Riley Pitkin was one of the lucky ones.
The Benicia High School senior quarterback later said it was his fault during an Aug. 28 football game against Concord High for forgetting to remind one of his teammates to block a defensive player on his “blind side,” also known as the left side of the field to the right-handed quarterback.
When an opposing defender slipped past the Benicia offensive line unscathed with a path to Pitkin that was clearer than a windshield after a car wash, the result was a collision that could be heard and felt yards away.
“So I felt the initial contact when I got hit, but then it was lights out,” Pitkin said later in the season. “The next thing I know our coaches are trying to sit me up on the field. Then I went black again. I don’t remember how I was able to sit up. I remember looking down to concentrate and hearing the clapping of the crowd, but then my hearing went away. As soon as I looked back down I felt pretty dazed. My coaches kept asking me my name, what year it was and things like that. But I couldn’t remember what play we had just ran.”
Pitkin was able to walk off the field on his own power and although he sat out the Panthers’ next game, the senior rebounded nicely to earn a co-offensive MVP award in the Solano County Athletic Conference.
Still, the collision was a reminder of why football is the Halloween of major sports and why it’s the one mothers won’t let their sons play year after year. More than anything, one word scares off parents, players and coaches and has hovered over football recently like a crow on a city’s telephone wires.
The word is “concussion.”
A frightful high school season
The 2015 high school football season has seen its share of tragedies, with at least eight players dying due to causes directly related to the sport, such as head and spine injuries and concussions.
Tyler Cameron, 16, of Franklin Parish High in Louisiana, died Sept. 4 after being hit during a punt return. Kenny Bui, 17, a wide receiver and defensive end for Evergreen High near Seattle, died from blunt force injuries to the head according to the King County medical examiner’s office. Video shows Bui taking a hard hit to the head and getting up. He took another hard hit to the head later in the same game.
Evan Murray, a senior at Warren Hills Regional High in New Jersey, died Sept. 25 after leaving a game. He said he “felt a little woozy” after getting hit in the backfield.
Roddrick “Rod” Williams, an offensive lineman at Georgia’s Burke County High, died after he collapsed on Sept. 22 after football practice had begun. Ben Hamm, a junior linebacker from Wesylan Christian School in Bartlesville, Okla., died Sept. 19 after suffering a head injury on a tackle in a game. This case is especially scary because the game had been played eight days earlier.
October wasn’t any better. Cam’ron Matthews, a wide receiver and quarterback at Alto High in east Texas, told teammates he “felt dizzy” in a huddle. He later collapsed on the sidelines and died the following day. Andre Smith, 17, a senior at Bogan High in Illinois, hit his head on the last play of the game on Oct. 21. He walked off the field, collapsed and died the next day.
Luke Schemm of Sharon Springs, Kan., was the most recent tragedy. On Nov. 3 Schemm was having a great day, scoring his second touchdown of the game. On the following two-point conversion, Schemm was tackled as he reached the end zone. He ran to the sidelines immediately and collapsed. His father, David Schemm, wrote on Facebook the next day that Luke had passed away. He also wrote that Luke “had a traumatic brain injury that caused the brain to swell so much that it couldn’t get blood flow.” He would have been 18 on Dec. 2.
“I think honestly — and I say this in all sincerity — I think high school football, we’re at a critical juncture in the next two to three years,” Roger Blake, the executive director of the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) told Bay Area News Group last week. “I really think we’re going to have to watch and look at the medical science and see what the medical community says about the future. We’re seeing it across the United States. I think we’re really in a critical juncture.”
Not just an issue in high school
The problem with concussions isn’t just in high school. In fact, it’s been a big topic in the NFL for a while now. In 1994, then-NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue created the Mild Traumatic Brain Injury committee and appointed Dr. Elliot Pellman as the chair, despite Pellman lacking any previous experience in brain science.
Pellman would later tell Sports Illustrated that “concussions are part of the profession, an occupational risk.” Tagliabue would later say “On concussions, I think is one of these pack journalism issues, frankly … There is no increase in concussions, the number is relatively small.”
