It happens countless times every sports season. A linebacker angles his shoulder pad too high, landing a crunching blow on an opponent’s helmet. A point guard hustles for a loose ball, only to receive a clunking head-shot from a center’s elbow.
Formerly, “treatment” for such a collision involved allowing the ringing in the athlete’s head to subside before sending him back into action.
Now, as a mounting stack of evidence argues how harmful untreated concussions can be, public opinion is shifting. The question is no longer whether to send concussion victims back in the game as it is how to determine when they are fully recovered.
The concussion-testing program at Mark Morris and R.A. Long High Schools, spearheaded by Monarchs trainer Dan Ruiz, is fine-tuning a formula to measure the severity of an injury and provide benchmarks for recovery.
* * *
Washington is one of 29 states with concussion-based legislation, and the story behind its implementation underscores the importance of the issue. In 2006, Zachary Lystedt was playing in a middle school football game in the Tahoma area when he hit his head on the ground and struggled to get up. It was far from an uncommon injury — he was one of the roughly 400,000 student-athletes to suffer a concussion that year, according to statistics compiled by Ohio State University and Nationwide Children’s Hospital. And he was undoubtedly not the only athlete to return to action after a brief rest.
”Up until recent knowledge come to the fore about the brain and mental impairments, we all assumed that when the headaches were gone, where they could run around in circles and jump up and down without a headache, they’re ready to play,” said Dr. Richard Kirkpatrick, another major force behind the Mark Morris testing program.
Lystedt’s story took a tragic turn when he sustained another big hit while forcing a late, game-saving fumble. Lystedt suffered a brain hemorrhage that resulted in the removal of both sides of his cranium. He was in and out of a coma for almost three months and now is confined to a wheelchair.
But Lystedt isn’t a hopeless victim — he’s a fierce advocate for more strict concussion laws. His persistence paid off. A law was passed stating that a student athlete cannot return to play if they show signs of a concussion. They have to wait 14 days and also be released by a health care provider.
“I think it’s a really good thing,” Ruiz said. “For me, it has always been one of those things that I’ve always held in front: That we’re got to make sure we are taking care of these concussions and not blowing those off.”
The name of the legislation that has forced a rethink of concussion care? The Lystedt Law.
* * *
The Longview schools added another level to their testing program this year. Ruiz had been using the SCAT2 system, a widely-implemented evaluation tool that relies heavily on coordination and balance.
The SCAT2 is light-years ahead of previous testing protocol, but still relies on athletes to be forthcoming about their symptoms.
“There was the honesty factor,” said Mark Morris junior Breanna DuBois, who suffered a concussion last year and went through the testing process. “A lot of athletes are like ‘I feel fine,’ but they’re really not. That was hard, because I wanted to play, but I couldn’t.”
This is Mark Morris’ first year pairing the new IMPACT program with the existing SCAT2. Software runs athletes through a series of examinations — picking out the Xs within a cloud of Os to test reaction speed, word recall games to test memory — to establish a baseline score.
Having objective data gives trainers tangible evidence to present to a stubborn athlete or parent, and eliminates the potential for concealing the injury.
“This program, I can honestly say this year, whereas before there would kind of be a grey area where, ‘Ah, you might be OK to go back in,’” Ruiz said. “This year, this has really picked up on some kids that were thinking they could maybe game the test. You could just see the numbers weren’t right.”
* * *
Despite successes, there are still challenges to overcome. The Longview schools have functioned as a pilot program for the district, with a view toward greater implementation in the future.
But, as District 4 director Rich Frazer put it, “Money is always a factor, especially as funding gets cut.”
Mark Morris and R.A. Long were able to improve their testing thanks to a grant through Dicks’ Sporting Goods and IMPACT. Such funding is unavailable on a wider scale, but as evidence mounts about the long-term damage concussions can have, particularly among younger athletes, there is bound to be a push for more in-depth testing.
“Kids’ brains are just so plastic,” Ruiz said. “They’re still forming, and any type of injury can affect that. Last year, we had an athlete that was injured and those symptoms caused, you could tell, that kid was a different kid. Being able to tell those symptoms are really important.”
Ruiz has advocated this for years as its importance slowly dawned on the public.
Ruiz was working for the NFL’s Carolina Panthers during the peak of the “tough-it-out” era. Showing concern after taking a crushing blow was considered a sign of weakness, and the collateral damage from that mindset has been a growing black eye on the sport. That attitude tricked down to the high school level, but things are changing.
“I have seen a really big shift, even in the time that I’ve been here,” Ruiz said. “Where it was a sign of toughness just to say, ‘You got your bell rung, you can go back in,’ to where it’s on their minds. (The kids) understand the importance of the concussion. They understand the need to be sharp. They understand that it is a serious injury.”
* * *
DuBois personifies athletes’ changing outlook on concussions.
The basketball standout was forced to the sidelines while working her way through a series of concussion tests, taking four or five attempts just to be able to start exercising again. It would have been tempting for her to gloss over her symptoms, especially in the pre-IMPACT days. But she didn’t.
“I think if it wasn’t for Dan, I probably would’ve wanted to rush it,” DuBois said. “But he was really good with making sure that I understood that it’s more serious than like an ankle injury or arm injury, it’s my brain.
“He was really helpful with that, with my mentality of knowing that I have to get better before I can do anything else.”