Football’s Concussion Crisis
Here’s what terrifies me. Twelve-year-old Kyle Lippo, a seventh-grade football player from Round Lake, Illinois, during a game told his coach he had a headache and asked to sit the rest of the game out. Five minutes later, the coach asked Kyle if he wanted to go back in. Kyle said no, because his headache was getting worse. Then he started crying, saying, “It hurts really bad!”
Kyle was rushed to a local medical center, where he was loaded onto an emergency helicopter and taken to Advocate Lutheran General Hospital. There, on September 27, 2003, the Boy Scout, trombone player, and student council representative died from head trauma.
A few weeks later, Osten Gill, a 16-year-old high school sophomore from Rushford, New York, collapsed on the team bus as it was returning from a junior varsity football game. He had complained of dizziness and nausea after being hit during the game, and had vomited on the sidelines and on the bus. Osten died at a hospital several hours later.
Then in November of 2003, 17-year-old safety Edward Gomez drilled a wide receiver coming across the middle on fourth down, forcing a dropped pass. Gomez popped up, was congratulated by his teammates, and headed to the sideline. Moments later he lost consciousness and collapsed. He died days later.
Unlucky teenagers with isolated head injuries, you might say. After all, it is true that the number of deaths in youth football and youth sports in general caused by head injuries seems low, but I soon learned that death isn’t the only worry associated with brain trauma. I played football for Harvard, and I recently attended a black-tie dinner celebrating the 100th anniversary of Harvard Stadium—the nation’s oldest football stadium. Among the famous people at the event was former Chicago Bear great Dan Jiggetts, Harvard class of 1976. Every Chicago sports fan knows Dan from his playing days and broadcasting career, and, since he and I lived within a few miles of each other while I was growing up, he had taken an interest in my career. We chatted that night, and he asked how my wrestling career was going (it was 2003, and I was working for Vince McMahon and World Wrestling Entertainment—the WWE). When I told him that I had been sidelined with post-concussion syndrome, he became very serious. He told me, “You don’t want to mess with that. The players of my generation are all worried about the links they’ve found with Alzheimer’s disease.” This was the first I’d heard of that supposed link. I lost my appetite.
The more I looked into my concussion problem, the more I realized that I had never heard of any of the true dangers posed by head injuries. Nor had the rest of the United States, it seemed. Why? Because the organization with the most money to study concussions and the biggest stage from which to spread the message at this point hasn’t shown the ability to publicize the truth about these devastating injuries. To do so might hurt not only its game, but also the youth programs that feed its league and guarantee its loyal audience. Instead of promoting the proper information on safety, it uses its bully pulpit only to protect its business interests. The organization? The National Football League.
Curiously, my study of head injuries in youth and professional sports didn’t start while I was playing football for Harvard, but while I was working for the WWE. “Holy shit, kid! You okay?” was the first thing I heard after the kick to the head that led to the end of my wrestling career. The referee, Nick Patrick, leaned in, trying to figure out if I’d survived. Moments before, Bubba Ray Dudley’s boot had met my chin with enough force to make the Hartford Civic Center explode. Or that’s what it looked like to me as I lay on my back in the middle of the ring. Something was wrong with my vision. I didn’t know where I was, what was happening around me, or why I was staring up at fuzzy-looking lights on the distant ceiling of a gigantic arena— I only knew that something was terribly wrong. I looked to the side, and saw thousands of people staring back at me. I gazed back up at Nick. I didn’t want to move. My head felt like it was in a vice.
Then, a three-hundred-pound man with a crew cut and army fatigues appeared out of the fog—ready to squash me. I braced myself for the impact. Crash! My head hurt more. Instead of rolling off of me, he hooked my leg, and the referee started counting.
Why is he counting? Oh yeah, I’m in a wrestling match. But wrestling is fake, right? I should be safe, because this stuff is scripted.
But I can’t remember the script.
“Kick out, kid!” Nick whispered to me. I jerked the militant off me before the ref reached the count of three. I felt like a panicky little kid lost in a crowd. Slowly I started to remember what was happening. I’m in a tag-team match against the Dudley Boyz, my partner Rodney Mack is in my corner with our manager Theodore Long . . . But, before this crowd of thousands of pumped-up WWE fans, I still couldn’t answer the most important question: What comes next? I know I have to do something, but what?
I was able to finish the match against the Dudleys (I lost), and I stumbled backstage, lay down on the cold cement floor, and tried to compose myself. I was coherent and aware of my surroundings, but I couldn’t get past an odd, throbbing headache. After a half-hour or so, as the headache faded, I became concerned about performing in the show the next night. The doctor the WWE had hired for the night said, “You might have a concussion. Let’s see how you feel when you get to the arena tomorrow.”
I arrived at the Pepsi Center in Albany, New York, at about 5 P.M. the next day. I felt strange, but I wasn’t in “pain.” Feeling strange didn’t meet my criteria to take the night off, so I told the doctor I felt fine, and started to get ready for my “tables match” with the Dudley Boyz. If you’ve watched wrestling, you know that for this type of match to end, somebody has to go through a table. Guess who that was going to be? That’s right, me.
This excerpt is provided as a courtesy to BrainLine by The Drummond Publishing Group. Any commercial or noncommercial duplication, including in electronic form, is strictly prohibited by the publisher and by applicable law. www.chrisnowinski.com.
Christopher Nowinski, Chris Nowinski is a co-director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University School of Medicine and the co-founder and CEO of the Sports Legacy Institute, a non-profit organization dedicated to solve the sports concussion crisis.
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