No game at all

Concussions have become a hot-button issue at local high schools

MECOSTA COUNTY — For anyone who played on a sports team in high school while growing up, taking a hard hit on the football field or having a big collision on the basketball court was simply known as “getting your bell rung.”

MISSING TIME: Chippewa Hills’ Jared Emerson (left) missed out on competing at the MHSAA Division 2 State Finals last weekend because of a concussion and broken collarbone he suffered in practice during the week leading up to the state finals. The discussion of concussions has not only picked up on the professional and collegiate levels, but the high school level as well. (Pioneer file photo)

Now, with the advances in sports medicine and education, these hard hits have come to be known as something else: a concussion.

With the recent death of former Grand Valley State quarterback Cullen Finnerty, whose family said his history of multiple concussions may have played a part in an “episode” that occurred prior to his recent death in the woods near Baldwin, the debate on concussions has not only peaked at the professional and collegiate levels, but on the high school level as well.

While playing through a hard collision was once seen as no big deal, administrators, coaches and trainers alike have begun to see an improvement on how concussions are being diagnosed and treated at the high school level.

For Chippewa Hills football coach Larry Jose, the biggest improvement he has seen in concussion treatment during his 20-year coaching career has been the identification of a possible concussion.

“We’ve went from someone just having their bell rung or they’re seeing stars to having anything involving the head and neck area being considered a concussion,” he said.

Football has been at the focus of concussion discussions, but Jose said part of the improvement in concussion identification and treatment has been a change in culture concerning head injuries in the sport.

“Back then, it was a toughness check of ‘Yeah, you got your bell rung, but can you be tough and still play?,’” he said. “Now, it’s nothing like that. It’s always about erring on the side of caution with anything that concerns the head.”

With all of the things he has to focus on during a game, Jose said the increased knowledge his players have gained about concussions has helped his staff to better identify players who might have suffered a concussion.

“The players out on the field and in the huddle that are around a guy that suffered a concussion have a better chance of seeing the symptoms before we do,” he said. “We’re always looking for it, but the players might be able to notice a change in personality or behavior out on the field before we finally get a kid to the sidelines and notice something isn’t right. So we need to educate everyone involved from the coaches, the players, the referees and everyone in between.”

Like Jose, Big Rapids hockey coach Tim Blashill believes that education is one of the best methods to limit concussion damage to athletes.

“I think, number one, the education everyone, especially the players, have gained in regards to concussions has substantially improved,” he said. “The discussion is even bigger than it was two or three years ago.”

In a sport like hockey, where players pride themselves on toughness and battling through injuries, Blashill said while there has been some resistance from some of the older hockey coaches and players to embrace the new approach to safety, the overall improvements in identifying and treating concussions has been on the upswing.

“I grew up in Sault Ste. Marie where hockey was a way of life,” he said. “I was a physical player and I certainly wouldn’t allow anyone to take me out if I had any injury back then. That’s something even as a coach that I’ve had to get better at over the years. But you just don’t know what an injury like a concussion can do to you down the road. You look at a story like the Grand Valley quarterback and you get a little nervous when you think about the possible concussions you might have suffered back in the day.”

If a player on Blashill’s team is thought to have suffered any concussion-like injuries, the player is immediately yanked from the game.

“If there’s even a thought that a player suffered a concussion, we take them out and if they are diagnosed, they sit out for a week at minimum,” he said.

Luckily for Blashill and all of the Big Rapids coaches, they have the assistance of Chelsea Read, who serves as the Cardinals’ athletic trainer five days a week at the school, in addition to being on the sidelines at every home game.

For Big Rapids athletic director Nick Scheible, having Read on the sidelines and at the school is money well spent.

“I think at Big Rapids, we’re in a unique position with having a trainer to work with our athletes and coaches,” he said. “It’s a huge benefit to have her expertise and I think it’s a huge relief for the coaches because they can trust her expertise, which allows them to continue to coach. The coaches are still concerned with looking for injuries, but it helps to have someone on the sidelines who’s specifically looking for players who might be experiencing concussion symptoms.”

Having Read at the school also allows her to educate players and coaches on identifying the signs and symptoms of a possible concussion.

“I think our coaches do a great job of trying to become better educated on the issue, but it’s great to have Chelsea here to work with them to help them detect the signs of a concussion,” Scheible said. “The kids especially are doing a better job of identifying a teammate in the huddle who might have suffered a concussion and alerting their coaches or Chelsea to what is going on.”

As she finishes up her second year as the Cardinals’ athletic trainer, Read said she has been encouraged by the progress coaches and players have made in identifying possible concussions and alerting her to the issue.

“It makes me really proud of the kids when they are more worried about their teammates than the game,” she said. “In the culture of sports today, people are worried more about winning than anything else. The coaches here at Big Rapids have been super supportive of what I do and are always keeping an eye on the kids. I think the coaches and players both are taking a hold of the issue and making sure they’re looking out for possible concussions.”

Read said there are some tell-tale signs she looks for to determine if a player has suffered a possible concussion.

“The big thing I’m looking for is a hard impact,” she said. “The symptoms I’m looking for are the usual ones of players complaining of headaches, feeling dizzy, feeling nauseous and things like that. I also rely on their teammates to tell me if anyone has any changes in their personality. If a player is usually serious and focused during a game and they start acting weird or out of character, I’m going to check them out.”

Because she is only on the sideline for home games, Read said she gets nervous when the Cardinals head out on the road and she’s not there.

“I worry about the players when I’m not there,” she said. “I think our coaches do a great job of trying to identify concussion symptoms, but I just get nervous when I’m not there. The (Michigan High School Athletic Association) is doing a good job in their efforts to increase awareness and education about concussions, but there’s plenty of work still to be done.”

Heading into the 2012-13 sports seasons, the MHSAA, in partnership with the University of Michigan’s NeuroSport and the Pediatric Trauma Program at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, required online rules meetings for coaches and officials that included an educational component illustrating the serious nature of concussions; recognition of the signs and symptoms; a review of return to play protocols; applicable MHSAA regulations and downloadable resources.

For Read, there can never be too much information and education for coaches, players, referees and everyone involved with high school athletics, especially in regards to post-concussion symptoms.

“Just because the symptoms don’t show up right away, it doesn’t mean they’re not there,” she said. “It’s scary when you think of all of the post-concussion issues that can come about. Especially now, people are starting to find out that it doesn’t take a major concussion to cause a lot of damage. In a lot of sports, it’s the build-up of all the smaller hits and collisions that can cause the most damage.”

One of the most recent developments in the concussion discussion has been the increase in athletes in contact sports developing chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a progressive degenerative disease that affects athletes with a history of multiple concussions or head injuries.

According to the National Academy of Sciences, the disease can only be definitively diagnosed after a person has died, but individuals with the disease may show signs of dementia, such as memory loss, aggression, confusion and depression.

“These kids don’t think about the future,” Read said. “They only think about what’s going on at the present. They have to start thinking about the future when it comes to concussions because you don’t know what these concussions and head injuries are going to do to you as you get older.”

To read more about how concussions are handled at the collegiate level, click here.

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