There is no perfect cure for concussions, but from the IHSAA down to schools, coaches, officials and student-athletes, strides are being made to minimize the damage
It was the fall of 2013, and the Northeastern High School football team was in the middle of a run toward the program’s first Tri-Eastern Conference championship.
With an 8-0 lead against Centerville, Northeastern’s star quarterback Joey Claypoole was shaken up during a play and removed for the remainder of the game.
Claypoole stood on the sidelines, and to outsiders, looked perfectly fine.
The symptoms of a potential concussion were not visible to most spectators, and head coach Mike Roeder, Claypoole and the Knights took criticism, for it was the biggest game remaining in the conference season.
Eventually, Centerville rallied for a 34-22 victory over Northeastern, forcing what was at the time a three-way tie atop the conference.
Roeder maintains he made the right call.
“If a trainer or an official or a coach thinks there might be something there, you have to honor that,” Roeder said.
“Sometimes there is nothing there and it kind of frustrates you, but the other end of it is, if you do put someone back in, they could be harmed for the rest of their lives. Nobody wants to take that chance.”
Roeder’s coaching staff faced a dilemma seen too often from coaches and high school athletes.
Revelations from former professional athletes have shown concussions have potential for long-term damages.
The Indiana High School Athletics Association recently has implemented new standards and requirements to ensure players are cleared before returning to competition after a possible concussion.
The IHSAA also requires coaches at every level to take online courses on what to do in case of a concussion, while starting a new data collection study this past sports season.
“I think it’s very important. I think the responsibility of us collectively as an association, a staff, as a member school, administrators and coaches — I think we have a collective duty to ensure the health and safety of our athletes,” IHSAA commissioner Bobby Cox said.
“Everyone is responsible, we can do all we want with it, but if we don’t have cooperative parents, we’re not going to be successful. We can have cooperative parents, but if we have schools that don’t enforce these standards; if the association is not providing vehicles — it’s a collective effort.”
According to data provided by Cox and the IHSAA, there were a total of 2,194 instances of concussions reported to the IHSAA this past season among all sports.
Hamilton Southeastern topped the state with 65, followed by Bishop Chatard at 48.
Like the incident involving Claypoole, the symptoms of a concussion might not be visible right away, but it differs from other injuries because of the sensitivity of the brain.
“For us, obviously what makes it so bad, you’re messing with a person with a young person’s head and cognitive function potential cognitive ability. That’s one of those things there should be no gray area in regards to siding on the side of safety when it comes to concussions,” Richmond coach Matt Holeva said.
“Not to minimize other forms of injuries, but bumps and bruises are going to heal with today’s technology. Just 10, 15 years ago a torn ACL would ruin a young person’s career even at the high school level. Now with medicine — obviously no one wants to see those injures — but those injuries are repairable to some degree. Obviously, when you’re dealing with the human mind and the brain, there’s so much to learn.”
Hagerstown athletic director Gerry Keesling formerly coached football at Earlham College in Richmond. He cautions that helmets only can do so much.
“I think our football players are in the best helmets in the history of the game,” he said. “I think there’s no such thing as a concussion-preventing helmet, there’s nothing out there, because the helmet doesn’t protect the brain, it protects the skull, depending on the space between the brain and the skull. You don’t read anything about fractured skulls. We can’t protect the brain inside the skulls.”
To help prevent concussions, Keesling, Cox, Roeder and Holeva emphasize proper tackling techniques and teaching them at a younger level.
“The best thing is the way you teach tackling,” Roeder said. “We’ve taken the head completely out of it. We do not teach it that way at all. Pete Carroll (head coach) with the Seattle Seahawks has developed a style called ‘The hawkroll,’ where you teach these guys to come in and keep their heads out of it.
“It seems to work. Our kids took to it. They took some pride to learn how to do it right. As far as ball carriers, if a ball carrier lowers their head before impact, they can be penalized.”
Football gets the most attention, but it’s not the only sport where athletes suffer concussions.
A study from the University of Colorado was released earlier this week on concussions in soccer that demonstrated most concussions don’t come from heading the ball but from collisions among athletes.
“There has to be some correlation with long-term brain damage and doing that over the course of a lifetime if you continue to do it,” Richmond soccer coach Matt Haynes said. “People are more worried about dangerous high kicks, (but) head-on-head collisions are the worst.”
Haynes also alluded to a recent World Cup game where Germany forward Alexandra Popp banged heads with United States midfielder Morgan Brian.
Both returned quickly after being checked by doctors, despite the fact that Popp had blood soaking her head.
According to Germany’s coach, Popp had a laceration but no concussion.
“At that level, what does a coach say?” Haynes said. “At that level, a professional says, ‘I’m going back in.’ Kids at this (high school) level, you have a bit of authority, saying, ‘No you’re not.'”
For Courtney McCord, a two-year athletic trainer at Richmond High School, it’s taken time to adjust.
She says male athletes tend to fight back against leaving a competition more than female athletes do.
“It’s such a hot topic, I usually err on the side of caution,” she said. “They only do have one brain. High school sports are a part of their lives, but in the long term, I usually err on the side of caution. I don’t think that makes them too happy because they want to keep playing.”
When players hit their heads, or appear to be banged up, McCord checks for dilated pupils, dizziness, strange behaviors and thirst.
She also conducts memory exercises, such as asking them to recite the months backwards starting with December and giving athletes five words to check their memory recall.
There is no perfect cure for concussions, but from the IHSAA down to schools, coaches, officials and student-athletes, strides are being made to minimize the damage.
“I think that they’ve made a lot of good steps in the right direction,” McCord said. “Just seeing how old football players, old athletes are now having that problems from undiagnosed concussions, they’ve definitely made steps in educating everyone.
“… I think parents are more understanding of it, older generations of parents they’d be like, ‘Oh I did this many, many times.’ I think parents are more aware and understanding of when you want to hold their kids out.”