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Kids And Concussions: Advocate Pushes For Limits On Hits In High School Sports

Coaches in Illinois are required by state law to remove from a game or practice any athlete suspected of suffering a concussion.

But responding quickly after a hard hit isn't enough for a former football player from the Chicago area who now advocates nationwide to prevent injury to still-developing brains.

In the latest report from the WUIS Health Desk, Peter Gray reports on a push for Illinois to follow the NFL and other states in limiting days of full contact football practice.

It’s a cool, Friday evening in the fall - game day. But Rick Fanning of Lanphier High School in Springfield isn’t on the bus with the rest of his team. He’s at home, recovering.

Credit Peter Gray/WUIS
Holly Fanning and her son Rick outside their Springfield home

FANNING: “I don’t remember the whole thing. But what I do remember is I was at football practice...”

Rick’s now had four concussions – one every summer for the past four years. Each blow came from a teammate, not an opponent. Each an accident during practice.

FANNING: “We dropped our shoulders and we hit heads. I remember hitting the ground and when I tried to stand up I fell down again.”

Fanning’s mother, Holly, says Rick is still struggling to shake the symptoms. He’s missed days of school due to chronic headaches and depression. So she sent him to a local concussion clinic.

FANNING: “Just to make sure it’s nothing that’s going to be permanent, it’s just going to go away eventually. They’re also sending him in to do the MRI and talk to a neurologist, just to make sure everything’s right. Because it’s been almost 4 weeks since he had the concussion and he’s just not coming back like he has before.”

Credit Peter Gray/WUIS
Orthopedic physiatrist John Watson quickly checks an x-ray before seeing an athlete at his Springfield sports medicine clinic

WATSON: “The hard part with sports is that kids do want to play. They feel like they look weak, or somehow not being a good teammate.”

Doctor John Watson told Rick Fanning he’d better stay off the football field this season.

Fanning is keeping score right now - but not touchdowns.  Instead, he’s tracking his own results from a computer program that checks memory and reaction time. He still hasn’t returned to his normal – or “baseline” – score, a troubling sign.

Dr. Watson says cognitive tests like this one are tools to understand what’s going on internally.

WATSON: “If there’s one thing we can fall back on it’s the impact test, which evaluates their brain, sees how it’s functioning. That test is vital because it tells me right away they’re not thinking clearly.”

Dr. Watson’s clinic sent certified trainer Devin Spears to Fanning’s school to administer him the test.  Spears says it’s a challenge explaining to teen athletes what’s going on in their heads. But over the years he’s learned to use a simple visual:

Credit Peter Gray/WUIS
Certified trainer Devin Spears logs in to imPACT, web-based software designed to test brain function of athletes before and after sustaining an injury to the head

SPEARS: “I talk to kids about – think of your brains as fruit in a bowl. We put water in the bowl; the fruit starts to float. We start shaking the bowl back and forth. What’s going to happen to the fruit? It’s going to start sloshing. It’s going to start banging into the inside of the bowl. The concussion actually is where the surface of the brain impacts the interior of the skull."

WEB EXTRA: Athletic trainer Devin Spears shares his experience with teaching kids about concussions

WWE ANNOUNCER: “Chris Nowinski, the man from Harvard, certainly thinks he can’t be beat.”

Pro wrestling fans haven’t seen Chris Nowinski in the ring since his life-changing concussion in 2003.  Nowinski is from the Chicago suburb of Arlington Heights and played Ivy League football:

NOWINSKI: ”Defensive tackle at Harvard, then wrestled for WWE, where I had to retire due to post-concussion syndrome that affected me for five years. I got kicked in the head in a wrestling match.”

Credit www.chrisnowinski.net
Chris Nowinski, under the name Chris Harvard, wrestled in the WWE before a kick to the head and diagnosis of Post-Concussion Syndrome (PCS)

Today you might call Nowinski a brain health “crusader”. He started the nationwide non-profit Sports Legacy Institute in 2007 and pushed to limit days of full contact practice in the NFL and Ivy League. Now, Nowinski says he’s turning his attention to high schools:

NOWINSKI: “The science is black and white. Fewer hits to the head is better for you. When kids are recorded getting over 2,000 blows to the head in a season, most of those are wasted in practice. We’ve learned you can still teach the game safely with half as many hits.”

