It’s not just the National Football League that is battling a concussion crisis.
The Montezuma-Cortez athletic department is also working to prevent head injuries.
Concussions have been a hot-button issue in football for years. More recently, the study of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) has moved to the forefront.
Researchers from Boston University and the Department of Veterans Affairs claimed that concussions suffered on the football field can lead to CTE, a degenerative brain disease that can cause memory loss, depression and dementia.
On Sept. 18, 2015, they released a report that showed 87 out of 91 former NFL players tested positive for the disease.
But it’s not just NFL players.
The Boston research group has confirmed cases of CTE in high school football players too.
Which leads do the question: What is M-CHS doing to protect its players?
Athletic director Stacey Hall said she saw a problem surfacing about five years ago.
“Five years ago I noticed that I was not happy with the Riddell helmets,” Hall said. “I was in the process of replacing all the Riddell helmets with Schutt helmets. I just felt like the Schutt helmets were a much safer helmet.”
Hall recalls attending an away football game and seeing Panthers players coming off the field requesting that their Riddell helmets be pumped up. Confused, she asked then-head coach Casey Coulter what was going on, and he informed her that the helmets weren’t holding air properly.
Hall wasn’t having it.
She contacted the Riddell representative and voiced her concerns, and began replacing the Riddell helmets with Schutt helmets.
With each helmet costing nearly $300, it wasn’t an option to purchase 80-100 helmets at one time. Instead, Hall has been purchasing about 20 a year. But after starting the process years ago, this year was the final step, as all the helmets are now Schutt brand.
For upkeep, the school sends all the helmets in every year for reconditioning to be certified by Schutt. If a helmet is damaged or faulty, Schutt dismantles it and will not recertify it, so it will not be used again.
While some helmets may offer more protection than others, they’re not to blame for concussions.
“It’s not so much the helmet,” said interim head coach Conklin. “It’s the technique. It’s the fundamentals, it’s keeping your head up when you’re tackling, it’s keeping your head on a swivel on kickoffs and knowing your surroundings.”
The safest helmet in the world can’t guarantee that a helmet-to-helmet hit won’t result in a concussion. Which is why Conklin and the Panthers coaching staff stress the importance of proper technique, just as USA Football has done with its “Heads Up” program.
“It’s all technique, and we go over it all the time in form tackling and angle tackling, and we go through it during practices,” Conklin said. “That’s the best way to keep the kids safe from concussions.”
Still, in a contact sport like football, it’s impossible to eliminate the risk of concussion. Which is why awareness is so important.
“The hard thing about concussions is usually you don’t see it, because it’s usually when they hit the ground,” Conklin said. “It’s not always a head-to-head hit. A lot of the time, it’s them hitting the ground hard.”
“It’s hard to see, but you just have to pay attention while they’re out there playing, and if you see something that just doesn’t look right, you’ve got to get them off the field and check them.”
Finally, when a concussion does occur, the next step is treatment.
This year, M-CHS hired its first full-time trainer in Colby Smith.
Smith, a 2010 graduate of Brigham Young University with degrees in athletic training and exercise science, has a training office at the new high school and attends all home sporting events to treat any injuries, including concussions.
And he’s already treated multiple athletes with concussions this season.
Any student-athlete that complains of head issues must be pulled from competition and cannot return until Smith clears them.
To access their complaints, Smith performs a Sports Concussion Assessment Tool (SCAT3) test, which tests memory skills, delayed recall and balance.
He also goes through a symptoms checklist with the athlete, and if he suspects a concussion, the athlete will be sent to a doctor to be diagnosed, and they must go through protocol and be cleared by both the doctor and Smith before they can return to competition.
Hall, Conklin and Smith are well aware of the risk and dangers of concussions in football.
They also understand that it’s not just NFL players that are in danger of head injuries and the long-term effects.
Which is why, as Smith said, they’re even more cautious when it comes to dealing with students who have suffered a concussion.
“I think they’re legitimate concerns. As we’ve noticed with the N.F.L.’s issues, we’ve seen the long-term effects of people who have suffered a couple of head injuries,” Smith said.
“What we’re trying to do is, we’re trying to start at a younger age and make sure that if kids are starting to get concussions, we want to take it even slower because they’re still progressively growing, mentally and physically, especially the 14-to-15-year-olds,” he said.
“So if they are suffering from a concussion and it’s something that we’re concerned about, we’re going to probably hold them out a little bit longer than recommended just to make sure that there’s no effects that we may miss.”