Cases of concussion among National Football League players, and reports of serious brain disease among retired players, have drawn attention to the long-term damage done by the game’s repetitive violence. But how are the warnings filtering down to youth sports, where kids are beginning their football careers?
A check with local players suggests the NFL’s example does not always help coaches and players make the right decisions.
In a recent high school football game against West Chester Henderson, Downingtown West defensive back Brandon Dale blitzed the quarterback and hit him hard. After the play, teammates said Brandon was “acting weird,” but the senior passed a series of sideline tests with no signs of a concussion, so he returned to the game.
A few days later, long-time athletic trainer Joe Iezzi shone a light in Brandon’s eyes and told him to hop on one foot. At stake, was whether Brandon would be allowed to practice that day. Concussion symptoms can blossom in the days after an initial blow, so Iezzi quizzes Brandon again.
Brandon hds just one question for Iezzi-
“Will I be able to play Friday?”
So far, yeah,” Iezzi said. “We’ll see how you do each day.”
Recovering fully from a first concussion helps prevent serious damage if there is a second hit. So some lawmakers want to punish coaches who allow students to return too soon. But Joe Iezzi says coaches are busy coaching, and he can’t always rely on parents who claim the family doctor has cleared their son to play.
“I call the doctor and he says: ‘No I didn’t say that.’ They want their sons and daughters to play, and that happens sometimes,” Iezzi said.
Legislation adopted by the state House would bar students with a suspected concussion from competition or practice until a health professional clears them. The association that writes the rule books for high school athletics in Pennsylvania has a similar new regulation, but there is no penalty for coaches who flout the rule.
Downingtown West head coach Mike Milano says others are preaching what he has practiced for years.
“I think we’ve always done a great job of educating the kids about not using their heads as weapons, and about not initiating contact with their heads. We don’t ever rush kids back, force kids back,” Milano said.
Milano says the furor over NFL fines for helmet-to-helmet hits may be changing student attitudes about whether to report a possible concussion.
“Kids who maybe in the past were reluctant to say anything are not so reluctant; I think there’s an awareness on their end to maybe make sure folks know they’ve been dinged,” Milano said.
University of Pittsburgh student John Ganoude is back in town for homecoming at Upper Marion High School. He recalls the concussion he suffered as a sophomore on the Upper Merion football team. Benched for seven days, Ganoude say he was ribbed by teammates about whether he was really injured.
“Coaches like to, from my experience, like to push trainers to see if they’ll let this player come back a little earlier, see what they can do to get this guy a little earlier,” Ganoude said.
One day, when the athletic trainer was not at practice, the 15-year-old took his chance.
“I get suited up not telling anyone. I approach my coach. I say: ‘Coach, I’m good to play. You should let me play,’ and he said: ‘All right,’” Ganoude said.
That same day, Ganoude got hit again. That second hit ended his football career.
“I had headaches that were unbearable; it literally felt like my brain was trying to creep out of my skull,” Ganoude said.
Sports medicine physician Matthew Grady cares for student athletes at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Part of the job, he says, is persuading parents that young brains take longer to heal than those of pro athletes like the Eagles.
“So whether Kevin Kolb or Stewart Bradley misses one week does not mean that most high school athletes are going to be able to miss one week and be able to play the next week,” Grady said.
Grady says it often takes 10 to 14 days before the youngest high school students are performing cognitive and physical tests normally. Any brain activity can divert brain fuel, or glucose, from healing.
Even playing video games, tweeting or studying for an upcoming SAT test.
“Using the brain slows down recovery, so if taking the test is slowing down the recovery, that is similar to the athlete who sprinting when his hamstring still hurts,” Grady said.
Grady says he’s cautious about clearing players to return to the classroom – or the big game.
What’s a concussion?
A concussion is a traumatic brain injury caused by a blow to the head or body that causes the brain to move rapidly inside the skull, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A concussion is not a bruise on the brain, so imaging scans, such as an MRI, can appear normal. Sport medicine physician Matthew Grady says a concussion blow can stretch and damage cell membranes and microscopic fibers, called axons, which send messages to nerve cells in the brain. “It’s like someone pulls the plug on an electrical current,” he said.
Using technology to test game readiness
Some high schools are using technology to help decide when it’s safe for student athletes to return to play. At the start of the season, students take a computerized test to measure reaction time, verbal and visual memory. If an athlete is sidelined with a concussion, they’re tested again, and the new score is compared to their baseline, pre-season results. One computer program, called ImPACT, Immediate Post-Concussion Assessment and Cognitive Testing, was developed by researchers from the Pittsburgh region. Schools pay from $500 to $1,000 a year to use the program.
One Schuylkill girl’s story
Former high school basketball player Tracy Yatsko — from Tamaqua, Schuylkill County — still suffers from debilitating migraines five years after her head injury.
“My eyes blacked out, I got really dizzy, I was extremely nauseous. My balance was out of line, I couldn’t focus, I couldn’t concentrate. Everything was a big blur,” Yatsko said. The 17-year-old did not see a doctor after that first hit. “Unfortunately I played a second game and I collapsed after the second game.”
Watch the video below.