Only it wasn’t. In April of 1999, Hall-of-Famer and former Pittsburgh Steeler Mike Webster filed a disability application with the NFL Retirement Board, claiming his career caused him to have dementia. In October of that same year, the board ruled Webster was permanently disabled as “the result of head injuries he suffered as a football player.” Webster died in 2002 after experiencing dementia. Since his death, Webster has become a symbol for head injuries in the NFL.
After his death, Webster was the first player to be diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a neurodegenerative disease discovered in Webster by Bennet Omalu, a forensic neuropathologist who will be played by Will Smith in the upcoming film, “Concussion.”
Omalu’s findings were ignored by the NFL. In 2007 on HBO Real Sports, Dr. Ira Casson (nicknamed Dr. No) denied any evidence of a link between head injuries in NFL players and depression and long-term problems in brain damage.
In 2011 Ray Easterling filed the first concussion lawsuit against the NFL. Although he would later commit suicide, a federal judge in 2015 would approve a settlement to resolve a concussion lawsuit between the NFL and thousands of former players, including Junior Seau, Tony Dorsett and Jim McMahon. The agreement, which will span 65 years, figures to cost the NFL $900 million or more.
Jerry Brown passes new concussion law
In 2012 Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law, AB1451, Concussion Training, that took effect in 2013.
The law requires coaches when renewing their CPR/First Aid certification that they also complete training in signs and symptoms of concussions. This bill requires high school coaches to receive training every two years on recognizing the signs of concussions and responding to them appropriately.
Vallejo High athletic director and former head football coach Mike Wilson said that over the past few years there has been changes in how football teams practice.
“Years ago a little neck injury we would not consider that,” Wilson said. “Now we do. There’s more to look for now. We also do not lead with the helmet anymore where for years we all led with the helmet when tackling. We also don’t do any more one-on-one drills where you are hitting with the head up. Now we also have referees looking at kids on the field and if they see anything that looks like a concussion, we get them out there and don’t question it.”
Many times in football, however, an athlete doesn’t want to let his teammates down and will try to play hurt. In these instances, Wilson says there is only one thing to do:
“That’s easy. We take their helmet and hide it,” Wilson said. “They can’t play and go on the field without a helmet.”
CIF protocol for concussions
The CIF Concussion Return to Play Protocol, a state law named AB 2127, came into effect in January. The law states that returning to play after a concussion cannot be sooner than seven days after an evaluation by a physician who has made the diagnosis of a concussion. A certified trainer, such as Trina Santos at St. Patrick-St. Vincent High, must initial and state on a form that the athlete must pass before playing. Stages I to II must take a minimum of six days to complete, and the athlete must be back to normal academic activities before competing in the first game. The athlete must also complete one full practice in Stage III (Limited contact practice, full contact practice) before competing in normal game play. During this process, Santos says she is in constant contact with the athletes’ parents and doctors.
“When an athlete gets a concussion, they are out for the rest of the day,” Santos said. “They need to see a doctor, but it doesn’t need to be in the ER. I make sure to get in contact with the doctor. Doctors will set parameters for the athlete and determine if it’s a concussion or a mild concussion. They will also determine if the athlete is ready for school activity and sometimes this can mean no school for a week or two. It depends on if it’s a Grade 1 or Grade 2 concussion. Sometimes they can come to school the next week, but only for two or three hours a day and only an hour or two of homework. Doctors want you to rest the brain, so any creative nerve effects it.”
Santos, who has been a certified trainer at St. Pat’s for three years and has a Bachelor’s degree from Fresno State, said that she also uses the ImPACT test during the week for the athletes. ImPACT’s test is computerized and takes about 25 minutes to complete. It measures player symptoms, verbal and visual memory, processing speed, and reaction time measured to a 1/100th of second.
Recognizing signs and symptoms
Santos said that she looks for a lot of signs concerning a player and concussions, such as any unusual stumbling or confusion. If a player walks over to the wrong huddle or sideline, this is usually a red flag. But the precaution doesn’t stop on the field and doesn’t end with the team’s trainer.
