The statistics speak for themselves:
* Of the approximately 1 million youngsters who play football in the United States each year, 200,000 will suffer an injury of the knee, shoulder or ankle. Fifty thousand nonprofessional football players will undergo knee surgery, according to Dr. William W. Southmayd, a Boston sports medicine specialist.
* On an average college team of 90 to 95 players, approximately 24 each year will suffer injuries serious enough to keep them out of games and practices for at least a week, according to studies by Penn State University's National Athletic Injury/Illness Reporting System.
* In the National Football League, there is a 50 percent chance of one running back on each team being hurt badly enough to need surgery, according to a joint study by the league and the NFL Players Association.
* During the first six weeks of the season in Fairfax County high schools, 42 percent of the participants in varsity, junior varsity and ninth-grade football suffered injuries of some sort, ranging from cuts and bruises to bone fractures and major sprains and ligament damage.
As in any contact sport, the risk of serious injury has always been an integral part of football. But some think that risk has increased.
"In 30 years of coaching, this is probably the worst for injuries I've ever experienced," said Dick Bestwick, coach at the University of Virginia.
"We've got nine of our top people -- five regulars and four backups -- who are out for the season. People who came in the fall that we thought would be first-stringers or second-string guys. Then we've got 14 more who have missed one to four games. We've got 15 more who are playing but are playing hurt. All have missed various parts of games," said Bestwick, who in the Cavaliers' Oct. 3 loss to North Carolina State suffered the indignity of spraining his own right knee when a North Carolina State player crashed into him on the sideline while making a tackle.
At Redskin Park, Bubba Tyer, head trainer for the Washington Redskins, is also experiencing his worst year for injuries.
"I've been here 11 years, and this is the worst I can remember," said Tyer. "Joe Kuczo's (assistant trainer) been here 28 years, and he can't remember anything this bad. You try to analyze why each injury happens, but there isn't any single reason you can pinpoint. If you could, maybe you could do something about it."
Among the injured Redskins this year are linebacker Monte Coleman, fractured shoulder; offensive tackle George Starke, right hand broken in three places; defensive tackle Perry Brooks, broken right thumb; kick returner Mike Nelms, broken right thumb, and linebacker Brad Dusek, dislocated shoulder. Running backs John Riggins and Wilbur Jackson and defensive end Mat Mendenhall have all missed games with knee injuries. The team lost its first five games and is currently 2-6.
Through last Sunday's games, the National Football League had 255 players placed on injured reserve so far this year. At the same point in the season a year ago, the figure was 228.
On the local college level, key players have been injured at Howard, Maryland and Navy. Yesterday, quarterback Norman (Boomer) Esiason of Maryland suffered a jammed neck in the Terrapins' 17-10 loss to North Carolina, tailback Melvin Sutton of Howard suffered a sprained neck in the 49-28 Bison win over Norfolk State, and Navy's Jeff Shoemake dislocated his right knee in the Midshipmen's 38-0 loss at Notre Dame and will be out for the season.
Elsewhere, Kelvin Bryant, North Carolina's junior tailback who had scored 15 touchdowns in the first three games of the season, was injured in an Oct. 3 game against Georgia Tech and probably will not play again this year. Bryant, who had been considered a contender for the Heisman trophy, underwent knee surgery to repair two seriously sprained ligaments after being tackled by Georgia Tech defensive back Mike Niebanck.
Bestwick suggested one reason for the apparent increase in injuries.
"The game's much faster and more physical now than it's ever been," he said. "And it's played by guys who have been training with weights and are bigger and stronger. Just the velocity of people moving opens people up to injuries. Anybody who tells you it's the same as it was in the good old days is crazy."
Sports medicine specialists generally agree that with each ascending level of competition (high school to college, college to professional) the rate of injury also increases. But the most serious of injuries can occur even at the youngest levels.
On Sept. 16, Terrence Robinson, 14, playing on a parish team for St. Bridget's Roman Catholic Church in Richmond, suffered head and spinal injuries while making a tackle in a controlled scrimmage. He died three days later.
In a message to the Catholic schools and parishes of the Richmond diocese a week later, Bishop Walter F. Sullivan called for a ban on football.
"It is not uncommon to hear young players wanting to 'kill the opposition' or 'put the opponent out of commission.' Youngsters do not learn to enjoy football but to knock heads . . . The constant threat of serious injury and even death far outweighs any justification for such games . . . " the bishop said.
It is unlikely the bishop's admonition will meet with widespread popular support. It is also unlikely that there will be significantly fewer injuries in the immediate future.
"In my opinion, there is no guaranteed way to prevent injury," said Southmayd, the Boston-based sports medicine specialist, in a recently published book called "Sports Health," which he coauthored with Marshall Hoffman.
A former football player at Harvard and a team physician for the Boston Red Sox, Southmayd suffered injuries during his career, including a broken nose, lost teeth, 32 facial stitches and torn knee ligaments. Eighteen years later, his knee still aches occasionally.
"Of course, I love the game of football and consider it well worth the risk. Every athlete must make his or her own decision," said Southmayd.
