ORONO, Maine — It was a flash in time that took Bob Sinclair by surprise one Friday night last fall.
The Orono High School football coach watched as one of his strongest, most physical players made what looked to be merely glancing helmet-to-helmet contact with an opponent from Stearns of Millinocket during the final play of the first half.
When the player didn’t rise immediately, Sinclair urged him to join his fellow Red Riots in leaving the field, which he did.
But by the time the player reached the locker room and sat down, slumped over and facing the opposite direction from his teammates, Sinclair knew something was wrong.
A trip to the hospital provided confirmation — the player suffered a concussion that sidelined him for the rest of the season.
Longtime coaches like Sinclair and Joel Sankey of Bucksport are optimistic about football’s continued prominence within the American sports spectrum. But they’re also cognizant of the need to be steadfast in everything from teaching proper techniques to recognizing signs that a player might have suffered a concussion no matter how hard or slight the contact.
“You need to know your stuff so as best as you can you can account for every scenario,” said Sinclair after a concussion management seminar for Little Ten Conference coaches held Saturday at Orono Middle School.
“Not every athlete is going to show the classic signs of a concussion, so as we learned today you need to know your kids and you need to do the best you can to be prepared for any situation. In our case we couldn’t quite believe what we were seeing, and it turned out to be very serious. It ended well, but you never want to be in that situation.”
Topics addressed during the two-hour seminar included the evolution and proper fitting of football helmets, tackling techniques, the role of certified athletic trainers and school nurses in head injury management, and determining when a concussed athlete is ready to return to the team and classroom.
“It’s all about education and awareness and being proactive with regard to this issue,” said Mike Archer, athletic administrator at Orono High School and secretary-treasurer of the LTC, which in the 2013 season will consist of Bucksport, Dexter, Ellsworth-Sumner, John Bapst of Bangor, Mattanawcook Academy of Lincoln, Maine Central Institute of Pittsfield, Mount View of Thorndike, Orono, Stearns of Millinocket and Washington Academy of East Machias.
“Concussion is the buzzword in athletics now, not just at the high school level but also at the collegiate and professional levels. We need to do everything we can as administrators and coaches to make these kids who are playing football know that we want to put them in the safest position possible, but in doing that knowing we can’t guarantee anything. There are still going to be players who are going to be concussed.”
Bill Rice, regional sales manager for football helmet manufacturer Schutt Sports, acknowledged that “concussions have mushroomed into a public health issue.” He added that rule changes, new helmet materials, attention to tackling techniques, lighter and better-performing equipment and practice contact limits at some levels of the sport all have enhanced player safety.
“The irony is the game has never been safer from a technological and protective perspective,” he said.
Chris Sementelli, director of sports medicine at Maine General Medical Center in Augusta and Waterville, outlined elements of Maine’s recently adopted law that directs schools to develop a team of medical professionals to deal with head-injury cases. He also emphasized the need for school medical personnel and coaches to work closely with each other and with their student-athletes in order to recognize concussion signs and symptoms more effectively.
“Knowing your athlete is critical with this point,” Sementelli said. “Know their bents, and know their attitudes toward adversity.”
Dr. Cameron Truby, a primary care sports medicine physician at the Bangor-based Downeast Orthopedics, discussed the various stages of concussion assessment and recovery a student-athlete must pass before returning to school and practice, and said one of the related challenges is that no two concussions are alike.
“Every kid is different, every concussion is different and every concussion within a kid is different,” he said.
Veteran and newer coaches alike agree that in part due to advances in sports medicine and the attention now placed on such injuries as concussions, their jobs have grown into something far more complex than teaching football fundamentals.
“It’s interesting to hear all the different points of view and all the new material that’s coming down,” said Sankey. “In a sense it’s kind of frightening. I’ve been doing this for a long time, 40 years or so, and you look at it now with the threat of lawsuits and wonder why people would want to get into this. With budget cuts, we went from having a doctor on the sidelines with a trainer to now where we don’t have a team doctor and we don’t have a team trainer. The ambulance crew is always there, but it puts a lot of responsibilities on the heads of the coaches.”
Those same coaches expect their sport will continue to thrive, particularly if health concerns such as concussions can be alleviated.
“I think football will survive as a sport and as a game,” said Sinclair. “It might look different, but in the time I’ve been involved with it, and Joel, too, the types of offenses you’re seeing, the types of strategies that are employed, the types of fields you’re playing on, it’s evolved quite a bit. You’ll probably see more of that, and safety probably will be what drives that, but I think football will survive as an institution.
“It’s a pretty good American game.”