Knocked Out

Medical effects of concussion far worse for kids.

In the past, a "bell ringer" was thought of the same way as a cut or a sprained ankle, with no lasting side effects. Until a few years ago, the NFL's medical committee on concussions published studies that concluded players were not suffering long-term damage from head trauma incurred during athletic competition.

The lack of awareness carried over to the training rooms of every sport, and high-profile athletes such as boxer Muhammad Ali and All-Pro safety Dave Duerson were prematurely sent back into action. Years later, they essentially lost their minds. (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that as many as 3.8 million sports- and recreation-related concussions occur each year. Out of this figure, about 235,000 persons are hospitalized and 50,000 die per annum, according to the CDC.)

"Ninety percent of concussions went undiagnosed," Chris Nowinski of the Boston-based Sports Legacy Institute tells the Press. "In fact, today you can talk to an athlete and ask the amount of concussions they've had and give them the actual definition, and that number will increase."

Kayla Meyer of New Prague, Minnesota, has missed 75 school days due to concussions suffered in youth hockey. Her parents, who don't have health insurance, have been forced to sell their possessions to pay for Kayla's medical bills.
Photo by Chuck Kajer
Kayla Meyer of New Prague, Minnesota, has missed 75 school days due to concussions suffered in youth hockey. Her parents, who don't have health insurance, have been forced to sell their possessions to pay for Kayla's medical bills.
Justin Landers, head athletic trainer of Katy High School, thinks that the state's concussion law falls short, partially due to the win-hungry culture of Texas high school football.
Daniel Kramer
Justin Landers, head athletic trainer of Katy High School, thinks that the state's concussion law falls short, partially due to the win-hungry culture of Texas high school football.

Nowinski, a former World Wrestling Entertainment pro and author of Head Games: Football's Concussion Crisis, along with noted neurosurgeon Dr. Robert Cantu, founded the Sports Legacy Institute. The foundation works with Boston University's Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy in performing post-death pathology on brains donated by former athletes.

One of the latest specimens examined was that of Duerson, a former NFL standout who, following years of dementia and depression, shot himself to death — in the chest so his brain would be preserved — on February 17. Neurologists later confirmed that Duerson, who had played for the Chicago Bears, New York Giants and Phoenix Cardinals (now called the Arizona Cardinals), was afflicted with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a neurodegenerative disease linked to the total amount of distress a brain receives during a lifetime. Because a concussed person may not always exhibit classic symptoms such as headaches and nausea, CTE is, in essence, an invisible killer that can cause the brain of a 35-year-old to resemble that of an 80-year-old.

These findings have helped turn the National Football League from concussion skeptics into an organization that is spreading the word that head trauma in sports can have deadly consequences. The campaign has even trickled down to the NFL-licensed Madden NFL video games, in which a concussed player in the yet-to-be-released Madden NFL 12 cannot return to play after suffering the injury. In February, the league urged all states to pass concussion legislation in youth athletics.

For the 75 former NFL pros who sued the league in July, alleging it concealed the dangers of the injuries for decades, it's too little, too late. Football retirees such as Mark Duper, Ottis Anderson and Raymond Clayborn are claiming that the league was careless in its false assumptions. (As of press time, the NFL planned to contest the allegations.)

The proper treatment of concussions, especially in youth sports, is still a developing — and somewhat murky — science.

In 2004, Jake Snakenberg, a Denver-area high school freshman, knocked his head during a football game but assured his mother he felt ready to play again. A week later, the young fullback once again hit his head during a game.

The blow was unremarkable, but Jake staggered to his feet and fell back down. He never got back up, and was declared dead the next day from second-impact syndrome, a swelling of the brain derived from a second concussion before the symptoms of the first have passed.

These types of injuries are exacerbated in youth athletes because the human brain doesn't metabolically or neurochemically mature until a person is in his or her early to mid-20s, according to David Hovda, professor and director of the University of California-Los Angeles' Brain Injury Research Center (see "Knocked Out: Bell Ringing"). This includes the young brain of Matt Blea, who nearly died on a California football field close to two years ago.