Those sentiments are widely expressed throughout the football community.
Larry Brown, a Washington Redskin running back during the early 1970s, absorbed substantial punishment during his playing days.
"I have some degree of pain now, and I expect that as I get older it will get worse. I left the game with the feeling that it was going to get worse. I took a considerable amount of bumps," said Brown, who in 1972 led the Redskins to their only appearance in the Super Bowl.
"But I think it was worth it. I got some good exposure. I had a chance to play for some coaching geniuses and I participated in the Super Bowl. And there were moments of great personal satisfaction."
Ray Schoenke, an offensive lineman who played with Brown on that Super Bowl team, said the injury rate "is something you live with and accept because it's part of the game. The layman doesn't really understand that. Young men who play football do it because they believe it is exhilarating, exciting, worthy and honorable."
Nevertheless, Schoenke said he would be concerned about the possibility of injury if his teen-age son played football. "He doesn't play football. He swims," Schoenke said.
Todd Kirtley was the starting quarterback at Virginia for the last three years. He suffered a broken bone in his throwing hand Sept. 18 against Rutgers.
Kirtley also is philosophical about the injury quotient in football.
"Injuries are part of the game. You can only play so long before it catches up with you," said Kirtley, who would have his hand in a cast for up to six weeks. Hit while releasing a pass in the fourth quarter, Kirtley banged his hand on his tackler's helmet, breaking a bone in his middle finger.
"I stayed in for a few plays after that, but then I had to come out," said Kirtley, who played high school football at Robinson in Fairfax County.
The Rutgers game was especially costly for Virginia, which also lost preseason all-Atlantic Coast Conference safety Pat Chester for the season in that game.
"I stepped on someone's leg and twisted my ankle. Then a few plays later, I got caught in a pileup and twisted it again. It was a real bad sprain, and I'm out for the season. Being injured is a chance you have to take in football," said Chester.
Only within the last five to 10 years has the sports medicine profession attempted any systematic examination of sports-related injuries, so trends over a longer period are generally undocumented. Probably the most sophisticated such study is Penn State's National Athletic Injury/Illness Reporting Survey. Since 1974, the survey has compiled injury-related data on thousands of college athletes in 30 different sports, according to Dr. John Powell, special projects director for the program.
"Our system has generated a fairly consistent pattern of risk and injury. I would not say that injuries are rising or falling," said Powell.
Over the long term, however, the injury rate has at least given the appearance of increase.
Dr. Robert Nirschl, chairman of the sports medicine committee for the Virginia Medical Association and an associate professor of orthopedics at Georgetown, says football-related knee and ankle injuries appear to have increased.
"But maybe those of us who are involved in the treatment and diagnosis of those injuries are better at it than we were 10 or 15 years ago," he said. "We recognize that injuries we used to think were relatively minor are major injuries."
Dr. Richard Resnick, a Northern Virginia podiatrist, says he thinks there is a definite increase in football-related ankle, foot and knee injuries. "More injuries are being detected and more is being done about them," he said.
Resnick was one of a group of Northern Virginia sports medicine specialists to endorse a request from the Northern Virginia Sports Medicine Association for additional funding to athletic trainers at Fairfax County high schools. In making the request, the association released the results of its survey showing the 42 percent football injury rate during the first six weeks of the season at nine high schools in the county.
The report did not surprise most athletic directors in other school systems.
"Every time a kid gets hit in the leg or head, it's a potential injury," said Tom Paskalides, director of athletics for the Prince George's County school system.
At the professional level, the NFL and the NFLPA have commissioned an ongoing film clip study of injuries requiring surgery, beginning with the 1978 season. The study has been completed for only the 1978 and 1979 seasons, and it shows a 33 percent increase (from 58 to 77) in injuries requiring surgery between the two seasons.
"It is impossible to say whether this represents a trend, but all things considered, it would appear to represent more than the year-to-year variation in injury rates," said Dr. James A. Garrick, medical advisor to the NFL/NFLPA joint safety committee, in his report.
Not surprisingly, the study found 74 percent of all required surgery was on knees and that ball handlers suffered almost one third of all injuries that required surgery.
It also found almost half of the knee injuries were the result of accidental incidents, such as being fallen upon, or noncontact activities such as catching a foot on the playing surface.
That should come as no surprise to Brent Dewitz, who won the starting quarterback job at Maryland only to suffer a knee injury 10 plays into the first game of the year. He is out for the season.
"I turned around and pitched the ball to (tailback) Charlie (Wysocki). I put my foot down on the AstroTurf, and a guy was coming at me from the inside. I had all my weight on one leg, and when I went to block him my shoe got caught. My knee just buckled. I felt it go out right away. Nobody even touched me, but I knew it was pretty bad."
Dewitz subsequently underwent surgery for a shredded ligament and a torn cartilage and for two weeks was in a cast from his hip to his toe. That has since been removed for a smaller cast, but his total time in a cast will be eight to 10 weeks.
"It just breaks my heart to go out and watch practice," said Dewitz, who has also undergone two shoulder operations in his football career. "Everybody hates practice, but I sure wish I could be there."