First in a series of three
During a late-season football game last fall, St. Vincent's Eddie Dahm was attempting to make a tackle when he smacked helmets with an opponent.
"I think it was a hard hit because I don't remember it," Dahm said. "I woke up face-down on the turf."
That was five minutes later.
Dahm, now a 14-year-old freshman at Bishop Dwenger, had suffered a serious concussion, one that could have ended his athletic career, not just his football-playing days. He experienced headaches for weeks, which affected his schoolwork and general quality of life.
With the recent $765 million settlement between the NFL and former players and the well-publicized health problems of many football players, there's increasing emphasis on concussion awareness at all levels of the sport. More schools are using baseline testing during the preseason so they have a better idea how to treat players who suffer head injuries.
There's also increased teaching for players on how to properly tackle without lowering their heads or leading with their helmets. IHSAA officials have been quick to penalize any type of tackle using a helmet this season. There's also more emphasis on wearing chinstraps properly, wearing the correct-sized helmet and looking out for teammates who may have been injured and not noticed.
More teams are spending part of every practice teaching tackling fundamentals, emphasizing that proper technique is not running as hard as you can to hit an opponent as hard as possible. Teams are concentrating on strengthening the neck muscles, while other coaches are limiting the amount of practice time so players aren't using sloppy technique because of fatigue.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, each year United States emergency departments treat an estimated 173,285 sports- and recreation-related traumatic brain injuries, including concussions among children and adolescents. That's an increase of 60 percent over the last decade.
Athletes are bigger, stronger and faster than ever, but concussions may be increasing simply because everyone is more aware of them and trainers and coaches are quick to pull players if there are any symptoms.
Everyone is desperate for the rate of injuries to improve, so they could be looking for numbers to support that presumption. Just as there's no way to definitively treat everyone's concussions, there's no hard data to track their frequency, either. There's only anecdotal evidence, and that varies from team to team.
"We haven't had many head injuries out here, thank goodness," Leo Athletic Director Brock Rohrbacher said. "I hear that there are some places where they have more. We're counting our blessings."
Maybe another blessing is that if young people are going to suffer concussions, possibly the best place they could be is at school where there are trainers and sometimes doctors present who are hyper-aware of potential head injuries and experienced in dealing with them.
Concussions may be a natural part of life when young athletes of either gender are running and competing as hard as they can without regard to their bodies. Injuries are a part of sports that can't be prevented, and they can just as easily happen in the backyard as on the football field.
"Obviously, first and foremost, there's no helmet that prevents concussions," said longtime former Leo trainer Joe Baer. "If you hit your head, there's a real possibility you are going to concuss yourself, and that goes for skateboarding, rollerblading or whatever. If you hit your head enough times and hard enough, it's going to concuss.
"If you are involved in life, you're going to get hurt. If you play sports, something is going to happen. It's probably more dangerous for a high school kid to be driving a car than playing football, basketball or hockey."
Still, football gets the most attention, maybe because of its popularity, and it is the sport that is more inherently violent. Instinctively, parents must make the decision to allow their child to play, while there may be less hesitation in other sports.
That's the decision Eddie Dahm's parents faced this year when he said he wanted to play football at Bishop Dwenger. His concussion had healed, he'd been cleared by a physician and his parents had purchased a special helmet that they hope minimizes the effects of impacts.
"When he's on the ground there and he's not moving, you think, 'Oh, my gosh!'" Dahm's father, Bert, said. "Then you get through all that and you realize it's a risk that is inherent to any sport. It's hard to keep a kid safe and raise him where there are risks everywhere.
"We thought about it, but not for long. You have somebody who loves the sport, and there are so many benefits to it. Do you tell your kid to never go outside?"
Eddie Dahm also needed to understand the risks and make his own decision with guidance from his parents.
"Long term, if I get another concussion ... the doctor said if I get two or three more I could be done with sports the rest of my life," the freshman said. "With good technique and a good helmet, I think I can continue to play."
Football coaches are desperate to improve the safety of their players. They want their sport to continue thriving, but more importantly they care about their athletes.
"Everyone is aware and is doing the best they can," Bishop Dwenger coach Chris Svarczkopf said. "We're making strides in the area. Football is a safe game. All that's been said about 'I'm not sure I want my son to play,' I absolutely would still if my son or my grandson wanted to play.
"I think you are going to see a swing back toward people understanding that it can be played safely if coaches are on board, that the medical people are on board and also the equipment will restore the confidence back to being the great game it's always been."
Wednesday in part 2: What some parents of football players are doing to try minimizing concussions.