Mind Games: A look at concussions in high school football

Published: May. 5, 2016 at 2:23 PM CDT
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It's an epidemic for the guys under the Friday night lights. But what happens when the lights go out?

"I got hit and I remember that one at UCLA, I opened my eyes and it was still black. I remember getting hit, I mean bell rung and I didn't remember where I was at until like 2 days later when I was back in Oregon," said Terry Obee.

Terry Obee made a living off football, as an NFL player, a coach , and now a sports management professor at WKU. He speaks candidly about the after effects from his concussions he sustained during his playing days.

"It's not like other sports. You play other sports, baseball or basketball, ok, you can learn from that. But you make a mistake in football and you can really get hurt," Obee explained.

Concussion is a buzz word in the world of football, but it's not something easily defined.

"Doesn't have a specific one sentence diagnosis or definition. It's still under investigation and it's difficult to comprehend but in general, a concussion is a shaking of the brain, where physical and cognitive manifestations can come about," said Dr. Brian Macy.

Dr. Macy is a doctor at Graves Gilbert, but he is also the team doctor for Bowling Green High School and the Bowling Green Hot Rods. He has worked with high school football players his entire career.

We asked him the number of concussions he has treated in high school football players specifically.

"It's hard to say. I'd say dozens would be a safe number."

It's an ever present concern on the gridiron.

"It's definitely a part of the game now and we try to stay ahead of it as best we can," said Head Football Coach at South Warren High School, Brandon Smith.

According to the Journal of Athletic Training, sports are second only to motor vehicle crashes as the leading cause of traumatic brain injuries for people ages 15-24.

Money flows through professional and collegiate teams more fluidly than a quarterback spiral, but the high school players are at the mercy of the school's budget.

"New equipment coming down the pipe? The high schools will be the last ones to have the ability to afford that," said Head Football Coach at Bowling Green High School, Kevin Wallace.

In 2013, the National Academy of Sciences found that collegiate football players suffer concussions at a rate of 6.3 concussions per 10,000 athletic exposures (a practice or game), for high schoolers, it's nearly twice that at 11.2 per 10,000.

"We are blessed here that we can try to provide the best equipment and put our kids in the safest environment, but there's a lot of schools that don't have that privilege, you know, and they struggle. It's something that probably as a state we need to figure out," Smith told WBKO.

The same group of doctors found that across sports, 250,000 concussions were reported to emergency rooms in 2009 for people under age 19, up from 150,000 in 2001.

But a helmet isn't the only thing needed to keep your athlete safe when it's game time.

Dr. Macy says that phrases like "getting your bell rung", "getting dinged in the head" and "getting your lights knocked out" have to stop being used to describe head injuries.

"A lot of phrases were used that didn't really describe a concussion well and also diminished the seriousness of it."

"There's national pressure on the NFL to make sure that concussions don't kill their game; well that trickles down [to high schools]," Wallace said.

Another issue with high school football that college and professional athletes don't face- the difference that age and maturity make for teenagers who are still growing.

"6 months, 3 months, a year is a big difference when it comes to football and development. Kids, I mean, you develop muscle mass, kids hit puberty. Definitely. I will not have my son playing with a kid that has already hit puberty. You do not have an advantage at all even if they're in the same grade," Obee said,

There are 30-40 symptoms associated with concussions, making them even more difficult to catch on the sideline.

"Forgets where to line up, even if it's something he does every day in practices. Any type of delay in memory or thought," said Todd Mason, the athletic trainer at Bowling Green High School.

"They seem very out of it, very loopy, looking down at the ground, squinting a lot, we play all of our games at night obviously," added Justin Budd, the athletic trainer for South Warren.

"Mood disorder, blurry vision, dizziness, difficulty focusing, even more commonly headaches," Dr. Macy continued.

Coach Smith is a former WKU quarterback. He knows first hand what a head injury feels like, and is an example of something coaches can't control.

We asked him had he suffered concussions during his career.

"More than 1, yep," Smith said. He added that he went back into the game after suffering the injury. "Yeah, I guess, yes I did. I think that's just part of being competitive though. A lot of kids are like that and that's why you've got to have someone with a sound mind and their best interests at heart that is in charge and can tell them, you know, that's not what you need to do."

Immediate signs of a concussion can be scary.

"I had a football player, he was a linebacker that made a great hit and after the pile cleared up you could tell he was a little dazed, a little confused, he was talking to the other players and he wasn't sure where to line up. And this was a senior that knew exactly what he was doing and where he was going. And so I brought him over to the sideline and began to assess him and one of the things I asked him, I said do you know, 'what are the colors of a stoplight?' and he was very quick to respond, he said 'red, yellow, blue' and I said 'what are the colors of a stoplight?' and he said 'red, yellow and blue' and I said 'do you drive on a regular basis?' and he said 'yeah, every day.' and I said well then I think you need to sit down," said Mason.

The lasting effects may be even worse.

"My memory, sometimes it goes and I forget real quick, my wife has to remind me what's going on sometimes," Obee explained.

"What this is about, it's about the young people. It's about the people who play our game and trying to keep them safe and make sure that not only do they not have any injuries today, but that they don't have any issues 20-30 years from now," Wallace said.

Once an athlete is sidelined, concussion protocol begins.

"The time frame is no physical activity until they're a-symptomatic. You know, there's up to 20-30 symptoms that somebody can experience from a concussion and until they are not having those symptoms anymore, those symptoms are a sign that the brain has still not healed," said Budd.

"Once they're symptom-free for 24 hours and the parents, coach, myself are comfortable with that, we'll start a return to play protocol. That doesn't mean they're back out on the field. That just means we get their heart rate up, get their blood pressure up and if that causes a symptom, we shut them down for another 24 hours," added Mason.

The KHSAA has guidelines in place, like if a player's helmet is knocked off, they must leave the game to be assessed.

"It sides on the safe side and that's the way it needs to be," Smith said.

In any contact sport, there's only so much that can be done to avoid injury. That's why coaches preach the fundamentals.

"Tell the parent 'your kid is not ready', he's still dropping his head, he's not putting his hips in the right position, if they give you those coaching tips, don't take it personal like your son has failed. 'Oh he'll never make it to the NFL or college scholarship' - don't worry about that. Just say hey, it's for your safety," Obee said. "Until they get this, they pass this, they aren't able to play. If they can't pass the basics you shouldn't play."

Obee doesn't want his outcome for his 3 sons.

"They're not playing. I'm convincing my son not to play until high school. I mean, I can teach him a little bit, I understand what to do. How to take an impact, how to fall, how to take a hit, how to be in a certain situation, how to understand the game first instead of just going out- it's not about just being tough," he said.

"A lot of times the kids are going to tell things to the parents that they're not going to tell me because they fear that they'll come off soft or something like that so you've got to have those open lines of communication," Smith explained.

Those that love the game, are fighting for it the hardest.

"This is a great game. And I think that it's a game that builds a great foundation for young people to take into adulthood in terms of the positive things it brings from a team chemistry standpoint, from a work ethic standpoint- there's just so many good things that football brings. But I realize greatly that it's a game we have to keep safe for it to be around for another 30 years," Wallace said.