After Jean Rickerson’s son sustained a brain injury while playing football, she took the ball and ran with it — raising awareness on neighborhood and national levels.
Around 6pm on Friday nights in Sequim, Washington, the collective adrenaline starts to pump. Cars around the high school stadium are parked at all angles, a herky-jerky pattern of mosaics. Hoodies are zipped against the fall air, sodas snap open, coffee and cocoa steam from thermos cups. Families find their favorite spots on the bleachers, friends hug, teenagers whisper and shriek with new gossip. Then, the pulse quickens as the players storm the field. The stadium lights beam yellow and promising above the night.
Friday night lights
Sequim is a football town. If you play, you’re a hero. If you are the parent or teacher or friend of a player, you have clout. Some towns are just like that. Jean Rickerson is a Sequim football mother. Her son, Drew, is a highly acclaimed high school quarterback. But the nature of her role as a football mother changed one night in 2008 when Drew, then 16, took an intense helmet-to-helmet hit.
“I videotaped all of Drew’s games, but that night was too foggy,” says Jean. And because of the fog, she didn’t see the hit clearly. After the collision, Drew played for another 15 minutes. He threw a touchdown pass and then scored a touchdown. As his teammates ran crazy with excitement, he tossed the ball to the ref and staggered to the bench. “There was something odd about the way he ran off the field. I suddenly had a sinking feeling,” says Jean.
Drew sat on the bench for the remaining 45 minutes of the game. Jean watched her son through the fog and the rows of bobbing heads, but his back was to her and she couldn’t see his face. He kept dropping his helmet, leaning sideways. He seemed to have no interest in the game — his game, his team. “I will never forgive myself for watching him, knowing in my gut that something was not right, and not doing anything about it,” she says.
When the game was over, Drew stood up and turned. Jean saw his face and knew immediately that something was dreadfully wrong. His eyes looked empty. During those 45 minutes, he had not been able to tell anyone he was hurt because he couldn’t speak, and he had started to lose his vision and his hearing. He hadn’t lost consciousness, but everything was blurry and confusing, jiggling sounds and blob-like shapes behind diaphanous glass.
Jean ran to get the rescue squad who checked him out. Despite his unevenly dilated pupils and his inability to speak, the EMTs said they didn’t think he needed any help much less transport to the ER. His coaches waved and told him they’d see him for practice at 8 a.m. the next morning. Jean became angry. “What would you do if your son were in this condition?” she asked the EMTs. She insisted they take Drew to the ER. So, two-and-a-half hours after the collision on the field, he was at the hospital, a delay that would have been disastrous for some seriously concussed players.
After an evaluation and CT scan, Drew was cleared to go home. The doctors said he’d be good as new. He’d be back at school Monday. He’d be out there on the field leading the Sequim Wolves. “We believed the doctors,” said Jean. “We didn’t know enough not to; we didn’t know anything.”
Cleared to play, again
For the Rickersons, especially Drew, the weekend passed like a Fellini film. Nothing felt real. Nothing felt normal, predictable. Drew would stand up, see stars, and fall back down onto the sofa or his bed. He slept constantly. Jean thought a short walk and some fresh air would help her son feel better. But he could barely make it a block or two. TV and video games revealed the fact that Drew had little-to-no short-term memory and no analytical thinking skills. “Things were obviously not right with Drew, but what did I know?” says Jean. “I was terrified all weekend but held those feelings in check because the doctors were not concerned. I had no idea how serious all of this was.”
By Monday, Jean was panicked. During an office visit, their family doctor told her not to be concerned. Again, Drew was cleared to play and return to school. She left the appointment and found another doctor, seeking someone more educated. They couldn’t get in to see that next doctor for another two days. After that second appointment —now five days later — Drew couldn’t move his limbs. He was rushed to a trauma center two hours away in Seattle where CT and MRI scans both came back negative. We were not given any instructions as to what to avoid, or any other after-care advice. We were on our own, again.”
Jean cried all the way home. “For the first time, I realized I had absolutely no idea what to do to help my son,” she says. “I felt I had exhausted possibilities on the peninsula for care, and if the trauma center in Seattle didn’t offer hope, I was lost. I was my son’s only hope and I was completely uneducated. It was a desperate time.”
In town, at school, on the football field, and even with the rest of the Rickerson family, Drew was expected back. He was the star quarterback, after all. He was Drew. Jean wondered if she was being hysterical. Was she being reactive, over-protective? She doubted herself, but in the end, her gut prevailed and Drew did not play. She could live with being the hated mother in a town where football is revered above almost all else.
The next ten weeks were bleak. Drew stayed home from school for two weeks then returned part-time. He would attend classes from 8-10 a.m. only to return home exhausted with no recollection of what he had learned. “These were very scary weeks,” says Jean. “I didn’t know if this was going to be permanent. Would Drew be able to go to college? Play sports again? Have a job? Function in the world?”
