Ted Harrison is proud that his son, Malik, plays football for Eastern Illinois University on a full scholarship. But ask Harrison about his son’s history of concussions, and he’s not sure he knows the exact number. He thinks the first one occurred during an afternoon practice early in Malik’s playing career at Springfield High School.
The Harrisons weren't notified by the coaching staff.
“We were alerted by Malik," Harrison says.
"Malik told us. Practice was after school, and I think what happened was, he went to school the next day, and then he had kind of a blackout episode.”
Harrison’s wife Gwen has a more vivid memory.
“He suffered one in practice, and he thought he had a concussion but he wasn’t quite sure," she says. "It wasn’t until he blacked out, on the stairs. He would’ve fallen on the stairs if his classmates had not caught him. That’s how bad it was.”
That’s also a snapshot of how most athletes, coaches and parents regarded concussions as recently as five years ago. Instead of seeking medical attention, and giving the brain time to heal, there was a tendency to “tough it out.”
But thanks to retired NFL players and other athletes raising awareness of the long-term effects of concussions, most states have adopted laws requiring school districts to implement strict protocols for handling head injuries at sporting events. In fact, under a new law signed earlier this week by Governor Bruce Rauner, Malik Harrison probably wouldn’t have been at school the day he blacked out on the stairs.
Springfield School District superintendent Jennifer Gill, explained the new law to board members earlier this week. “The new part of this law that’s interesting is that not only is there return to play information not only for whether you can physically go and go to practice and play, but also whether you can attend school,” she said.
The new law requires schools to establish concussion oversight teams to draw up medically-sound processes to determine when and how concussed athletes can rejoin their teammates on the field, and their classmates inside the school. These protocols are called “return to play” and “return-to-learn.”
“Because it affects not only your ability to be physical but also your ability to attend academically as well,” Gill says.
In recognition of the fact that concussions can happen in almost any sport, the law spells out a long list including golf, tennis, skating, swimming and diving, water polo, marching band and ultimate Frisbee. But of course, it’s football -- the sport where guys line up and plow into each other -- that’s normally associated with concussions.
Aaron Kunz, coach of the Williamsville Bullets -- the team that came close to winning the state 3A championship last year -- says he has seen an upsurge in concussions since he graduated from high school in 1993.
“In all honesty, in the years I played, I only remember one person that ever had a concussion that was diagnosed with a concussion or came out of a game," he says. "So it was a lot different. So it wasn’t talked about very much because we didn’t have any really.”
In fact, he's seen more concussions in his coaching career than he did as a player.
“Oh no question. Yeah. Not even close. Especially in the last five years," Kunz says. "I would say it’s been even more than it had been before."
He has a couple of theories to explain the increase.
“Well, I think partly it’s due to just the physicality of the game’s changed," Kunz says. "I mean, back when we played, weightlifting wasn’t a big deal, you know. I think that we just didn’t… we lifted here and there but we didn’t lift like we do now, we didn’t lift year-round. I think everybody’s just faster and stronger now. And I also think the light of exactly what it is has come out and I think people are just more aware. And if they do have multiple symptoms, they are more aware and they let us know.”
Those symptoms can include dizziness, headache, nausea, blurred vision, memory loss, sensitivity to light or noise, or ringing in the ears. Losing consciousness, as Malik Harrison did at school, signals a Grade 3 concussion.
His father, Ted Harrison, was -- like Kunz, a football coach who had played in high school. Only Harrison played in the 1970s, about 15 years before Kunz. Ted Harrison has no recollection of anyone sustaining a concussion.
“We wouldn’t even classify them as concussions -- you just got your bell rung," Harrison says. "That was the term back in the day: You got your bell rung. And if you saw double or got headaches or things like that, had any sensitivity to light, it was just because you got your bell rung.”
That phraseology is pretty accurate. When your head gets hit hard enough that your brain sloshes around, bumping against the your skull like a clapper inside a bell, then you’ve probably experienced a concussion. The traditional treatment, in the 1970s, was simply to get back into the game as soon as possible.
“I know that the first time I probably had a concussion, I went back in the game as soon as i stopped seeing double. And you know, i think the thing back then when we were coming up was you just manned up. you know what i mean? You just manned up. We didn’t think anything like that was something that was supposed to stop us, be we just didn’t know any better. The only thing we knew was that we were young men, we manned up, we were macho, and we were going to go out there and win or die trying. That kind of thing.”
The new law specifies that an athlete who appears to have suffered a concussion can be immediately removed from the playing or practice field by the coach, an official, a doctor, the student’s parents or legal guardian, or the student himself. Getting back on the active list requires written permission from a doctor or athletic trainer as well as the student’s parents.
And remember, under the new law, these permissions are needed to return to the classroom too.
Scanning Illinois’ new law, Harrison shrugs off the fact that he himself played football without such protective policies. But viewing them through the lens of fatherhood, as Malik’s dad? That’s a different matter. “Because as I read some of the constituents of the policy," he says, "there’s a lot of safeguards it looks to me that they have put in that particular policy that weren’t in effect during the time when he was playing football.”
There was that time he got a hard hit in high school practice was just the beginning.
“I would say Malik’s had at least three concussions," Ted Harrison says. "The first one was in practice, then he had another one at a playoff game, at a playoff game in high school, and then the third one was at a practice in college.”
The second concussion was the only one his parents witnessed, but they can’t say how it happened. The playoff game was a lopsided loss, and Malik was playing both offense and defense, getting pounded on every play. Gwen Harrison is afraid three is a low estimate.
“Malik, I think, would know that he was hurt, but because he was such a player and so competitive, he did not like to sound the alert," she says. "And so there’s probably been more concussions than we’ve been made aware of, to be quite frank with you. But he’s been healthy and so strong, he’s been able to just get through it.”
“Right now, Malik’s doing well," Ted Harrison says. "But, if Malik has one more concussion, his football career is over. That was stated to him by a physician. They said that’s enough.”