Quitman (KATV) - Former Dallas Cowboy running back Tony Dorsett is among the first living, former football players to be diagnosed with CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy)...a degenerative brain condition believed to be caused by repeated blows to the head.
Autopsies have found CTE in former players as young as 17.
Concussions are believed to be strongly linked to this problem. Tonight we have a look at head trauma at the high school level in Arkansas.
Football is a violent sport.
Each year a handful of high school and college players die playing the sport they love.
But still....the chance of being killed playing football is about one in a million.
The chances of suffering a concussion are much higher.
"This is another camera angle of the same thing..." says Ken James with Time Capsule Photography in Quitman.
James shoots video of the Quitman Bulldog varsity football games. He shows us the video he captured of the hit that ended Hadley Martin's football career.
"Um...." That is Hadley's response when asked if he remembers the hit.
"You don't remember the hit? Don't remember..."
"I don't remember the hit," answers Hadley.
"You don't remember trying to make the tackle? Anything about it?"
"I don't remember getting on the helicopter, going to the hospital..." replies Hadley.
"The next thing you know you wake up and you're in the hospital?"
Hadley shakes his head yes.
"He hit...and its like he was laying there and everybody else moved on down the field," says Hadley's mom Misty Martin as she recalls watching things unfold that night from her spot on the home team's bleachers. "And you keep thinking, OK...move. Get up. But I could tell immediately it was him."
Hadley was air lifted to Arkansas Children's Hospital. He suffered a severe concussion. It was his second. His first occurred when he was a freshman three years ago.
"I'd like to go back and play," admits Hadley. "But its probably smart that I don't."
"The equipment is improving," says Quitman High School Principal Brett Bunch. "Are they keeping up with the kids and their growth and their strength? Probably not."
"We have had considerably fewer concussions with the new helmet," points out assistant coach David Johnson.
For a small school Quitman has invested in some very nice helmets for its players at all levels.
"The blue is shock absorbing material that goes throughout the helmet in some key areas where the impact is going to be happening," explains Coach Johnson as he shows us one of the Quitman Bulldog helmets.
Football helmets were designed to prevent skull fractures...not concussions.
Last week the American Academy of Pediatrics released a study that found no specific brand of football helmet or custom mouth guards results in fewer concussions.
"The equipment plays a vital role, but more importantly is learning how to hit properly," says Joey Walters, Deputy Executive Director of the Arkansas Activities Association.
Walters with the Arkansas Activities Association can't tell you how many athletes suffer concussions in Arkansas. No one keeps track. Instead Arkansas and most other states rely on data provided by the National Federation of State High School Associations.
According to those numbers, 3.87 of every 100 high school football players in the 2012-2013 suffered an injury. And 25 percent of those injuries were concussions. So the concussion rate among high school football players was about one per every 100.
"Nothing can keep that brain from moving inside that skull," says Walters. "There's nothing been proven yet."
"This sport...this wonderful sport...has had issues with concussions always and always will because it is a collision sport," says author Carla McClafferty of Benton.
McClafferty has spent the past 18 months researching and writing her latest book...Fourth Down and Inches: Concussions and Football's Make or Break Moment.
"When they are properly treated then the overwhelming majority of kids will be absolutely fine," says McClafferty. "They will recover form a concussion and be fine."
When a player suffers a leg or knee injury, it most likely prevents him from playing and making things worse. When a player suffers a brain injury...which is what a concussion is...a return to the game is possible....depending on how the player, his teammates and his coaches react.
"It's really not only a concussion issue but it's a repetitive head trauma issue," says McClafferty.
The Martin family still has a decision to make. A pair of twins...5th graders...love to play and are good at playing football.
"All I know to say it you just have to turn your kids over to the Lord and pray for them," says Misty Martin. "And hope that they're OK."
One of the keys with dealing with concussions is changing the culture within the game. It's still considered macho and noble to play through pain. But a player who suffers a concussion didn't just get his "bell rung." The force of the hit injured his brain and that brain needs time to recover.
Almost every state, including Arkansas, has passed laws that help raise awareness, train coaching staffs, and dictate a "Return to Play" protocol.
