September 22, 2011
The End Of The Game As We Know It
I will never forget September 27th, 2009 because it was a day that changed my life. And it was a day that will be a part of a much bigger story. A story that will change the way we play the most beloved game in this great Country of ours. It was a day that we lost one of the great young men in America and it was our fault.
All of our fault.
That was the day that Valley Christian High School student-athlete Andrew “Drew” Swank who was #15 died having lost his life to Second Impact Syndrome; a direct result of him playing in a High School football game with a severe concussion he recieved a week prior and there is little debate over the fact that many of those involved knew he was hurt. But Drew was cleared to play and was hit again and again that Friday night. He took a fatal blow in the game and as his brain swelled out of control a chain of nightmarish events occured that we will not repeat here. Just know that everything that could have gone wrong went wrong. And no excuses in the world can forgive what happened.
It is something that can happen to any youth or high school football player at any time and in the age of bigger, faster and stronger it is happening more and more.
But Drew’s life, however short, shone so brightly and his death was so tragic that the interplay of events and the details about what happened are a sirens call to all of us. Drew’s grave called out to me the other day as I approached in awe finally making a planned pilgrimmage to pay my respects.
It has taken two years for that magnificent stone marking his life to be installed. But it was worth the wait and pays an honest tribute to him. The #15 hung in pine cones just behind the memorial granite by his 7 brothers and sisters was haunting. I passed beyond the stone with my 12 year old to look closer something was watching me.
There in the tree above the #15 in the heat of the morning sun was a magificent owl. Massive and woodsy-brown he sat with platter eyes watching.
At first we could not believe it. As we watched he stared at us from behind that number made of cones. We looked at him and he at us. After a time with a suttle turn of his head, seeming satisified we had seen what we were meant to see, he took silent flight into the woods to West. Woods where Drew Swank spent his free time in pursuit of nature and more innocent things; things free of footballs demands.
With that owl Drew’s message, which I had understood since the first time I met his family, was repeated. And it is one I write today to share with you all.
If you Coach, Teach, write, shoot pictures or film, mentor, act as a team parent or booster, are a medical professional, a parent, a fan, or an administrator (especially you folks) you better listen up. Because the party we have all been enjoying low these many years is over. And we should all be ashamed.
In The Beginning
Injuries like Drew’s have been happening for years and years. Death and football have been partners since the beginning. Even if people in the highest places never wanted to talk about it the grim reaper has had a front row seat for over a hundred years.
Sadly however having a discussion about football and the dangers of Traumatic Brain Injury & concussion has long been taboo. And in was not until the year Drew died (2009) and the Lystedt Law in Washington State was signed as the first concussion legislation that anyone did much of anything.
Now things have begun to change. Today we have 20 plus States that have adopted concussion legislation mandating a host of well intentioned educational requirements and return to play guidelines.
Today we have the NFL being a leader in this area which they did after much pressure from Zach Lystedt (Lystedt Law lead the Nation) and his family and other families like the Swanks. And the NFL of course is being sued by a growing group of their own players which might have helped wake them up. Hey they even gave $1 Million dollars to the Sports Legacy Institute to do research. Something many felt the multi-billion dollar rich boys that own the teams fell far short on.
“They should be spending $500,000,000 to a Billion,” offered one NFL Veteran we spoke with. “That was just chump change just for feel good PR.”
After the NFL took a semi-serious approach so did the NCAA. But can you fathom that it took this long for the biggest institutions in the world of sports to do this? And the excuse that “We are just now finding all this out” is a pitiful one. That is purely an excuse. The facts and research on the dangers of concussion and TBI have been everywhere for years.
The NCAA is now facing a law suit themselves. In a lawsuit filed last week Adrian Arrington who played Football at Eastern Illinois said he suffered “numerous and repeated concussions,” according to ESPN.com. Arrington says that he suffers from memory loss, depression and near-daily migraines as a result. This suit is heading to a Class Action status and could grow out of control.
Arrington is just one of hundreds of thousands of former high school and collegiate athletes who suffer from Post Concussion Syndrome and long term ill effects of the punishment they take in pursuit of the game. Unlike Second Impact Syndrome these issues don’t kill the athlete but can permanently effect their lives. Migraines, nauseau, memory loss, blurred vision, blance issues, and a host of other health concerns can follow these guys around for weeks or months or years.
