TULSA, Oklahoma - Baseball may be the national pastime, but in Oklahoma, football is king. As players, coaches and parents gear up for another season, they are facing a very real concern; the threat of concussions.

The issue first came to light in the NFL, but now studies are finding the dangers can affect younger players as well, and many teams are now taking extra precautions to keep kids safe.

The Union football program starts from the ground up. Many of the 6th graders already have five seasons under their belt; but this year they're finding the rules of the game are changing.

“I care more about these kids' brains than winning a football game, believe it or not,” said Coach Pete Velazquez.

He wants the boys to learn to love the game of football as much as he does, but what's under their helmets, he said, is more important than what is on the scoreboard; and he's not alone.

On football fields, and in research labs across the country, protecting brains is now a top priority.

“People understand more severe brain traumatic injuries, but mild traumatic brain injuries have been less well-studied, particularly in kids,” said Dr. Patrick Bellgowan.

Bellgowan is part of a team from the Laureate Institute for Brain Research that partnered with the University of Tulsa to study the effects of concussions in college football players.

“We can measure how thick that grey matter is, and the grey matter is where the neurons are,” he said.

The study found changes in the area of the brain that controls memory and emotion. The hippocampus was 25 percent smaller in players with a history of concussion and 17 percent smaller among players with no concussion history; a finding that surprised researchers and raised new alarm bells.

“It may not be that they have to be even that strong of a hit, it's just the more and more you hit your head, inflammation can start,” Bellgowan said. “That's going to affect how your brain functions.”

Many parents are already heeding the warnings as participation in youth football is down across the country - almost ten percent in the Pop-Warner league, the nation's biggest.

“It's very real. It's a very real issue we're dealing with in our sport,” said former NFL pro, Willie Pile.

The NFL is hitting back through a program called USA Football, where former pros, like Pile, travel the country certifying youth coaches in new techniques designed to help keep kids safe.

“USA Football is trying to say, ‘hey we're taking a stand against what people think football should look like,'” Pile said. “We're going to create a universal language, a universal mantra, of teaching kids how to tackle properly and try to make the game better and safer.”

At one Broken Arrow clinic, coaches from around the region talked about safety in everything from equipment, to hydration, to what's called heads up tackling, which if done properly, takes the head out of contact.

Among those to sign on for the program is Northeastern Oklahoma's Indian Nations Football Conference, which includes 350 teams from Bartlesville to McAlester.

Director Harley Rutherford said the league is serious about making the new rules stick.

“I'll go in and tell them you don't have a choice. You either do by what we've been taught, or you're not going to coach. It's that simple,” he said.

Nowhere in our area have the changes been more profound than in the heart of the Union nation. The Union program follows USA Football recommendations in heads up tackling, along with immediate rest for any child suspected of a head injury.

“We want them to literally not do homework, not play video games, not read books,” “We try to go kind of caveman mode,” Velazquez said.

It also goes a step further, in limiting the amount of contact players are allowed in practice, a change that's been met with some skepticism.

“By and large the old school guys, there's some resistance, you know,” “Some of these guys, they want to hit for two hours at a time,” said Velazquez.

That won't be happening at Union; and Bellgowan hopes other programs follow their lead.

While researchers still have a lot to learn about brain injuries, he said its already clear ignoring the danger is a gamble coaches and parents, can't afford to take.

“To me that's shocking. It's like well, that's who he is. That's what makes him smart and funny. That's what makes the kid you love be the kid you love, is his brain, so you need to protect that,” Bellgowan said.

You can't just point the finger at football - soccer, lacrosse, cheerleading - all of them, have concussion risks. In fact, Bellgowan said the number one driver of concussions is kids falling off their bicycles.