High School Sports

Is football worth the risk? Death of Evergreen football player renews player safety concerns

Steilacoom coach Rich Lane suffered serious head injuries in high school and college, and he still has lingering issues because of it. “Back then, you kept your mouth shut unless you couldn’t walk or a bone was sticking out,” Lane said. “But now kids have the ability, rightfully so, to say, ‘Hey, there’s something wrong with me.’
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Steilacoom coach Rich Lane suffered serious head injuries in high school and college, and he still has lingering issues because of it. “Back then, you kept your mouth shut unless you couldn’t walk or a bone was sticking out,” Lane said. “But now kids have the ability, rightfully so, to say, ‘Hey, there’s something wrong with me.’ ” Staff photographer

A football player normally sits in the far right chair in the front row of coach Rich Lane’s classroom at Steilacoom High School. Except that seat was empty for three weeks while he was home recovering from a concussion.

The player hasn’t returned to practices and he likely won’t for the rest of the season.

Concussions and head injuries hit close to home for Lane. His own playing career ended in his sophomore year at Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, following a late diagnosis of a concussion. The effects of those repeated blows to his head linger to this day.

“Back then, you kept your mouth shut unless you couldn’t walk or a bone was sticking out,” Lane said. “But kids now have the ability, rightfully so, to say, ‘Hey, there’s something wrong with me.’ 

The death of Evergreen of Seattle football player Kenney Bui following a head injury suffered in a game against Highline last Friday, as well as the deaths of three other high school athletes across the country so far this school year, raises the question of safety and whether it’s worth the risk to play football.

The Washington Interscholastic Activities Association revamped its concussion protocol for the 2015-16 school year, and it added mandatory training of coaches through USA Football’s Heads Up program or similar approved certification.

This was in addition to the implementation of the state’s 2009 Zackery Lystedt Law that bars athletes who show signs of suffering a concussion from returning to play or practice without prior approval from a licensed health official.

More concussions occur in football than in any other high school sport and more injures occur to the head and face of athletes in any sport than occur anywhere else on the body, according to a study conducted by Dawn Comstock of the Colorado School of Public Health and supported by the National Federation of High School Sports.

Of the estimated 539,000 injuries that occurred during the 2014-15 football season, the study estimated that 25.2 percent were injuries to the head or face or concussions — the most common of any injury suffered in the sport.

Of the estimated 539,000 injuries that occurred during the 2014-15 football season, the study estimated that 25.2 percent were injuries to the head or face or concussions — the most common of any injury suffered in the sport.

“I do believe that it is a cultural issue,” WIAA executive director Mike Colbrese said. “Everyone at every level in every game has to understand the value of safety and being able to play the game safely.

“And this isn’t just a football issue. It’s basketball, it’s soccer — it can happen in any sport.”

WHAT’S THE PROTOCOL?

We’ll start with what the protocol isn’t.

Lane was diagnosed with what he believes was his first concussion on a cut block his junior year at Girard High School in Kansas. From what he saw on film, the defender’s knee collided with the side of his helmet.

“All I remember is being in the locker room,” Lane said. “It was like waking up and suddenly being like, ‘Where am I?’ I look around and I’m like, ‘Hey, coach, where are we at?’ Literally had no idea where we were at and he’s like, ‘Halftime of the Colgate game.’

“I thought I was dreaming that. I literally thought I had dreamed the first half.”

He said it just so happened that an athletic trainer for the Kansas City Chiefs was there because his nephew also played for Girard. He diagnosed Lane with a concussion.

Nowadays, certified athletic trainers believe that 24-48 hours of rest following a sports-related concussion could benefit, and they unanimously agreed that no return to play procedures should occur on the same day of concussive injury, as laid out in the 2012 Conference on Concussion in Sport held in Zurich, which athletic trainers follow extensively, said Josh Waltier, the director of sports medicine for ATI Physical Therapy.

But for Lane?

“(The athletic trainer) goes, ‘OK, you got a concussion. What do you want to do?’ ” Lane recalled. “I said, ‘I’m going to go for it. I’m not going to sit out.’

“I come back off after about two or three series and he’s like, ‘You know, you’re playing at about a C or a D level right now.’ And he was like, ‘What do you want to do? Do you want to stay in the game?’ I’m like, ‘No.’ And they took my helmet.”

But more difficult, he said, might have been explaining it to his father.

That was the mentality. If you can’t visually see there is something wrong with somebody, they must be fine.

Rich Lane, Steilacoom football coach

This school year the WIAA implemented a new wrinkle to concussion protocol. Referees are now required before the game to ask coaches of both teams whether a licensed health care provider is on site who can evaluate possible concussions.

Waltier said athletic trainers incorporate the third edition of the Sport Concussion Assessment Tool (SCAT3), which involves a series of tests, including the Maddocks questions (What venue are we at today? Which half is it now? Who scored last in this match? What team did you play last week/game? Did your team win the last game?).