But through it all insiders will lay out and often hide behind “Assumption of Risk” legal theory which simply means “you knew what you were getting into so shut up and take it”.
Maybe that works for adults who are at the age of consent but it is tempered and countered by “Standards of Care” which are a directly linked to the “Duty of Care”. The bottom line, regardless of the athletes age, is that anyone in a position to Coach, manage, or care for these athletes is in the line of fire. Those people have an obligation to know what is happening and what the latest and greatest concussion prevention and management options are.
With TBI and Concussion that means a lot because it is paramount to the survival of the athlete and the viability of the organization that the very highest standards be applied. But the truth is almost everyone in a position of power has turned a blind eye or been blinded by money.
If Second Impact Syndrome and Post Concussive Syndrome are two terrible outcomes we now have a third. The rising spectre of CTE; Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. This is a degenerative brain desease specifically brought on by repeated concussions and more importantly non-concussive blows to the head.
CTE was first discovered by Dr. Bennet Omalu as he autopsied the brains of Pittsburgh Steelers’ Terry Long and Mike Webster, and Philadelphia Eagle Andre Waters; all former NFL greats.
Omalu, an African emmigrant with the eyes of a child, saw what no one else was willing to see. He clearly saw that these athletes repeated brain trauma from the blows they took killed them. He did not even know what football was until someone told him what these players did for a living.
After three years of studying their brains on his own time at his own expense he found what he was looking for. A protein known as Tau was building up and causing brain damage to these athletes. It was creating atrophication of the brain at a level one might find in an 85 year old alzheimers patient. And to him it was conclusive. Football caused the death of these three men even though Waters and Long killed themselves and Webster died of massive heart failure.
Omalu has gone on to prove the existence of CTE which for several years now has been undisputable as a football related disease. His work, often marginalized especially by the NFL, was the opening of a new area of Medicine. It has led to the confirmation of no less then 30 former NFL players having the disease linked to their deaths.
Anytime you hear of an NFL or College age player dying regardless of the stated “cause of death” you must know that CTE could well have been a part of the death. The brain damage caused by it is so complete it can effect any function or system of the human body.
Now for the bad news. An athlete who never had a documented concussion can have CTE. And right now there is no way to confirm if you have it and no known method of stopping it. Like a bad disease slowly rotting the most mignificent tree the outside in killer will not stop. Only upon autopsy or death can it be confirmed.
CTE is the third and scariest byproduct of the game as we don’t know who or when it will strike next.
What should we do about all of this?
A fair question to ask. And a complex one. Experts will say we are doing all we can. But many including myself do not see it that way. In fact we see the problem only getting worse.
Predictions of a CTE epidemic are everywhere and even if it kills one more person it is too great a price to pay. Too great a price for just a game. In reality thousands will likely die or be forever disabled as a result of this monster.
The bigger, stronger, athletes we are building today are human missles on the field of a caliber and explosiveness that we have never seen before. Newton’s Second Law of Motion proved that Force = Mass x Acceleration. Bigger athletes who are faster are the new paradigm and that has caused much of this deadly dilemma.
No coach or fan will deny that we now have the highest level of force we have ever seen on display out there on that green expanse. And yet the human brain and skull are the same one we have had for eons.
Modern science has created these human monsters through training and nutritional supplements not to mention controlled substances like steroids and HGH. But modern science did not create a resolution for the problems it is creating.
What we should do is quickly implement tighter standards and better methods. Some of the best recommendations include mandatory education of everyone, a requirement for trainers on all sports fields, limited hitting during practices, better medical staff, strict return to play guidelines with a limitation on the type of Doctor that can clear an athlete, and mandatory neuro0cognitive Baseline Testing like ImPACT for all athletes in every sport.
Kids and families also need insurance on this issue. Do not expect your school or league to pay for your athletes medical bills. This is generally an exclusion and any long term coverage is not there. So mandatory insurance is not only a recommendation I would make but something that due to mounting litigation will be a requirement soon. And it will not come cheaply. Check out the Play It Safe Program that Wells Fargo offers for starters.