Nowinski and his alma mater high school in Arlington Heights want the Illinois High School Association to start cutting back on full contact, starting with the elimination of summer football.  The school has until October 15th to submit their proposal to the IHSA. If the sports governing body approves, the contact limits could be in place as soon as next spring.

Kurt Gibson leads the IHSA Sports Medicine Advisory Committee. Gibson says hitting at practices when players are in full pads is left up to coaches. But he says a policy in place for four years - which became state law in 2011 - requires coaches pull from a game or practice players displaying concussion symptoms.  Even if they’re just what some might call “out of it.”

Credit www.ihsa.org
ISHA Associate Exec. Dir. Kurt Gibson

GIBSON: “So there’s clearly a responsibility on coaches, primarily, and also teammates, that when they see somebody displaying those signs, get ‘em out.”

State law specifies that only doctors or certified athletic trainers can put a player back into a game after a concussion has been ruled out.  He says often the IHSA officials out on the field - those guys in the zebra stripes - are the first to spot a problem during a game:

GIBSON: “That’s important because sometimes at lower level games trainers aren’t always present or physicians aren’t always present.”

Some football programs can afford trainers at both games and practices.

The Sacred Heart-Griffin Cyclones in Springfield not only have the staff, they also have a sports medicine clinic that was built right next to their new field.

LEONARD: “If there’s one injury it’s too many. I do believe this without question; the game of football is much safer.”

Credit Peter Gray/WUIS
SHG Cyclones Head Coach Ken Leonard talks to his varsity players before an afternoon practice

Ken Leonard has coached high school teams since 1976 and says no one he knows has shown signs of brain trauma after years of hard hits. Leonard thinks football today is safer than riding a bike.

LEONARD: “I’ve got grandchildren. If they want to play I’d back them 100 percent. Our equipment is so much better and the coaches are much better trained than they were 40, 30 years ago”

Coach Leonard’s school is trying new technology that may be the future of concussion detection – in-helmet sensors that send impact data wirelessly to a monitoring device on the sideline. But few coaches can afford the cutting edge, and not all schools can pay athletic trainers to attend games and practices.

At Riverton High, for example – just east of Springfield – Coach John Hambelton does the best he can with limited resources. He says watching for head injuries at practice falls to him and a few others:

Credit Peter Gray/WUIS
Former Riverton Hawks player John Hambelton is now head coach of the football team

HAMBELTON: ”Our coaching staff knows what’s going on. I think they know a suspected concussion, they know the kid needs to sit out. So we err on the side of caution, that’s all we can do, we don’t have a trainer available. So if someone’s showing signs of concussion – headache, dizziness – they’re probably done for the day.”

Sitting in his living room, high school junior Rick Fanning has accepted he’s done for the year.

FANNING: “The past few days my headaches haven’t been too bad, but like I said, there’s still that depression state. It’s like a slump. I don’t know how to get out of it.”

Fanning’s mom Holly says her own research into athlete brain damage and even cases of sudden death brought the issue home for her.

FANNING: “You can have your kid be a star, but if they’re injuring themselves to the point they’re ruining their future, then it’s time to back off and let the kid do what he needs to do.”

Chris Nowinski, who’s pushing Illinois to follow the NFL and other states in limiting how often the brain becomes a target, agrees Rick Fanning and other teens need to take the long-view when it comes to health.

NOWINSKI: “He’s going to need his brain for the rest of his life – to hold down a job, to be a good husband and father – and we’ve learned that if you abuse your brain as a young man, everything can fall apart 20 years down the road.”

Reporting from the WUIS Health Desk, I’m Peter Gray.   

Peter has a diverse background in public, independent and commercial media production. Beginning in 2011, Peter served as reporter and “Morning Edition” host for WUIS. He completed his work at WUIS in 2014. Prior to his start in public radio, he covered the Illinois legislature for NBC affiliate WANDTV-17 and helped launch Phenom Features, a non-profit apprenticeship film studio. Peter hails from Oswego, Ill., where he grew up watching WTTW-11/PBS.
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