From the time I was upended and hit my head on the turf to when I woke up the next morning with a headache, I had only a fleeting awareness of the night I received a concussion. A doctor shined a flashlight into my eyes, I suddenly arrived at the dance, and the rest of the night was a blank.
I dragged myself out of bed that Saturday morning and reported to football practice. The next week’s game would be for the league championship, and the coach wanted us to go through some new plays. My teammates remarked about how goofy I had been the previous night, wandering around in the opponents’ defensive formation; I had been escorted off the field. Now my head was throbbing, but I was too tough to say anything about it.
If that scenario were to happen today, I would be prompted to speak up about my symptoms, and it would be mandated — by state law — that I stay away from practice until I received clearance from a licensed health professional. I had unknowingly exposed myself to the risk of a more serious brain injury.
I played my last full-contact, tackle football game a few weeks later. I have nothing but positive feelings about my high school football experience. If the clock were turned back 50 years and I again had a young, strong, undamaged body, I would do it all over. Jack Youngblood would say the same thing about his football career, but it was much more extensive than mine, and he has much to worry about because of it.
Concussions in sports, once a rarely discussed topic, have burst into the headlines. The most sensational stories are about the studies that show former professional football players are at a greatly increased risk of dementia, Alzheimer’s, and ALS — if they don’t kill themselves first.
Youngblood played 14 seasons in the National Football League as a defensive end for the Los Angeles Rams. Not even a broken leg could keep him off the field, as he played in 201 consecutive games. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. It is with mixed emotions that he attends reunions with other greats of the game, men like John Mackey, a formidable tight end who withered away and died in a few short years. “I see these giants slide down the hill, not able to take care of themselves,” Youngblood said, “and that is frightening to me.”
Youngblood expressed concern, not fear, when he spoke to a gathering of health professionals, sports participants, and fans last week at Fess Parker’s DoubleTree Resort. “Use your brain when you play hard” was the description of his talk, presented by the Cottage Rehabilitation Hospital Foundation. He laced it with humor, as in telling why he once thought he was indestructible: “A kid hit me on the top of the head with a hoe. I got through that.”
Football is a violent game, and concussions will always occur, Youngblood conceded. But he decried the helmet-first collisions by human missiles. There was such an incident Sunday when Oakland Raiders receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey took a blow from the helmet of Pittsburgh Steelers defender Ryan Mundy and was knocked unconscious. “If I was commissioner, and you use the top of your head as a contact point, you’re fined,” Youngblood told me. “Twice, and you’re out of the game.”
Vicious hits are often portrayed as TV highlights and undermine the teaching of proper tackling technique by responsible coaches. “We need to say, Hey, if things are being done correctly, we can minimize the risk,” San Marcos High coach Anthony Linebaugh said.
Santa Barbara schools are meeting the concussion issue head-on in partnership with Cottage Hospital, which offers the support of its Pediatric Trauma Services to treat students in all sports. (Girls soccer ranks second to football in frequency of concussions.) Together with the Jodi House Brain Injury Support Center, they sponsored a lecture last month by Chris Nowinski, cofounder of the Sports Legacy Institute, a national resource for the study of brain trauma in athletes.
Nowinski, who had a head-banging career as a professional wrestler, detailed some horrific outcomes. The thrust of his presentation was how to recognize a concussion — the signs can be more subtle than what I experienced — and what steps should be taken in recovery.
“I appreciate all the information,” Linebaugh said. “But for a parent of a young man who maybe wants to play football, they come to that [talk], and they’re going to be scared to death.”
I’d be more worried about having my kid on the streets than playing high school football, where aggression is controlled and safety is stressed. But would I want him to pursue money and glory in the NFL, adding thousands of impacts over the course of his career? That’s a tough question when the possible consequence is a tough guy completely melting down.