington said.

Washington, DeLawrence and Messier also mentioned two other factors potentially helping football’s resurgence statewide: students couldn’t wait to get back outside after years of the pandemic, and the NFL is still the most popular sport to watch.

But while Washington agreed that precautions have improved the game’s safety, he admits that precaution isn’t the same as prevention. He noted that while practices can be a controlled environment, most player collisions happen in games.

“That stuff you can’t control,” Washington said.

When asked if the safety improvements have led to fewer head injuries than five years ago, Washington said, “I think if you play, you run the risk. Just like if you drive a car, you run the risk.”

“That’s just the risk you run when you do play football, unfortunately,” he added.

Tolly Taylor (ttaylor@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for 12 News. Connect with him on Twitter and on Facebook