Playing Hard and Concussions
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LEE HOCHBERG: It’s hard to imagine Brandon Schultz was once a fine high school athlete in Washington state.
BRANDON SCHULTZ: (Laughs) That’s actually the best I’ve done in a long time.
THERAPIST: Come on. Speed this time, Brandon, speed.
LEE HOCHBERG: Six years ago, Schultz, a high school sophomore with an a- minus grade average, suffered a concussion, a trauma-induced alternation in his mental status, while playing in a football game. He doesn’t remember it, but his mother does.
LANE PHELAN, Brandon Schultz’s Mother: He got on the bus, came home. We picked him up at school to bring him home, and he’s complaining of a headache, you know. He said “I took a hit. Got a headache.”
LEE HOCHBERG: The headache persisted the next day and the next. He skipped football practice, but nobody told his family to take him to a doctor.
LANE PHELAN: Pretty much, you know, “Take a Tylenol. We’ll see how you’re doing,” you know? That’s really all we knew.
LEE HOCHBERG: Her son wanted to play football. As days passed, he wrote his father that his head had ached for six days. But he needed only a few games to qualify for his varsity letter.
BRANDON SCHULTZ: Getting my varsity letter my sophomore year, that was my ultimate goal, you know. I just had to get it.
LEE HOCHBERG: Doctors say concussion victims with ongoing symptoms should avoid sports while symptoms are present, and for a week after. But Schultz pulled on his number, 61, and played his next junior varsity game. His brain, not yet healed, was vulnerable to this second impact, captured by his parents on videotape. The impact wasn’t violent but something clearly was wrong.
LANE PHELAN: I looked back down in the end zone, and Brandon was laying flat on the field. He wasn’t responding to anybody saying anything to him. He was just laying there.
LEE HOCHBERG: Schultz was a victim of rare, and often-fatal, second impact syndrome. His brain was hemorrhaging. He went into a coma for four days and underwent four brain surgeries. Doctors say he tried to return from concussion too soon.
BRANDON SCHULTZ: Dang it.
LEE HOCHBERG: Six years of rehabilitation leave him, today, partially blind, physically disabled, and unable to think quickly.
BRANDON SCHULTZ: I’m not Brandon Schultz anymore, you know. Now, I’m Brandon Schultz, the same guy, but different. And it’s very, very difficult at times.
LEE HOCHBERG: It’s a dramatic case of not treating a concussion seriously enough. But new research suggests there are other reasons concussions demands more attention than they’ve previously received.
DR. STAN HERRING: I think what used to happen in sports is people got their bell rung, or they got dinged, and that was part of the game.
LEE HOCHBERG: Dr. Stan herring was Schultz’ physician and is team doctor for the National Football League’s Seattle Seahawks.
DR. STAN HERRING: What we know now is that when you get your bell rung or get dinged, that there are consequences.
LEE HOCHBERG: Herring says there are more than 300,000 sports-related brain injuries a year, mostly concussions. And it now appears their impact can be lasting.
DR. STAN HERRING: It’s clear that if you have a concussion, the chance of getting another one is higher — two times, four times, maybe even as much as six times higher. That’s clear. If you have a concussion, the chance of having other episodes is higher.
LEE HOCHBERG: That’s important, because a new study in the “Journal of the American Medical Association” found college athletes, who sustained repeat concussions, performed poorly on tests of memory and concentration, information processing and coordination– especially those who already had learning disabilities.
DR. STAN HERRING: They may find school a bit harder. They may find their memory’s not quite as good.
SPORTSCASTER: Third down, and nine. Young throws, and that’s incomplete at the feet of Phillips. And… Down.
LEE HOCHBERG: The ramifications of the new study are profound for professional athletes like quarterback Steve Young of the San Francisco 49ers.
SPORTSCASTER: It looks almost as if he’s out cold.
LEE HOCHBERG: Young has been slammed to the turf dozens of times in his pro career and is currently recovering from a concussion. His agent is Leigh Steinberg.
LEIGH STEINBERG: Steve Young told me once that he’d had seven official concussions. And I said, “well, what’s an official concussion?” He said “well, that’s where they cart you off the field.” But they have dozens of mini- concussions where the mental state is not quite there and there’s a lot of haziness.
