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Jack Sisson's TBI Blog

A hug is duct tape for the soul.


The Post Game: 

No one had a clue. Not his coaches. Not his teammates. Not even his mother, looking on from her usual spot in the grandstand. On a foggy November night four years ago, Drew Rickerson found himself wandering around the sidelines of a football field in Sequim, Wash., a city of 6,600 on the state's Olympic peninsula. He was 15 years old, playing quarterback for the Sequim High varsity football team in the final game of the regular season, a week away from the state playoffs. He also was struggling to speak, dazed and disoriented, hardly able to drink water.
Minutes earlier, Rickerson had been on the field, rolling out to the right, taking on an opposing linebacker. The two collided, their helmets smashing together like bowling balls. Rickerson suffered a concussion, his brain slamming against the inside of his skull. He should have been evaluated, gone to the hospital, right then and there. A second hit could have caused more brain damage. Killed him, even. But no one had a clue. And so he stayed in the game, for a total of nine additional plays, throwing for a touchdown and running for another, the latter a 23-yard weave though multiple defenders, Russian Roulette in shoulder pads.
Rickerson flipped the ball to an official. He staggered toward his team's bench. Felt funny. On the sidelines, he stared at the overhead lights. Shapes became blurry; noises, jumbled. Four times, he sat down, stood up, then asked his coaches if he could sit back down. He dropped his helmet, picked it up, dropped it again. Over and over, he squirted water from a bottle over his shoulder, thinking it was going into his mouth. Nobody noticed. No one had a clue. Not until the game was over, when Rickerson and his teammates turned to face the grandstand. As the young men sang the school's fight song, Jean Rickerson finally got a good look at her son's face.
Usually, he would be smiling.
"She saw nothing," Drew says. "No life. I was blank. We went over to the ambulance. I don't really remember anything after that."
Football has a problem. The game harms the human brain. The danger is acute at the professional level, where large men smash each other for large sums of money; the hazard is less publicized, but greater still, at the high school and youth level, where an estimated 4.8 million children -- sons, nephews and little brothers, most between the ages of 6 and 13 -- batter each other's heads for fun, for the sheer giddy sake of sport. Once upon a time, we called football-induced brain damage getting your bell rung. We treated it with smelling salts. We kept on playing, kept on loving our Friday nights. Times change. The deaths are real. The damage no longer can be ignored. We are starting -- at long last -- to get a clue. Ours is an era of enlightenment, of concussion awareness, which is another way of saying risk management. Stories like Rickerson's -- and other stories that are much, much worse -- have spurred reform. A collective effort to make football safer. We pass laws. Change the rules. Better identify and treat the victims. Lower the odds of catastrophe. We still love Friday nights. Only looming beneath the well-meaning correctives is a darker, more troubling question, one with grave implications for the sport and the children who play it, for every parent looking on from a grandstand: What if awareness isn't enough?
What if the risk can't be managed?
Am I being a baby? Is my mind making this up? Rickerson had to wonder. He wasn't bleeding. His arm wasn't sticking out sideways. Sequim High was going to the postseason. He badly wanted to be back on the field. Only something was wrong. Five days after being concussed -- after his coaches gave him a postgame wave and said they'd see him at practice -- he had yet to return to school. He saw stars. His thinking was muddled. When Rickerson suddenly could neither feel his limbs nor roll over in bed, he was taken by ambulance to a trauma center in Seattle, 66 miles away. CT and MRI scans of his neck were negative. A physician told Drew to go home, offering no additional instruction. Jean Rickerson sobbed the entire way back.
Drew stayed home for two weeks. He attempted to watch television, but found the experience frustrating. Who are these characters? What the hell just happened? He tried to play his favorite video game, Call of Duty, with his sister. He couldn't remember how to reload his digital rifle. His mother would take him for walks. Drew would go 200 yards before turning around. Mom, I can't do this. He returned to school, attending classes on a reduced schedule, from 8-10 a.m. He would come home exhausted, unable to recall what he had studied. Usually an excellent and attentive math student, he regularly slept through class. He would look down at the numbers on his desk and think, I know this stuff. But I can't do it right now. On Christmas, Drew went to his baseball hitting coach's house for dinner. He came down with the worst headache of his life. It lasted for an entire week.
Back in class following winter break, Drew still struggled to comprehend Dante's Inferno; a few weeks later, Jean drove him 120 miles to see a University of Washington doctor with extensive concussion experience. The doctor recommended that Drew be given a full neuropsychological evaluation. On tests, he scored in the 16th percentile. Drew no longer worried about the state playoffs, or if he was being a baby. He worried that he was going to be this way for the rest of his life.
"The doctor told me that I would be OK, but that I needed to rest my brain," Rickerson recalls. "He gave me strict orders to watch TV and do nothing. Which was OK, expect I still couldn't watch TV for a while."
Rickerson's story is hardly unique. According to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons, between 4 percent and 20 percent of college and high school football players will sustain a brain injury during the course of one season; a report cited by CNN medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta estimates that about one in 10 high school players suffers a concussion. The Boston Globe recently reported that emergency room visits for youth sports-related traumatic brain injuries went up 62 percent from 2001 to 2009. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has labeled sports concussions "an epidemic," reported last year that roughly 122,000 youths between the ages of 10 and 19 went to emergency rooms for nonfatal brain injuries. For boys, the top cause of injury was playing football.

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