For as long as he can remember, football has been a part of Windarek Stewart's life. First as a player, including as one of the top playmakers on Tyner's 1997 state championship team, and for the last 12 years as coach of the 11-12 year-old Brainerd Bills in the River City Youth League.
And while Stewart never suffered a concussion during his playing days, he understands the added attention and concern over the long-term effects of head injuries. Two years ago, in an instant, Stewart stopped being coach and became another concerned parent when his son, Tyrik, took a hard shot to the head from two defenders.
"That was the scariest thing that's ever happened to me in football," Stewart said. "It sounded awful and looked really bad. We sat him down and had him looked over and had a doctor check him out before we let him come back.
"As a coach and a parent, you know people are trusting you with their kids and you never want to take a chance on having a player get seriously injured."
The growing concern over head injuries led the TSSAA to adopt the nation's strictest concussion rule two years ago, not allowing a player showing concussion symptoms to return to action until examined and cleared by a doctor. TSSAA executive director Bernard Childress led the charge for that proactive step after learning that seven high school players in North Carolina had died the year before from second-impact syndrome.
And now new legislation is likely to be passed by Tennessee lawmakers that will ensure that youth-league players will be under the same protection from multiple concussions. The proposal, which is similar to laws already passed in 42 other states, unanimously passed the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday and is headed to the Senate floor. While it would cover players in every athletic event, football is the sport where head injuries most commonly occur.
"In my time as a coach I see maybe two kids get concussions every year," Stewart said. "Very few of those kids, at that age, move fast enough and are willing to collide hard enough for a concussion to happen. But this rule is common sense to me. At our level, the game is about the kids having fun and being safe.
"We already sat out any kid we thought had a concussion and didn't let them practice or play again until a doctor had cleared them, so I'm glad every team and every kid will have the same rule for safety now."
Stephen has covered local sports in the tri-state area for more than 20 years, starting at the News-Free Press as a 19-year-old reporter. He has been with the Times Free Press since its inception and has been an assistant sports editor since 2005. Stephen is among the most decorated writers in the TFP’s newsroom, winning numerous state, regional and national writing awards. He was named one of the top 10 sports writers in the nation ...