Jenna Lord remembers the little brother who made friends easily, was rarely seen without a smile on his face and approached sports, school and life with equal enthusiasm.
The young man she encountered in the months prior to his death was an eerie shadow of that.
“He had a lot of personality changes,” Lord said. “He was less driven in school. He complained of headaches. He had more of a temper and got aggravated easily.”
Jake Lord was a three-sport athlete from the final graduating class at Jay High School. His suicide on Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2011 — two months into his initial semester at the University of Southern Maine — stunned two tight-knit communities.
Lord’s death also accelerated the discussion about repeated concussions and their potentially devastating effects.
The plight of several former National Football League players has shed light on the long-term physical and psychological impact of head injuries. Less publicized but equally real are the short-term pitfalls for much younger concussion victims.
It doesn’t require a staggering number of diagnosed concussions, either. Jenna Lord knows of only two during Jake’s high school career, both sustained in football.
“That doesn’t take into account any smaller concussions that may have been unrecognized or untreated,” she said. “He started playing football in second grade, I think, so who really knows?”
Jake’s second head injury was significant enough that it abbreviated his football career. He continued to play basketball as well as both high school and American Legion baseball.
Dr. Robert Cantu, a neurosurgeon with the Boston University School of Medicine, has authored a book and co-written a study that each document the link between sport-related concussions and suicide.
While he recognizes depression as a symptom of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, Cantu also has observed changes in athletes’ demeanor when the cheering stops and their lifestyles change as a consequence of the head trauma.
“There’s no question that there is an increased risk,” Cantu said. “We see a high volume of depression in people with post-concussion syndrome. But often it’s more than just the injury.”
The suicides of NFL retirees Junior Seau and Dave Duerson and, recently, former Major League Baseball outfielder Ryan Freel have escalated awareness of CTE, a progressive, degenerative disease associated with multiple concussions.
Of greater concern to young athletes and their families, Cantu and other physicians have found increased evidence of the same brain damage in teenagers.
Jake Lord’s family can only speculate if CTE was a culprit in his suicide, but his sister saw many telltale signs.
“From the beginning, when we all described the changes that we’d seen in Jake, I knew I had to do something,” Jenna Lord said.
That inspiration birthed the Jake Lord Play It Safe Foundation, a nonprofit enterprise his sister hopes will be a catalyst for change and consciousness in high school sports.
The foundation’s three stated goals: To raise funds to purchase high-quality helmets and other equipment that will help reduce the likelihood of concussions; to institute concussion awareness and baseline screening programs for athletes; and to promote state and local policies to protect youth from concussions and brain injuries.
Lord currently is building a board of directors. Now living just outside Albany, N.Y., she has conducted seminars for school officials and athletes in the area.
“I’d like to see it expand to cover all students, not just athletes,” she said. “My focus is on athletes, but you can get a concussion just from bumping your head.”
The organization’s mission already has taken root in the Lords’ childhood community. At Spruce Mountain High School, formed from the consolidation of Jay and Livermore Falls in 2011, the boys’ basketball program has launched an annual alumni game with all proceeds earmarked for the foundation.
Spruce Mountain has instituted concussion testing and return-to-play policies that exceed state requirements and are more stringent than those of many neighboring schools.
Cantu cautions that no football helmets are scientifically proven to reduce the risk of concussions. Lord is convinced otherwise.
“Riddell manufactures high-tech helmets. They’re not concussion-proof by any means, but I believe that they statistically reduce the number,” Lord said. “I also think maintenance of equipment is really important. Athletic trainers, coaches, parents and athletes all need to be aware of it. You can buy the equipment, but it needs to be maintained properly.”
Lord doesn’t see herself as a crusader, nor is she an extremist. She was a typical high school athlete who experienced her fair share of bumps and bruises, including at least two concussions in field hockey.
She is a champion of awareness, not alarm; of safety, not sensationalism. To cross that line, she said, would dishonor her brother.
“I’m a fan. I don’t want to change the way [football] is played at all,” she said. “I don’t want to make it more gentle. Jake would never want that.”
For more information about the Jake Lord Play It Safe Foundation, go to its Facebook page or email firstname.lastname@example.org.