Knocked Out

Medical effects of concussion far worse for kids.

For those who decide to stick it out, they may be playing a game that could be significantly altered in the future. Arizona, for example, has considered eliminating kickoffs from high-school football because of the dangers inherent when players collide with each other at top speeds.

Other organizations are relying on updated helmet technologies to try and prevent concussions. Even though it's impossible to completely prevent head trauma in football, helmet manufacturer Riddell has, in the past 20 years, redesigned and released several types of helmets.

For the 2011 season, each varsity player for Houston-area football powerhouse Katy High School will don the pricey and brand-new Riddell Revolution Speed helmet, which costs anywhere from $236 to $1,030. The previous version, the Riddell Revolution, helped decrease concussions by more than 300 percent, according to Katy head athletic trainer Justin Landers.

Five years ago, former soccer player Natasha Helmick (left) once played a game half-blind after sustaining a concussion. Today, her mother Micky says that it takes her daughter three times as long to complete mental tasks.
Photo by Mark Graham
Five years ago, former soccer player Natasha Helmick (left) once played a game half-blind after sustaining a concussion. Today, her mother Micky says that it takes her daughter three times as long to complete mental tasks.
Miami's David Goldstein spoke to the Florida legislators about devastating health problems that developed after he suffered multiple concussions. Despite his testimony, Florida killed a concussion bill for youth athletes.
Photo by Michael McElroy
Miami's David Goldstein spoke to the Florida legislators about devastating health problems that developed after he suffered multiple concussions. Despite his testimony, Florida killed a concussion bill for youth athletes.

Katy's football staff has the money to use ImPACT testing and state-of-the-art helmets. However, one thing Landers and his coaching staff can't control is the win-hungry culture of Texas high school football.

From early June to mid-July, with the hot Texas sun overhead, Katy players run sprints on an outdoor practice field and hit the weight room during a five-week summer fitness program. Around this time every year, several parents — who are desperate for their freshman enrollees to gain a competitive advantage — will call Landers to ask his advice on what type of helmet they should buy for their sons. Landers, the son of a helmet salesman, is freaked that these kids will go out on some random field with ill-fitting equipment and hurt themselves.

Landers is another athletic trainer who believes that the state's recently passed concussion legislation has its shortcomings and that "the judgment call on whether to pull a kid from play won't make the decision any easier," he says. "We would look foolish if we were to send a kid to the doctor and he didn't end up having a concussion. That would be a waste of time and money."

Four years ago, Landers told a varsity football player who had suffered a staggering three concussions in five months to go to the doctor toward the end of the regular season. The athlete, a key contributor to the Tigers' playoff push, was deemed unfit to continue playing football.

Though Landers realizes that the doctor's decision was probably the right call, he still feels like he screwed up.

"I still feel badly," says Landers through teary eyes, as if the incident had just happened yesterday, "because he'll never get to experience what it's like to play in a Texas [high school football] playoff game."

Former hockey player Kayla Meyer, unable to take the clatter of hallways or lunchrooms at her Minneapolis-area school, gets to her classes five minutes late and leaves late as well. She's missed 75 school days in two years. She eats lunch alone. Once a popular girl, she has been abandoned by all but a couple of her friends, so now Kayla mostly hangs out with her mother's friends.

Her plan had always been to become a vet technician so that she could take over the family business, a dog kennel on their farm. But now Kayla can't take barking. She can't ride horses because the motion makes her sick. And when reading, she now has difficulty processing individual words on a page.

"I have reading glasses now, but I always forget them," says Kayla, "and then I can only stand reading without my glasses for a couple of minutes, before the pain gets too bad."

The Meyers don't have health insurance. Sending Kayla to specialists is leaching the family's finances. Though they try to keep it from her, she's noticed that the ATV and the horse trailer have gone missing, pawned by her parents for cash. Next will be the horses, and one day maybe the farm itself.

There's no end in sight for Kayla's condition. "The physical therapists used to give us targets," says Mandy Meyer. "'It will be two weeks, two weeks.' Now they don't give her targets, because she's missed so many of them."

Though Mandy declares that her daughter's concussion was "handled horribly inappropriately," she won't consider a lawsuit. "There are just too many people who messed up," she says, including herself in that assessment.

In April, Kayla testified in front of the Minnesota Senate Education Committee in favor of a concussion bill, which would educate coaches and trainers and restrict when students can return to play. The lights and noise of the Capitol in St. Paul were a gauntlet for Kayla, but the bill passed.

She doesn't blame anybody for her condition. "My coaches are awesome," she says. "They just weren't informed enough."

As parents, coaches and athletes try to find the proper balance between athletic participation and long-term health, Natasha Helmick, who's studying at Texas State University to be an athletic trainer, is still experiencing depression and focus issues.

Natasha says she still hasn't moved past the disappointment of that day when Texas State decided to pull her athletic scholarship. "My doctor told me that I should never play a contact sport again in my life. He said, 'Don't even go out and shoot with friends. That's how endangered your head is.'"

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


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?!


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


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.



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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