“The first 24 hours are crucial,” Santos said. “Sometimes they may not have symptoms right off the bat. Some kids also don’t like to complain. It’s not until after the adrenaline wears off and after they are done changing in the locker room that they feel anything. Sometimes they won’t be completely healed and the swelling that goes on is a slow bleed. Think about when you sprain your ankle. At first it’s the shape of a golf ball and then it spreads. Well, that’s what happens with a concussion. The same thing happens with the brain.”
Santos went on to say that it’s very crucial that the players themselves, as well as the parents, are educated about the symptoms.
“The number one way deaths happen from concussions is because of either lack of communication or lack of education,” Santos said. “The parents need to know what to look out for overnight and the next morning. Having teammates know what is wrong also helps. Sometimes a player won’t recognize something with themselves but a teammate will.”
Some signs observed by teammates, parents and coaches include someone looking dizzy, spaced out, confused, forgetting plays, being unsure of the game, score or opponent, answering questions slowly, displaying slurred speech, moving clumsily, showing a change in personality or having seizures, according to the CIF.
Lack of trainers, lack of players
One of the reasons why there may be more concussions is the lack of people to administer help when one occurs.
A study this year in Journal of Athletic Training said that only 37 percent of nation’s public high schools have full-time athletic trainers. To make matters worse, California is the only state in the country that does not have a licensed legislature for athletic trainers. Governor Brown vetoed the most recent bill AB 1890, that would have changed that.
“Absolutely I think that is a problem,” Santos said. “Some teams may just have an ambulance on the field with a volunteer nurse. But the nurse or the MT might not have the same education as a trainer might. They may not even be bothered to go through with a follow-up on the athlete’s doctor and get an evaluation.”
Trainers aren’t the only ones not seen as much as on the field these days. Football players in general aren’t seen as much either. According to maxpreps.com, all five schools the Times-Herald covers (Vallejo, Bethel, Benicia, St. Pat’s, American Canyon) have seen roster sizes go down at some point in the last five years, although American Canyon went from 36 varsity players in 2014 to 48 players in 2015. Bethel went from 36 players in 2014 to 27 this year, Benicia went from 68 players in 2012 to 39 players the last two seasons, while Vallejo went from 41 players in 2014 to 36 in 2015. St. Pat’s has actually gone up four players from 27 in 2014 to 31 this past season.
So what’s to give? Are parents scared of their kids playing football or is there some other reason?
“I get parents coming up to me all the time asking for more awareness about it,” Santos said. “They are more nervous and that definitely plays a huge part of less kids playing. Especially here at St. Pat’s where the focus is on academics. Parents don’t want to lose sight of that.”
Both Santos and Wilson also agreed that athletes only playing one sport has contributed to the falling number of roster sizes.
The games will go on
Despite all the times concussions have been in the news with football recently, it isn’t the only sport to be affected. Baseball players are often hit in the head by the pitch. Wrestlers can have their heads collide.
Recently, former New York Rangers hockey star Derek Boogaard died at 28 from an accidental drug and alcohol overdose while recovering from a concussion. A posthumous examination of his brain found he had suffered from CTE. And then of course there are boxers, who are constantly trying to make scrambled eggs of each other’s brains. In soccer, players are constantly leading with their heads to go for the ball.
But although there are dangers, athletes are still going to play sports and there is a better chance of Adam Sandler wining an Oscar than for football games to stop being played. In fact, Pitkin said that although he does know about the dangers of football, he’s not quitting anytime soon.
“My parents were definitely worried, but I sat down and talked with them after the concussion,” Pitkin said. “They understood that getting sacked is something that’s going to happen from time to time. I play three sports, but there is nothing like football. I love the pressure. I love the contact. I think there are a lot of things beneficial you can get out of playing football, especially for kids without structure or in lack of a father figure. And maybe there is something like that you can take away from that and this will make you become a better man.” —— (c)2015 Times-Herald (Vallejo, Calif.) Visit Times-Herald (Vallejo, Calif.) at www.timesheraldonline.com Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC. AMX-2015-11-15T22:15:00-05:00