* Editor’s note: This is the first in a three-part series examining the effect of concussions on participation in high school football, specifically in Davis and especially now that the long-term effects are well-known. Today, we report on the recent advancements in the public’s knowledge on the subject.
“If only 10 percent of mothers in America begin to conceive of football as a dangerous game, that is the end of football.”
— Joe Maroon, Pittsburgh Steelers team neurosurgeon and the co-developer of ImPACT, a computerized concussion evaluation system
Tyler Poland was the most excited he had been in his entire life. After three years of Junior Blue Devils and junior varsity football, he was finally entering his first varsity season as a junior at Davis High School.
It was the fall of 2007 and the Blue Devils were playing in a preseason jamboree at Foothill High in Sacramento.
On a routine defensive play in one of the scrimmages, Poland came up against an offensive player who was much bigger than he.
“I was fairly inexperienced, and it was my first year on varsity,” said Poland, who was a free safety. “I didn’t think about my (tackling) technique, and I received a pretty bad shot to the head trying to tackle the guy.”
Poland, then a tall, blond rock of a teenager, crumpled to the ground upon contact. He was concussed.
“That (concussion) took me out the whole season, and from then on I was considered susceptible to getting another one,” Poland said. “The trainers did a good job that year monitoring my injury, and they kept me out the whole season as I had ongoing symptoms for an extended time.”
Though discouraged, Poland was determined to play football again.
But four games into his senior season, his football career ended against Armijo.
“Near the end of the game I came up to make a tackle, broke down with good technique, and the other player lowered his head into mine,” Poland said. “I remember being very disoriented, and the coach noticed right away and took me out of the game immediately.”
Poland was transported to a hospital where he underwent a battery of neurological tests to determine if he was OK.
Despite being cleared by doctors to return to the field later that year, Poland called it quits after talking it over with his parents.
“I got cleared by the doctors outside of school, but the athletic trainer at the school suggested I don’t play. That was his personal opinion,” Poland said. “In the back of my mind I didn’t feel like it would be a very good idea (to return). Plus, I got knocked out for the entire year the year before. I just didn’t want to go through that again.
“I don’t regret it. I think it was the smart decision.”
He played just four regular-season games in his entire varsity career while receiving two concussions.
Unfortunately, stories like Poland’s aren’t rare; concussions are ubiquitous in football, a necessary evil.
“Kill the head and the body will die.”
— Former New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, the main culprit in the Saints’ bounty scandal, an illegal pay-for-performance program where Williams paid his players for knocking opposing players out of the game.
On Jan. 18, 2007, eight months before Poland began his high school varsity career, The New York Times published a front-page story linking concussions and repeated blows to the head sustained while playing football to long-term brain damage.
The story cited the chronic traumatic encephalopathy found in the brains of three deceased former NFL players. This condition was a result of the repeated blows to the head that these players had suffered over their lengthy NFL careers.
Two of them committed suicide: one by drinking antifreeze, the other by a gunshot wound to the head.
CTE is defined as a progressive degenerative disease of the brain that can cause memory loss, aggression, confusion and depression: the symptoms of dementia.
Jan. 18, 2007, was the day that the long-term effects of concussions and their link to CTE hit the mainstream media.
Since then, numerous studies and reports have corroborated this information. As of December 2012, 33 of the 34 brains that have been collected from deceased former NFL players since then have been diagnosed with CTE by the Sports Legacy Institute, a Boston-based nonprofit organization that studies brain trauma in sports.
On Dec. 20, 2009, The New York Times reported that the NFL had acknowledged long-term concussion effects associated with football. It was the first and last time the league would acknowledge this.
On Aug. 29, one week before the first game of the 2013 NFL season, a pending lawsuit involving roughly 6,000 former NFL players or their family members was settled out of court; the NFL awarded $765 million in damages.
The brain damage caused by repeated blows to the head in football isn’t limited to just NFL players. Links have been made to players much younger, even prep athletes, according to “League of Denial,” a book by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru, which documents the history of concussions and CTE in football.
“Most players are going to get this,” Ann McKee, the neuropathologist for the Sports Legacy Institute, said in “League of Denial.” “It’s just a question of degree.”
ESPN recently reported that an NFL-funded study showed that high school football players are nearly twice as likely as college players to suffer a brain injury.
Given the length of time that concussion information has been available to the public, The Enterprise set out to answer three questions:
* Since the issues linking repeated blows to the head in football to permanent brain damage were reported by the mainstream media in 2007, has the participation in high school football, most notably Davis High School football, declined?
* If participation is declining, what trends among the data can we analyze?
* What are the feelings of Davis parents with eligible kids in regards to their children playing high school football?
The Enterprise’s findings will be reported in the next two installments of this series.
— Evan Ream is a freelance journalist based in Davis. Email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @EvanReam. Steve Legé and Karen Thome contributed to this report.