On Thanksgiving Day 2009, Matt, a 16-year-old junior and starting running back for San Jose High, tried to retrieve an underthrown ball during the opening possession of the 66th annual Big Bone rivalry against Lincoln High. Despite his modest five-foot five-inch, 140-pound frame, Matt was the recipient of all-league honors as well as props from an opposing linebacker, who once told him, "I don't know how you ran me over, because you're so little."

As Matt jumped for the errant pass, a Lincoln High safety cleanly and legally put his shoulder into Matt's midsection. Because he was unable to brace himself, Matt's head whiplashed against San Jose City College Stadium's artificial turf.

"I knew instantly something was wrong," says father and former San Jose defensive coordinator Dave Blea, who stood on the sidelines. "I couldn't see his pupils. I could only see the whites of his eyes."

Out of sight of the referees, who signaled play to continue as normal, Matt crawled to the sidelines and lost consciousness. After paramedics tried unsuccessfully to revive him, Matt was rushed to Santa Clara Valley Medical Center for emergency brain surgery.

"They didn't think he was going to make it," says Dave about his son, who remained comatose for ten days. "They thought that he had suffered so much brain damage that he probably would have been mentally disabled."

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14 comments
Jenna
Jenna

you know, people might say "i can't believe she lied to her coach if she couldnt even see fully!" about tasha..but this is her passion! Its her life! i just wish she had've been more careful! i love her to death and i worry about her and her brother! (she's my cousin!)

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randyfleming
randyfleming

Same cover story in the Seattle Weekly ?!.Hmm-m.

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JRCash
JRCash

"[H]e'll never get to experience what it's like to play in a Texas [high school football] playoff game."

Priorities.

And I'm no squishy, overprotective parent worried about "violence" here - I played TX high school football and plenty of ice hockey as an adult. I had to eventually give up the hockey because of... concussions.

I'm still just floored that this coach actually thinks he took something away from that kid, because he stopped what was obviously a train wreck waiting to happen. Honestly, bro - the question should be did you stop him soon enough?!

BecauseIsaidso
BecauseIsaidso

What kind of Society do we live in, which allows our children to be maimed for life, when they are just "playing a game'? Our children trust us and it is up to every parent and coach to teach them right from wrong, permanent injury is terribly wrong.

Joshua Rotenberg MD
Joshua Rotenberg MD

Thank you for this brave and detailed exploration of head injuries in our children. No test or any machine "that goes bing" substitutes for expert evaluation and treatment. Any neuropsychological test should be interpreted by a professional with expertise in this area. Please see the consensus statement by the American Academy of Pediatrics. Dr. Joshua Rotenberg MD, pediatric Neurologist, Houston, Texas www.txmss.com

JRCash
JRCash

This isn't an indictment of "Society." Society, culture, or whatever doesn't do a darn thing that "allows our children to be maimed for life... 'playing a game.'" These are things that happen while playing a game, yes. But no one and nothing intentionally intends for kids to get hurt.

You completely, utterly, totally missed the point. You drove right by the point 250 miles ago.

And permanent injury isn't "wrong." Wrong implies a decision. Injuries are unfortunate, and some are tragic. But they are not "wrong." My broken hand (now arthritic) isn't "wrong."

The sad fact is that people are "maimed," to use your term, every single day, in random accidents and suffer injuries doing any number of normal, plain vanilla activities.

Sheesh.

S S
S S

Actually, JRCash, you mixed up a few points and are wrong about all of them. When adults organize games and sports for children, and structure rules and ways of playing them, there is all kinds of intention in them, including putting children in situations in which they are likely (and sometimes taught) to receive or inflict injuries, some of them permanent and disabling. I am quite certain you could find glaring examples of such things within a few blocks of your home, if you care to look (or listen for the applauding parents). Many of us recall very well being told as children that if we could not accept pain, we could not play sports. Pretending this is not the case is disingenous, if not irresponsible. Chidren are unable (legally and otherwise) to consent to conditions that can lead to serious injury, and for adults to do so on their behalf is not only not an accident of any sort, it is the definition of wrong. Finally, games and sports are social and cultural from top to bottom, period.

 
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