TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - Teamwork and camaraderie are just some of the life lessons learned every time Stephanie Mustain's boys strap on their helmet, pads and cleats.
"They're very much learning to be a part of something," she said.
Mustain, a mother of two youth football players for the Oro Valley Dolphins and Cheer Organization, is also the business manager for one of her boys' division team.
She's also one the hundreds of encouraging parents on the football field sidelines. And some of those parents may go beyond supportive encouragement.
Julius Holt, Commissioner of the Tucson Youth Football and Spirit Federation, spoke about the parents who push kids to participate.
"I would say 80-90 percent of the time, and it could be higher. I've found that some of our kids play because they have the desire, and they want to play. Then you find that there are some parents who want their kids to play because - they won't admit this - but they're trying to live vicariously through their own children."
Is that encouragement dangerous?
A tackle football study says bigger problems later on that come from playing earlier.
"In anything you do with children, obviously, safety is a huge concern. We don't put our children into anything lightly," Mustain said. "We definitely do pay attention to (the studies.) You can get injured doing a lot of things."
Released in September by Boston University, the study said children who started playing tackle football before the age of 12 had more behavioral and cognitive issues later in life than those who started after the age of 12.
"A growing number of scientists argue that because the human brain develops rapidly at young ages, especially between 10 and 12, children should not play tackle football until their teenage years," a New York Times report on the study explained.
And in a league full of young brains, with about 2,500 football players and 2,500 cheerleaders in 15 total associations, Holt says he puts a premium on safety.
He said he's reliant on his coaches to attend at least four clinics. He explained that two are not mandatory, while two others are. The mandatory clinics are run jointly by the TYFSF and USA Football, and teach everything from recognizing concussions and cardiac arrest, to stressing the importance of hydration and the proper fitting of uniforms.
According to Holt, TYFSF protocol says that if a player suffers a head injury, they are immediately out for a week to 10 days, and the child can't come back and play until they are given the all-clear by their personal doctor.
When asked if Holt trusts his coaches to implement these techniques, he said, "I have to."
Mustain said, "We trust them to do that. If we didn't trust them, they wouldn't be here."
Her husband is also one of the assistant coaches on her son's Oro Valley Dolphins team.
The numbers show some parents won't take the risk.
The Boston University study comes as Tucson's youth leagues and high schools are taking a notable hit to their participation.
A 2016 ESPN report shows that participation in tackle football by boys of ages 6 to 12 has fallen by nearly 20 percent since 2009, though it rose 1.2 percent, to 1.23 million, in 2015.
Holt said the concussion studies haven't hurt their numbers and youth involvement. But just this season, according to Holt, one association folded.
The Foothills Chargers "just didn't have enough kids to create teams," Holt said.
"Registration becomes an issue, or kids decide to go other places and play, or trying to get people to volunteer to take on a program; it's a lot of work."
Those football fears have bled into the high school ranks, as well.
During an interview with Sahuarita Unified School District's two high school football teams, Sahuarita and Walden Grove, as they introduced their new robotic tackling dummy designed to reduce concussions, the head coaches said they hear directly from parents.
"Some of the concerns we heard from parents, and I've heard from parents this year, was the safety concerns, the concussion risks, and all those types of things," Walden Grove Head Coach Corey Noble said.
It's why both coaches admitted their participation numbers are slightly struggling.
This school year, Walden Grove has about 34-38 student-athletes on the varsity team. Sahuarita has about 24 student-athletes playing varsity football.
Sahuarita Head Coach Rodney Day said he and his staff were either unaware of long-term concussion-related issues and studies, or had not heard many, as of five years ago.
"Five years ago, we were flipped. We were sitting at about the 35-38 range with all three squads covered. This year, we can't even field a JV squad."
The Sahuarita Unified School District has decided to let technology provide some health relief.
In October, the district debuted its new Mobile Virtual Player robotic tackling dummies. During a news conference, a spokesman for the company said studies show the equipment reduces concussions for players by 60 percent.
They're used by several NFL teams, and mandated in some college conferences, to lower the number of player-on-player hits during practice.
The SUSD coaches had them for less than a week when they talked to Tucson News Now on Oct. 10, and they were already seeing the benefits.
"I can see results in practice from the legs and stuff like that. We're not repping (repeating) tackles on somebody's body constantly. We're down to about 24 varsity players, so we have to be very careful about how we practice," Day said.
The University of Arizona is one college football program that has purchased the Mobile Virtual Player.
Arizona Wildcats Head Football Coach Rich Rodriguez said in a testimonial on the company's website, "I think it is the greatest piece of football equipment that has been invented in the last couple years. I think it's the cat's meow. We could use it for a lot of things: tackling drills, pass rush - probably every NFL team has them - and we have five of them. I told my coaches that they are expensive and very valuable, so they should use them and I think they will."
For the Sahuarita district, the robots cost $8,200 each, and they purchased one for each high school.
"I'm sure there's a lot of science behind it, but it's really a simple idea. Get players in general, but in our case high school students, to tackle a dummy that's moving versus another human being, just reduces that on-field 1-on-1 contact between players," SUSD Board President John Sparks said. "It's pretty cool, I have to admit, and it reduces injuries."
Sparks also admitted there was some discussion among board members over the cost. He said some funds came from personal donations, and incidental donations to the district.
But he says SUSD, through various programs, puts a premium on getting their athletes to be able to focus on their studies after an injury. It's why they knew these robots would be beneficial despite their price tag.
"It's one thing to be able to run around on the field again," Sparks said. "But it's a different thing to be able to concentrate in class, under lights, at a very high level of focus when you've had a brain injury."
For the coaches, it's a matter of being able to keep healthy players on the field, as well.
"Our numbers are pretty good," Noble said. "But it's not enough that we can just beat up on each other for no reason or anything like that."
WHEN ENOUGH IS ENOUGH
While she's involved in the Oro Valley Dolphins, and as long as her two young sons are still active in the program, Mustain knows their health is a priority.
"To me, as a parent, we've made the decision. If we suffered an injury, they would highly likely be done for the season and we would reevaluate the following year," she said. "Because they're not getting college scholarships at 11 years old."
The commissioner of the federation realizes that these children come in to play with the hope of following in the NFL superstars' footsteps.
But even he knows that there is a miniscule chance of success.
"Everybody wants to live that dream of saying, 'I'm going to the next level,' be it high school, college, or the pros. But in reality, we're talking about a 1 percent chance or 1 percent opportunity for kids to come out of college and make it to the pros," Holt said.
The Boston University findings are more evidence of an existential crisis for football and youth participation, the New York Times report states.
"Pop Warner, the most established youth football organization in the country, has reduced the amount of contact in practice – where the majority of head hits occur – and changed game rules, including banning kickoffs, one of the most dangerous plays in the game," it said.
The typical TYFSF practice schedule, according to Holt, is two days in full pads with one lighter day of practice not in full pads. Games are on Saturdays.
But if it's the life lessons Mustain is wanting to instill in her children, she knows that teamwork and camaraderie can still be learned off the field - without the hits.
"If enough is enough, it will be enough," she said. "I will tell you if my child got a head injury, he would still finish the season - on the sidelines."