Then there’s the return-to-play protocol that must take place before an athlete can participate.

“It’s a matter of getting the parties to understand why it’s important that we sit a kid and let him fully recover from a concussion and let them do what we call a progressive return to play before they are back on the field,” said Waltier.

ATI provides athletic trainers for the Federal Way, Kent, Puyallup and Franklin Pierce school districts, as well as Fife High School, Annie Wright and Tacoma Baptist.

“We run a lot of risks with kids when we don’t take them through the proper recommended procedures, and that’s what we do for every athlete that goes through our concussion return-to-play protocol so they don’t’ go back too early.” Waltier said.

And we’ve never had an athlete go back too early. That is what allows us to sleep at night.

Josh Waltier, director of sports medicine for ATI Physical Therapy

CONCUSSION PREVENTION

Lane’s career ended on his dorm room bed.

He said a 6-foot-3, 280-pound teammate repeatedly crushed him with his helmet during practice drills at Coe College (where another teammate was Seattle Seahawks running back Fred Jackson).

Lane was never checked for a concussion and said he went back to practice, day after day, taking more blows to his head.

It was only diagnosed after a team athletic trainer found Lane lying on his dorm room bed after two days because he said he couldn’t get up.

“My athletic trainer took me to a neurologist and they did a CT and said, ‘Whoa, what have you been doing?’ ” Lane said. “I was like, ‘Just playing.’

“And they say, ‘Well, you’re not playing anymore. You got some trauma and this needs to stop.’ And that was it. My sophomore year I’m done and I become a film guy.”

Comstock’s study found that 35.4 percent of concussions in football last school year occurred while being tackled, 31.7 percent while tackling and 14.7 percent while blocking.

The WIAA executive board this year passed a resolution requiring that football coaches receive football-specific safety training.

Bothell football coach Tom Bainter is a master trainer through USA Football’s Head’s Up program, which is how most coaches around the state received training this past spring and summer. He helped teach safer tackling techniques and drills, as well as proper equipment fitting; concussion recognition, response and return-to-play protocol; head preparedness and hydration; and sudden cardiac arrest awareness and response.

Bainter said they certainly didn’t use outdated sayings such as “ear-hole them” “put your screws under his chin” and “bite the ball,” which all imply to lead with the helmet.

“We are just trying to keep their (players) eyes up and the head out and the proper way to tackle — where you hit with your chest and your shoulder, wrap up with your arms, drive with your legs,” Bainter said. “But keep your helmet out of it.”

IS FOOTBALL SAFE?

Bainter is a graduate of Evergreen High School, the school coping with the death of one of its student-athletes to a head injury.

David Young, a senior on the Adna football team, was released from Harborview Medical Center on Wednesday, five days after breaking his neck in two places. He told KING-5: “Keep your head up when you go in for a tackle.”

Bainter is not naive enough to think concussions can be completely eliminated from football.

There’s always going to be a risk. The helmet is always going to be a part of the game and so is the head. You can’t always fix that. But we believe that through proper techniques and coaching and teaching, and understanding different levels of contact, that we can significantly reduce the risks of so many injuries that are associated with the head.

Tom Bainter, Bothell football coach and master trainer through USA Football’s Heads Up program

Lane refers to most people as “Bud.” He said there’s players he’s known for about five months now, but he still can’t remember their names.

“If I met you once, I’m not going to remember. It’s nothing personal,” Lane said. “I never really had trouble with it before.”

Other times he’ll stop talking in midconversation, he said, and his wife will snap her fingers in front of his face to remove him from his daze.

It hasn’t scared him from the sport. He has three sons, and his oldest — a 7-year-old — has played football for the past three years, and Lane said his second oldest (5) plans to start playing next year.

Fewer head and neck fatalities were recorded in football from 2005-2014 (36) since data collection began in 1931, according to the National Center for Sports Catastrophic Injury Research at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Before a 1976 rule change that eliminated the head as the initial contact point in blocking and tackling, fatalities in football averaged more than 10 per year and there were 5 in 2014, according to the center.

“You can’t feel confident, 100 percent, in their safety one way or the other,” Lane said. “You can keep them out and they could get hit by a car. I’m a case in point of that. I got hit on the street four days before we moved here (from California). I would go running in the morning and a car hit me.

“But are you putting your child in a situation where it’s more likely something could happen? Absolutely. So you have to feel comfortable with the coaching staff and the school and that they have your student at heart. If you feel comfortable with that, then you should have no issue because if, God forbid, something should happen, then at least you know that they are going to do everything they can to put your child first.”

Tacoma School District athletic director Sam Reed said each of Tacoma’s public schools with football teams — Foss, Lincoln, Mount Tahoma, Stadium and Wilson — will hold a moment of silence for Bui before their games Friday.

“This was the fourth death in the country this year, and it’s tragic,” Colbrese said. “The family is the focus of our concern. Our continued belief is that we will learn from this and improve from there.”

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