According to the Hooten’s Arkansas Football Magazine’s 6A preseason rankings, the Pine Bluff Zebras are the No. 1 team in their classification, and Head Coach Bobby Bolding is aware of the target on the team’s back.

Bolding, who has been the head coach since 2007 and also serves as athletic director, was the featured speaker Thursday at the West Pine Bluff Rotary Club meeting at the Pine Bluff Country Club. In his career as the Zebras’ head man, he has collected 101 wins, lost 35 games and recorded two ties.

With the turmoil surrounding football stemming from various issues, Bolding spoke on overuse injuries, concussions, maintaining relationships with players coming from broken homes and kids getting their education.

Bolding recalled that back in his youth, during the summer, they would have events that were tailored towards an Olympic format. He said that back then, most kids played all sports and they just didn’t put all of their eggs in one basket.

“I’m on the executive committee of the Arkansas Coaching Association now so I’m involved in a lot of discussions,” Bolding said.

“One of the major problems is the overuse injuries. Kids are specializing at too early of an age in one sport. We’re seeing football injuries that are overuse injuries. In basketball, we’re having ankle injuries because kids are playing year round. Most of us, when we grew up, we played whatever was in season. We had our first love, whatever it may be, but I can remember we had Olympics in the neighborhood in the summer. Kids now are specializing in one thing.”

Over the past few years, on all levels of football, one of the top concerns has been head protection and concussions. Bolding said that football isn’t the leading sport that causes concussions, and it even falls behind cheerleading. Being coached correctly, and the continuance of modernizing the helmet and protective gear are all things that are being done to protect the game of football, he said, adding that at Pine Bluff High School, they take an extra step in ensuring that the players are 100 percent ready to play when it comes to head injuries.

“A lot of people think that football is the leading concussion sport, but it’s actually third behind girls soccer and cheer,” Bolding said.

“Football has done major things to help prevent concussions between equipment and coaches training. We’re trying to do things to help and prevent them. One of the things we do at Pine Bluff High, we have a concussion protocol that the Arkansas Athletic Association makes us follow. You can start it the day after under their rules, you follow it for a week, you get cleared by a doctor, and you’re good to go.

"Technically, a young man can get a concussion on Friday and play the following Friday. At Pine Bluff High, we don’t allow you to start the protocol until you’re cleared by a doctor. So at Pine Bluff High, it’s about two weeks before they come back on the field. It’s their head, it’s not their finger or arm, and we’d like them to be able to add and subtract.”

On the high school level, coaches deal with problems that you just don’t face at any other level, Bolding said. Not all of the players come from broken homes, but he said he has to make sure that he’s on top of the ones who do because he wants the best for them.

“I don’t think kids play for a coach,” Bolding said.

“I think with our kids, I never coached anywhere where my players were so loyal. You have to earn that. You have to be willing to drive to the library at 3 a.m. because one of them just got whooped by their mom’s boyfriend, and they’re standing out there in their underwear. You have to be willing to go over and beyond for them.

"Once you earn that, I’ll tell you right now most of my guys will kill for me and my coaches. When you get the parents on the same page with you, the kids don’t have a choice. They know I just want the best for their child. They have to know you care about them, and if you try to mess them over, they’ll see right through you, so it’s got to be sincere.”

The Zebras officially start fall practice on July 30.