NEWCASTLE — When Keith Bolles saw the piece of tape on the ground showing him where to stand, he knew he was in a real movie.
Bolles, the Newcastle High School football coach, and his team were followed throughout the 2012 season by a group of medical professionals and other specialists, as well as a film crew, to produce a documentary called “The Smartest Team.”
Produced and directed by Brooke de Lench, the film's goal is to show how education, preparation and treatment can help to prevent concussions in high school football.
De Lench, who is from Boston, brought with her a team of specialists, including a strength trainer and tackling coach, to teach the Newcastle football team the proper steps to avoiding concussions, and treating them when they do occur.
But the film isn't a text-book-type explanation full of medical jargon. It's real life. The film makers spent time with the players away from the football field in the Newcastle community.
“We wanted to really get to know these kids in Newcastle,” de Lench said. “I got to go do things with them and talk to them, and they really opened up.”
Bolles and his son played pool at their home for two hours in front of cameras. De Lench went hunting with a few of the players. And the crew followed others to their jobs.
“I was working at TG Farms at the time, and they wanted to show how most of us had jobs and worked hard,” senior lineman Sheldon Dillman said. “They filmed us hauling straw. A couple of the seniors last year were hunters, and they filmed them on their trucks with all their stuff.”
But the one-hour documentary, which airs at 10 p.m. Wednesday night on OETA, is primarily an educational course in head injuries, prevention and treatment. De Lench brought in a team of specialists from literally coast to coast — Boston, Los Angeles, St. Louis and other parts in between.
They chose Newcastle because the mother of a former player at the school contacted de Lench for help. Her son was suffering from post-concussion symptoms, and de Lench's website, MomsTeam.com, was gaining attention as a valuable resource for football concussion management.
Ultimately, de Lench brought up the idea that she had been trying to find a team to be the subject of her documentary, and Newcastle took the opportunity.
De Lench and her team arrived in June, shooting much of the non-football activities and beginning the preseason testing that is necessary to properly study the impact of a possible concussion.
The strength trainer worked with the players to show how proper strengthening and stretching can help prevent head injuries, and the tackling coach taught them ways to contact other players that wouldn't put them at risk as often.
The crew stayed through most of preseason practice and returned a few times during the season for games.
The players wore sensors in their helmets that would register the level of impact from a hit and send the information to an iPad on the sidelines. When a hit registered over a certain range, the player had to come out and be tested.
“Ninety-nine percent of the time, they tested out fine,” Bolles said. “But if it saves that kid that one percent of the time, it's worth it.
“It was a great experience, because we got to learn a lot, and it benefitted our kids.”
Lineman Matthew Meyer, now a senior at Newcastle, got the full effect of that benefit when he suffered a concussion last season. After the hit, he came off the field and was given a test, which he failed.
“A couple days later, I had to go to the doctor and take the same test on the computer that we had taken before the season to see how my score compared to my score the first time,” he said. “I scored really low on that one, then waited two weeks and actually scored higher that time than I did on the baseline test before the season.”
It's hard to compare last year's information to previous seasons, when Newcastle didn't have all the technology provided, but Bolles believed they saw a dramatic drop in missed playing time because of head injuries, simply because they understood and managed the situations better.
De Lench said the players were happy to be wearing the helmet sensors, because the sensors provided an objective report about the condition of a player after a hit.
“They said, ‘It takes the responsibility off of us, and the coaches never question us,'” de Lench said. “I thought that was really smart.
“We had to take my son out of football because of concussions. It devastated him. We've got to keep boys playing football, but they need to be doing it the correct way to protect themselves.”
Newcastle isn't allowed to wear the helmet sensors this season because of an ongoing debate over third parties placing unsanctioned equipment inside a helmet.
The National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment stated in July that it would void the certification of helmets in which third-party, after-market products -- like the impact sensors -- had been added to. That meant Newcastle's players could no longer wear the sensors in their helmets.
Last week, the NOCSAE clarified the statement, saying that it would leave it up to helmet manufacturers to decide if the after-market addition should void the helmet's certification. It's possible Newcastle could use them again this season, but the issue remains a topic of strong debate.
But the knowledge gained from their experience in filming “The Smartest Team” truly did make them smarter and more aware of how to prevent and treat concussions.
“I think we all learned a lot about avoiding head injuries and how to treat them when they happen,” Meyer said. “The coaches seem much more aware of how serious concussions can be, and the steps that can be taken to deal with it.”