On Sunday, a 13-year-old boy in Maine will sit in front of a TV and cheer on his team. He’ll exult when the team scores a touchdown, and probably pump his fist in the air when the team’s defensive lineman crunches the other team’s running back. When he gets into high school, that boy may play football and revel in the joy of scoring touchdowns and delivering bone-jarring tackles on opposing halfbacks.
But the football experiences of a 13-year-old boy in the other corner of the country should inform the way Maine student athletes play. Last June, in Covington, Wash., Zack Lystedt, now 18, struggled but succeeded in rising from a wheelchair to accept his high school diploma.
While making a tackle as he played on his middle school football team, Zack suffered a blow to the head. It was the second hit to his head that day, and unbeknownst to his coaches, he had sustained a minor concussion on the first hit. That first concussion set him up for a serious brain injury, one that left him unable to speak for a year. Multiple brain surgeries followed. Through years of therapy, Zack is relearning how to eat, talk and move.
The tragedy is that his traumatic brain injury was entirely avoidable.
Thirty-one states have adopted laws to protect students from Zack’s injury. Maine could soon join that list. LD 98, sponsored by Rep. Don Pilon, D-Saco, directs the Education Commissioner to develop a protocol for schools to address head injuries. The bill, which passed the Education Committee unanimously last week, is co-sponsored by Rep. Ed Mazurek, D-Rockland, who played in the NFL in the early 1960s.
David Krichavsky, a community affairs officer for the NFL, said that the laws in other states consist of three key components: educating school officials, parents and athletes about the threat; removing a student athlete from competition if a concussion is even suspected — “When in doubt, sit him out,” is the rule; and requiring an athlete with a head injury to be evaluated and cleared to return to play by a physician trained in assessing such injuries.
Dr. Paul Berkner, director of health services at Colby College, said physicians are not always up to speed on assessing head injuries. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers a four-hour, online course for physicians and others, he said.
Maine has not been immune from sports-related head injuries. And they’re not all suffered in football games.
Two years ago, Bangor High School’s Katie Brochu suffered a concussion while playing basketball. After being cleared by a physician to return to play, she again collided with another player. Even though her head wasn’t hit, the injury affected her severely enough to send her to the hospital.
In 2010, a cheerleader at Poland Regional High School was injured when she was thrown 20 feet into the air but not caught by her teammates. The medical response focused on her neck and spine, which were sprained. But later, the girl began displaying the symptoms that typically follow traumatic brain injury.
Young brains seem to be especially vulnerable, and, as was the case with Zack, the second injury seems to pose a far greater risk.
So, as the Giants and Patriots figuratively butt heads in the Super Bowl, we should be reminded of the risks of such injuries, and the responsibility of schools to protect those young brains.