LEE HOCHBERG: Steinberg says he’s advised Young to retire, but Young hasn’t. He says he’s also told another client, Dallas cowboy quarterback Troy Aikman, whose incurred nine concussions, to be smart and preserve his long-term health. Aikman, though, has returned to play.
TROY AIKMAN: I’m not considering walking away from the game. I still feel like I’ve got years left in me.
LEE HOCHBERG: Steinberg worries about the influence his clients have on young athletes.
LEIGH STEINBERG: There are millions of young kids out there watching this and taking as their model the athlete who plays with nine concussions, who goes back into a game after he’s had a concussion. And I’m scared that we’re going to have a group of high school athletes, collegian athletes, and professional athletes, who end up having real impairment.
SPORTSCASTER: …Team was eliminated. Great job. Ho, look at that!
SPORTSCASTER: Two down.
SPORTSCASTER: Emmett got… Look who’s down, too. Oh, boy.
LEE HOCHBERG: Indeed, the culture of downplaying or glorifying concussion is widespread throughout sports.
SPORTSCASTER: He’s out.
SPORTSCASTER: He is out, Billy. He is out cold.
SPORTSCASTER: That was chin-to-chin. You’re going to see a crash. Oh!
SPORTSCASTER: And I tell you what…
LEE HOCHBERG: University of Oklahoma basketball star, Eduardo Najera, suffered a concussion in this violent, on-court collision in last year’s NCAA basketball tournament. He lay motionless for 90 seconds, eyes closed, before being helped off the court six minutes later.
SPORTSCASTER: Look who’s jogging back out.
SPORTSCASTER: But 14 minutes after the collision, he returned to the gym.
SPORTSCASTER: He’s going right to check in.
SPORTSCASTER: How tough are these two kids?
LEE HOCHBERG: Najera reentered the game seconds later. Even as the CBS announcers questioned the decision, they applauded his courage.
SPORTSCASTERS: I don’t think Najera should be back in the game. I really don’t. He’s running with… What looks like… Whoa, he’s setting a solid screen! Unbelievable! Wow, you talk about some guts, now. You know, you just… This is unbelievable.
LEE HOCHBERG: The moment makes doctors like Herring shudder.
DR. STAN HERRING: It is not heroic to return to play before concussion has cleared. It’s foolish. We need to educate people so they understand that.
LEE HOCHBERG: The reeducation may also reach the game of soccer. Another new study in the “Journal of the AMA” found amateur soccer players– especially those who frequently direct the ball with their head- – performed poorly on attention and memory tests. Top players bounce the ball off their heads at speeds up to 60 miles per hour. Study co-author, Dr. Muriel Lezak.
DR. MURIEL LEZAK: The brain can be knocked back and forth and/or spin around. This pulls, tugs, and can snap connections. You pay the price if you do many, many headers. And the more headers you do, the higher is the price that you pay.
LEE HOCHBERG: Lezak, a clinical neuropsychologist at Oregon Health Sciences University, cautions that she studied adults who’d played soccer 17 years. Brain deficits likely would be less pronounced in American children, who’ve only been at the game for a short while. Still, she says soccer, from a neuropsychological point of view, is a flawed game.
DR. MURIEL LEZAK: I would like to see a similar kind of game using shoulders, buttocks, elbows, knees, whatever– anything except the head.
LEE HOCHBERG: Entrepreneurs are marketing protective devices, like this headband for soccer players. This one’s advertised to reduce stress on the head by 50%. But doctors say concussions might be resulting from on-field collisions, not headers. Herring, the Seattle Seahawks team physician, says rules changes or helmets might be premature.
DR. STAN HERRING: Putting a helmet or protective gear on the player’s head may make it worse. In the National Football League, rigid plastic helmets were designed because players were getting depressed skull fractures. They don’t get depressed skull fractures anymore. But now they have a weapon to use. And guess what? They get concussions now.
THERAPIST: Can you twist your… Bring your wrist that way? There you go.
LEE HOCHBERG: What all agree on is a need for more awareness of concussion’s seriousness. As part of a legal settlement, Brandon Schultz’ school district set up a trust to pay the $12 million his care will cost for the rest of his life, and to send his mother on a speaking tour to publicize the risk of second impact syndrome. She’s urging schools to send coaches to seminars about concussion and to issue handouts on concussion to parents, including a warning to take young athletes to the doctor if they incur one.