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Former Cowboy Newton: Concussion prevention must begin early

Former Dallas Cowboys All-Pro Guard Nate Newton has some words for parents who have casually allowed their child to play football until high school, at which point they become concerned about head injuries.

“If you’re not going to teach kids how to tackle properly in Pop Warner and you’re not going to teach them how to tackle properly in middle school – and then you start worrying about it in high school, it’s a little bit too late,” Newton said.

The three-time Super Bowl champion spoke at Texas A&M University-Commerce on Sept. 24. Newton’s presentation was part of the school’s celebration of Recovery Month, which promotes the benefits of prevention, treatment and recovery from substance abuse and mental health disorders.

The Centers for Disease Control estimates that nearly 200,000 children and teenagers are treated in emergency rooms annually for concussions suffered during sports. In 2001, the Texas Legislature passed a bill requiring that high school athletes in football and other sports get medical clearance before returning to play.

When asked his thoughts on the increasing attention to head-injury risk in youth football, Newton emphasized that habits formed during childhood could determine the neurological health of the child as an older youth or adult.

“I think we should get away from whether somebody is winning or losing in junior high and below,” Newton said. “Get into fundamentals. Get into the basic skills of tackling, the basic skills of teaching the kid how to tackle, the basic skills on blocking, the basic skills on toting the ball right – then you would have a safer game.”

Newton was blunt in cautioning parents to take responsibility for their child’s safety while participating in youth sports programs.

“You got males out there with big egos who want to tell me how many Pop Warner championships they’ve won,” Newton said. “And then you got organizations that are making money. As long you’re making money, they don’t care about your kid.”

Newton speaks from personal experience as a football parent. Nate Newton III, known by his nickname Tre’, starred at running back for Southlake Carroll High School during the Dragons’ back-to-back championship seasons of 2005-06. Tre’ Newton then continued his football career at the University of Texas.

As a Longhorn, the younger Newton was the featured back on a 13-1 team that won the Big XII Conference and didn’t lose until falling in the BCS National Championship Game against Alabama. But midway through his sophomore season, Newton suffered his seventh concussion in nine years. Disoriented during a game at Kansas State, Newton was taken out of the game. Days later, he was out of the sport.

“When my son decided to stop playing football for the University of Texas, I was happy,” Nate Newton said. “And I was even more proud of the University of Texas when they told him that ‘Hey, we’ll honor your scholarship.’”

Newton didn’t cite head injuries or physical problems as a reason for his post-career troubles, which included a prison term for selling marijuana. Some National Football League players, such as former Atlanta Falcons running back Jamal Anderson, have admitted using cannabis for pain relief. Newton said his interest in the plant was strictly financial.

“I was selling it,” Newton said. “When I was selling drugs, I was in it for the money.”

Today, Newton has become active in the self-improvement community. Having lost his once-famous belly through lifestyle changes and bariatric surgery, Newton now is a personal trainer for the Kim Bariatric Institute. Newton has also become a public speaker on topics of personal responsibility and lifestyle changes – among the subjects he addressed during his presentation in Commerce.

“You can make these decisions and you can walk through life and think there won’t be consequences,” Newton said. “But everything you do, good or bad, there will be consequences.”

Newton played professional football from 1983-1999 and was with the Dallas Cowboys 1986-1998. He appeared in six Pro Bowls while with Dallas and was named an All-Pro in 1994 and 1995.

Raw audio: Former Dallas Cowboy Nate Newton describes playing football properly and preventing head injury at KETR on Sept. 24. (KETR/Mark Haslett)