Rule changes and proper tackling techniques are also helping.
Hadley admits that if he had tackled properly he would probably still be playing football.
Air date: November 7th, 2013
WEB EXTRA INFO:
While researching this story several other facts and stats were interesting but there just wasn't time in a nightly news story to include it all. Here are some of those points of interest:
When to play. Dr. Robert Cantu, chief of neurosurgery at Emerson Hospital in Concord, MA is a leading expert in sports-related concussion research. Dr. Cantu does not recommend that any youth under the age of 14 play tackle football.
Certified Trainers. In Arkansas, only about 20% of the high schools employ certified trainers. Most belong to the larger school classifications, but not all. Smackover is one small school that employs a full-time trainer. In Tennessee 68% of the high schools employ a certified trainer and starting next year a certified trainer will need to be present on the sideline at all varsity football games.
Concussion Symptoms. It is a commonly held belief that unless you get knocked unconscious you did not suffer a concussion. An concussed athlete only loses consciousness about 10 percent of the time. There are at least 26 concussion symptoms. They include headache, nausea or vomiting, balance problems, blurred vision, dizziness, sensitivity to light, ringing in the ears, confusion, difficulty thinking/concentrating/remembering, irritability, sadness, anxiety, trouble falling asleep, and sleeping more or less than usual.
Concussion diagnosis/treatment. There isn't really a test available to definitively diagnose a concussion, so coaches/players/trainers/parents need to be able to spot symptoms. And the only treatment for a concussion is rest. And time. The brain needs time to recover from the injury. This will likely mean missed school days (depending on the severity of the concussion) and time away from cell phones, television, video games, iPads, bright light, even conversation. This life of sleep/shower/eat can lead to depression in some athletes as they miss time with friends, fall behind in the class room, and are separated from the sport they love.
Return to Play protocol. Many states, including Arkansas, have based laws/rules that dictate a process that a concussed athlete must undergo before returned to practice/games. Here is the guideline adopted by the Arkansas Activities Association:
1. No athlete should return to play or practice the same day of a concussion.
2. Any athlete suspected of having a concussion should be evaluated by an appropriate health-care professional that day (MD, DO, Nurse Practitioner, Certified Athletic Trainer, or Physician Assistant).
3. Any athlete with a concussion should be medically cleared by an appropriate health-care professional prior to resuming participation in any practice or competition.
4. After medical clearance, return to play should follow a step-wise protocol with provisions for delayed return to play based upon the return of any signs or symptoms.
Other sports. 8,000,000 high school students play sports in America. Not surprisingly, football is the high school sport where an athlete is most likely to suffer an injury. The number two sport is girls soccer. Boys wrestling is #3 followed by girls basketball at #4.
Practice. Limiting full pad, full speed contact in practice is one way to reduce exposure to hits. Texas limits full contact practice time to 90 minutes per week. The Ivy League limits teams to two full contact practices per week. The NFL limits teams to 14 full contact practices per season. Arkansas high school athletics and most college teams currently have no limit to the amount of contact that can be experienced during practice.
Culture change. There was a time where the link between smoking and cancer was not proven. There was a time when the link between a high-fat diet and heart disease was not proven. And many still question the link between football and CTE or other brain injuries...although that is rapidly changing. "Shake it off." "How many fingers am I holding up (the answer is usually two)?" "Are you hurt or are you injured?" "No pain, no gain." Most football players have heard a coach or teammate utter one or all of those phrases. Football teaches teamwork, the value of hard work, and sacrifice. It unifies young men, schools, communities, entire states, and even generations. But suffering a concussion is not just "getting dinged." A star player rarely wants to leave the game and may hide the fact that he is experiencing concussion symptoms. And that behavior is still considered noble. Or at least acceptable. That needs to change. There was a time where driving under the influence and smoking while pregnant were acceptable behaviors. Now such behavior is condemned by society, and rightfully so. How long until playing football with a brain injury is considered stupid rather than courageous? Concussions will always happen. That won't change. But how the injury is treated/handled can change. And is changing.