by Tom Pedulla
Steve Yurek lacked what he needed most when he was hired before last season to coach the varsity football team at Irvington High School – players.
He inherited a program with an 18-member roster, two above the required number on game day. That was cutting it too close. He responded by posting notices around town encouraging youngsters to play and by meeting with as many parents as possible.
“I tell them ‘I’m going to take care of your son as if he’s my own,’” Yurek said, adding, “Our priority is not so much winning and losing. It’s to keep the kids healthy.”
Irvington’s roster numbers 28 this season. Yurek’s uphill climb to reach that level illustrates the difficulty some local coaches face amid increasing fears about potential devastating long-term effects from repeated concussions.
Sean McCarthy has two sons who play major roles on the Sleepy Hollow varsity, quarterback Sean and Luke, a cornerback. He admitted the games are difficult for him and his wife, Diane, to watch.
“You’re a nervous wreck from the kickoff until the end,” the father said.
The McCarthy’s wince when Sean, who is passionate about football, speaks of his desire to continue in college. “Only because of the size of the opponents and the strength of some of these athletes, it’s really scary,” McCarthy said.
At the same time, he said he and Diane have come to believe that football is helping their sons to become better men.
“They are not just learning football,” he said. “My wife and I like it that they are being taught life lessons.”
According to Yurek, he constantly draws on his playing days.
“It is a sport where you practice more for every game and you get the most out of it,” he said. “It’s a team sport. It’s not an individual sport, and you have to sacrifice a lot of time. But when you get those big wins and those big games, there is nothing like it.”
Players depend on one another for team success. If one fails, the result can be negative yardage on offense or perhaps a crucial touchdown on defense. Many players relish that aspect of the sport.
“I really choose to keep coming back every year because of the brotherhood you build on the field,” said William Waterhouse, who lives in Briarcliff and is a standout senior running back at Hackley School. “You can’t build that brotherhood anywhere else. If it were up to me, I would come back for another four years.”
Coaches and players emphasized vast differences between youth and high school football and what occurs at advanced levels.
“There’s definitely some major concern about head injuries,” said Jim Moran, who oversees 30 players as Dobbs Ferry’s varsity coach. “I have children of my own and they play football. I think the rewards far outweigh the risks. If you grow up and play high school football and after that you don’t play at the college or pro level, I think the risk of any kind of significant injury is very low.”
There is extremely little contact at local high school practices, if any. Most players lack the size, speed and strength that contributes to the punishing hits that can result in concussions in the NFL. Coaches have changed the way tackling is approached.
“Players used to be taught to get your head on the football. What that led to was players leading with their head,” said Simon Berk, who has 31 players at Hackley. “Now, in the way we teach the game and structure practices, it is fundamentally different.”