For me and my home the confluence of all of this has caused us to help found a group called BrainChampions and working for change through lobbying and education. Having two injured players in our home has led to a long term realization that these problems are very very real. That personal experience and the death of Drew Swank as well as the Second Impact injury to Yakima QB Matthew Newman, who was hurt the same night Swank was, finally made us wake up.
Matthew, whose story went around the globe , and our other members like Max Conradt (Oregon’s Max’s Law) go out into the field with me and talk to kids first hand when they can. It is grass roots work with the kids hearing first hand aboute the risks and dangers of what can happen. And it is having a huge impact.
BrainChampions.org is our website and we are totally self funded but are seeking backers to support our very unique and ground breaking approach. We have recently added a new girls concussion education program, Atalanta’s Pride, to our work. That program is headed up by concussion hero Tracy Yatsko. She is a true champion and continues to suffer from daily concussion related complications. Her work with us is incredible and she can be contacted for any speaking engagements any of you wish to sponsor her to attend. And she needs young ladies and people with energy and resources to help as well.
That is only scratching the surface of our members and our group and what we are working on but the point is we all have to help and get involved if there is any chance we save this game which we all love. That is a very important goal that we have after saving lives and protecting the kids. Join us at any level if you can help.
Get off the sidelines and get involved. Period.
The Final Drive
Now let’s talk about the little guys of the gridiron. And let’s talk about really what has to happen. What must happen.
I have been around and coached little guy football for almost 20 years. We won a lot of games and lost a lot. We trained a lot of kids to be good players, good sportsmen, and good people. I coached all three of my boys and taught them to “man up”, “Suck it up”, “Shake it off”, and all that other stuff they tell you when you decide to follow in the long line of Dads turned Pee-Wee coach.
But time and these many experiences have made me consider all that has happened and all that will happen. Little kids are being hurt in record numbers and coaches at that level are ill prepared to help or deal with that.
Drills often revolve around contact and hitting because it is what coaches think they need to do. But in truth it is the last thing they need to or should be doing. And young kids are the highest risk group in the sport for TBI and concussion as their brains are floating in a layer of liquid which allows a severe sloshing-reverberation effect when impacts are taking. The twisting of the many brain axons and fibers is very very dangerous.
After 3 or 4 days hitting on the practice field the boys (and girls too) play a full contact game on Saturday. This is no cute little football league where they bounce into each other. Today’s average 5th grader has already played a year or two and understands how to unload and hit with his helmet first; the same thing is favorites NFL players do.
Many of them go to trainers and Speed and Agility Coaches. Back to Sir Isaac Newton. This is very dangerous now. This is not your Dad’s Pop Warner experience. This is the big time.
In 1975 when I first played Pop Warner ball you could not play until you were 13 or 14 and in 7th grade. Old “Pop” liked it that way and had his reasons and that was the way we did it.
In 1998 when my oldest first played the league offered some spots to 2nd graders and there were no weight limits.
This combination of ill prepared coaches, repetitive blows, and undeveloped brains is a toxic combination for their futures.
Bennet Omalu talked about his feelings regarding youth players and the need to reconsider all we have been and are doing.
“When we are born, our brain weighs about 350 grams; at about one to two years of age, the brain attains about 75% of the adult size. The brain reaches 90% of its adult size at the fifth year and 95% by ten years old. The brain attains adult size by the seventeenth or eighteenth year largely due to continued myelination of nerve fibers. Before the age of eighteen, the human brain remains a developing brain,” said Omalu as quoted by author Matt Cheny from his book Spiral of Denial.
Omalu added, “Expectedly, injury to the developing brain of a child is more likely to result in more deleterious and more serious adverse outcomes than the developed adult brain. This means that the brains of children who play football are more vulnerable to the repeated impacts, sub-concussions and concussions intrinsic to the game of football. This means that a child who plays football may be precluded from attaining the full capacity of his cognitive and intellectual functioning as an adult.”
Admittedly Omalu clearly is not a fan of American Football and he clearly does not feel anyone should be playing at any age.
But that my friends does not make him wrong.
Time to Decide
After all we have learned in our household it became time to decide. Watching our own kids face problems and pain both long and short term was really tough. I had to reflect.
I had to dig deep and ask myself if it is all worth it. Should kids as young as 7 be hitting each other at full speed and doing so hundreds of times a week?
