Near the end of a weekday practice, Sam Tams jogs to the sideline, helmet in hand. A senior outside linebacker on the Weber High School football team, he is short and stocky and speaks about the game with the macho intensity often found in those who play his position.
But despite the tough veneer he presents, Tams knows he is not invincible on the football field. While his teammates in the background repeat a punt-returning drill focused on creating a hole for the returner by sealing the punt coverage, he offers the proof.
The Warriors were playing Mountain Crest High School in the fourth game of last year's junior varsity season. Just before halftime, the Mustangs threw a swing pass in the flats. Tams' instincts flared. He sprinted for the running back. But when he hit him, their helmets collided, and Tams fell to his back, out cold.
"I couldn't even remember the whole second half," he said. "I was acting all weird, I guess, they said. I ended up having headaches for about two weeks."
It would be three weeks until Tams, who was diagnosed with a concussion, saw the field again.
As knowledge about the long-term dangers concussions have on young athletes has become more clear in recent years -- chronic traumatic encephalopathy has been increasingly linked with hits to the head -- football has been under rising pressure to keep players safe. Local high school programs have not been exempt from the scrutiny, and coaches and players in the area say prep football in the state has never been safer, despite the game's inherent risks.
"Because there's a lot more awareness and attention, we're doing a better job of managing concussions and their problems," said Ryan Bishop, who has been the head coach at Davis High School for more than a decade. "Hopefully as coaches we're doing a good job of trying to do everything we can to teach the kids to keep the head out when they can and tackle correctly. But quite honestly, my feeling is it's always been a part of football."
Bart Thompson, Utah High School Athletics Association assistant director and sports medicine coordinator, agreed with Bishop's assertion that education has been the biggest tool in increasing player safety. Players are better at recognizing the symptoms of concussions -- and more willing to disclose the symptoms, even if it means coming out of a game -- and coaches and parents have more information about what to do if a serious head injury is suspected.
Nationally, the rate of reported football concussions has increased. According to the Center for Injury Research and Policy, players nationwide were estimated to have suffered more than 153,000 concussions last season, up from 59,000 in 2006. But Thompson said it's due more to the injury being better recognized and diagnosed than a substantial rise in the actual amount of concussions: "There's a much greater degree of education of the dangers and symptoms of concussions."
In Utah, several measures have been enacted in recent years to make sure concussions are properly diagnosed and treated. According to the UHSAA website, each high school coach must take a concussion course, which helps them recognize symptoms in their players. And any player suspected of having a concussion must be cleared by a medical professional before stepping back onto the field.
Additionally, Thompson said, many programs in the state make their players take a baseline test before the season, which can then be referenced in testing after a concussion is suspected. First-year Weber High head coach Matt Hammer, for instance, said his program uses the same testing as Weber State, where he was an assistant coach for seven years prior to taking the top job with the Warriors.
"As a coach, you want to protect your kids and your players, but at the same time, you want to find out what's really going on," Hammer said. "What happened? How severe is it? That's why I like how the testing is set up."
Perhaps most importantly, though, coaches in the last several years have placed an increased focus on teaching proper tackling techniques. In theory, that prevents many concussions before they ever happen by limiting head-to-head contact.
"It's always been the same technique, but we didn't put as much emphasis on it," said Abel Porter, a senior wideout for Davis. "The emphasis on safe tackling is huge here, and we try to instill that in every player."
Kyson Filiaga, a senior defensive end/offensive guard for Weber, suffered a concussion during last wrestling season. But armed with faith that he'd get the proper treatment if he were to get another one, he has no concerns about playing football.
"There are so many precautions in place, even after you are suspected of having a concussion, that I feel safe playing," Filiaga said. "I don't feel any different playing, now that I've had a concussion."
The UHSAA meets every year to discuss additional measures to make football safer, Thompson said. One such measure that intrigues him is the implementation of better sideline diagnostic tools, which would further improve baseline testing and make recognizing concussions easier.
"That's the frustrating thing with concussions -- if a kid breaks a leg, you can see it," he said. "You can't always see it with a concussion ... We want to ensure every athlete's safety. I don't know if we can ever do that, but we'll try."
One additional step many youth leagues around the nation have taken is limiting the amount of full-contact practices teams can have each week. While there is no rule like that currently in Utah prep football, Bishop said many schools have done it on their own.
"My personal opinion is coaches are starting to be real cognizant of that," Bishop said. "Like us, we're never on the field more than 90 minutes. One reason is I want my kids healthy on Friday nights and not spending it all on Tuesday and Wednesday. I think that's another aspect of football that's evolving a little bit."
Despite the spotlight on preventing and diagnosing concussions, several players acknowledged they rarely think about head injuries while playing. They focus on safe tackling, but the fear of getting seriously hurt is absent. It's only when concussions happen that they become scary.
"When you're out on the field, you're not really thinking, 'Am I going to get a concussion?'" Porter said. "You're just thinking about playing football, so I guess it doesn't really worry me. But when you see someone else go down, it really is scary and you realize what could happen.
"We all know the risks we're taking when we go on the field to play football. We still play because we enjoy it."
Contact reporter Bubba Brown at 801-625-4221 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @BubbaBrownSE.