I reflected back to the grave. Back to the piercing eyes of the mystical owl. The haunting look that he gave us as he sat in the Pines above Drew Swanks grave ws other-worldly. I thought of his mom Patty and his Dad Don and the 7 brothers and sister that remain. There loss almost enough to break them.
Adding to that were recent meetings at camps with Matthew Newman and Max Conradt and seeing them struggle to have a normal life . I was greatful to be of 100% health and wishing that they could be too.
And by a few days later when I met a youth football player who shared with me he had just had his 6th concussion and that he was having a hard time in school…well I guess I had pretty much decided. I already knew what I needed to do.
On our blog I posted that Youth Football was too dangerous and had to be limited to flag football and devlopmental leagues.
This I firmly believe at this time. The kids will have more fun, more actual work will get done out of pads in terms of hand eye coordination and speed, and they will be spared from what has become an increasingly deadly sport.
They are kids and we are their stewards and have the duty to look out for them. We have the “duty of care” and we can not ignore what is happening to them.
CTE is a game changer.
It is a 900 pound gorilla running wild and it is mad. And it is hurting kids at a younger and younger age with no plans to stop.
Dr. Robert Cantu, chairman of the Department of Surgery at Emerson Hospital and co-director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at the Boston University School of Medicine just went public with this.
On September 13th bostonchannel.com transcript posted, “Brain Expert: Kids Shouldn’t Play Contact Sports,” stated, ” Children as young as 5 years old commonly play contact sports in the U.S. but one of the nation’s pre-eminent on concussion research has issued a blockbuster warning saying kids should not be playing these types of sports at all.”
The article quoted Dr. Cantu saying, “We’re going to be recommending that nobody under the age of 14 be involved in collision sports.”
Dr. Cantu told SportsConcussions.org that was a misquote and that he actually said, “Collision sports, as they are played today, should be avoided.”
He was referring to athletes in the youth category.
That is a major statement because Cantu is the main stream Doc that sets the benchmarks and the standards others will follow. Remember the “Standards of Care”? Once these sort of statements are made and people begin to talk they can quickly become the new standards.
Given all of this it is time to man up and State what has to happen. That we have done for some time now at BrainChampions.org
We were the first Organization to release a concussion management plan that is this comprehensive and maybe it is agressive. But we are out working and doing things and we are making a difference.
The big things we are looking at now are:
- Youth Football for boys and girls should be touch, flag, or modified rules of play to Grade 7
- All Schools mandate education of Players, Parents, and Coaches. Right now everyone wants to dump on good old Coach
- Medical trainers and staff at all competitive games with an ambulance available
- Concussion Management Plan in place and approved by the School: Know Who is doing What and Where to take an injured player
- All Youth athletes need a baseline concussion test with a rated and approved providor of Neuro-Cog testing
- Limit Contact at High Schools to 1 Full Contact day per week and on Game night. Same policies as the NFL.
- Strongly enforce all return to play guidelines and mandate longer rest periods.
- Track All Helmets and Recondition them ALL yearly.
- Offer your athletes and their family’s concussion/brain injury insurance and optional death benefit coverage to protect them if a tragedy occurs.
- Many more general guidelines.
Now many of my friends and former players will know the answer to the question, “What ever happened to Coach Dirk”. I get that one a lot. My 6th grader is 190 pounds and happier then ever. He still talks about the years he played (grades 2-5) but he is learning to play the guitar and enjoying time in the out of doors.
If he returns to the field it will be with one of our many friends who are head Coaches and who are getting this all right. But they need our help and support and are in a really tough spot right now. My hat goes off to each and every one of them.
To Get Involved
Join Brain Champs! Call us at 503-799-8383 and or email email@example.com. Matthew, Max, myself and others need help at Team 7:15. To all the girls Tracy needs help with “Atalanta’s Pride” which is so cool and of course we need help with our many other High School and youth initiatives. And truly we need financial support which will all be deductible.
So now that you have heard all this reflect. Does it make sense? Can you see the lawsuits stacking up and the claims coming? Can you see the end of the game? Or do you think we are getting it 100% correct?
Take part in our reader polls below and weigh in. The results might just surprise us all.