As the weeks passed, although Drew was starting to feel better and act more like his old self, Jean knew he was still not totally back. “I’m his mother. I just knew,” she says. Burning the midnight oil on the internet, she knew there had to be someone, somewhere who could help her son. Finally, Jean found a doctor connected with the University of Washington — 120 miles from Sequim — who listened and who didn’t simply send them on their way. He recommended that Drew undergo a full neuropsychological evaluation — a full battery of tests that looks at the person’s language as well as his cognitive, motor, behavioral, and executive functioning. Drew scored in the 16th percentile on certain portions of the tests; he obviously had a lot more healing to do.
During those ten weeks as Drew struggled to relearn basic math and recognize words that had come easily in third grade, Jean started to research sports concussions. A retired video producer, she was on a mission to learn all she could and then spread the word about concussion awareness to players, parents, coaches, and anyone else involved in youth sports.
“Most athletes who get a concussion go home and most parents don’t know what to do," says Jean Rickerson. "Education is our best defense. Education can save lives.”
“Just a mother”
Jean didn’t want any other parents to have to go through what she did. “It was frightening not knowing what was wrong, not being able to help my own child,” she says. “Once you know, you can take action. That is empowering.”
She started going to clinics, hospitals, and schools. Armed with fact sheets and articles from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, she would try to raise awareness about the dangers of concussions in youth sports. Some people were open to sharing the information. Others, less so. One local clinic threw her out — twice. “They didn’t think mild TBI was an issue; they said TBI symptoms are psychological. I was just a mother, they implied, they were the experts,” she says. Ironically, a hospital near that same clinic recently offered to fund computerized neuropsychological testing for three school districts before fall sports begin. This initiative is part of a new program Jean has launched.
The untimely death of actress Natasha Richardson from a fall on the ski slopes and the passing of the Lystedt Law — one of the nation’s toughest return-to-play law aiding young athletes concussion recovery, passed in Washington State in May 2009 — certainly helped reinforce Jean’s message. In June 2009, Jean held a conference at a local high school. More than 200 people attended, including school superintendents, first responders, pediatricians, young athletes, coaches, and parents.
In January 2010, Jean launched her website, www.sportsconcussions.org. She picked a website for the hub of her campaign since she was able to eventually track down care for her son via the web and she also learned that the internet is where most parents go first for information. She wants parents, coaches, and players to have sound information if they ever need it. “There is an important conversation out there about concussions and we, as parents, coaches, and players, need to be a part of it,” she says.
Dinner tables to state houses
The Lystedt Law — named for Zackery Lystedt who at 13 sustained a life-changing brain injury while playing football — requires medical clearance of youth athletes under the age of 18 suspected of sustaining a concussion before they can be sent back into a game, practice, or training. And since its 2009 adoption, other states have followed suit.
“The passage of these state laws has been tremendous,” says Jean. “We’ve already seen changes being made in our communities and unprecedented conversations have been taking place from dinner tables to state houses.” And the fact that the dangers of traumatic brain injury and cumulative concussion has been in the media — from the NFL to the military — has certainly helped raise awareness.
But there is still a long way to go. For example, the helmet that Drew wore playing in the game in which he was hit had un-inflated padding in it. The inside was hard as a rock. Why was the padding not inflated? If it had been, it would not have fit. As in other athletic departments in countless school districts across the country, helmets are “refurbished” and checked only one time a year. Athletic equipment safety standards vary district to district and have been lax. A 2011 study conducted through the Virginia Tech National Impact Database, showed that even some NFL helmets did not meet standards.
Slow but positive change
But Jean is optimistic — and she has no intention of ceasing her mission to spread awareness about TBI in sports. In addition to running her website, she speaks at conferences or collaborates in meetings like the recent NFL Summit in DC, which focused on the NFL’s mission to promote passage of the Lystedt Law in all 50 states. She also oversees ten state representatives in seven states — volunteers who attend conferences, share materials, and raise awareness.
Her work is paying off. Jean is seeing change in her own community as well as in the media. Her school district recently mandated that all equipment, like football helmets, be checked before every game, instead of every season. And helmets older than ten years have to be retired. She also sees more coaches and parents keeping kids from play until they have been cleared by their own doctors — an enormous accomplishment in a town where football and winning reign supreme.
“TBIs used to be funny in the locker rooms among athletes. No one finds them funny anymore,” says Jean Rickerson.
She hears more conversations, too. Parents of youth athletes, like her, are very concerned about what’s happening in the NFL and how repeat blows to the head might affect their children’s present and future. What about kids that start tackle football at 10? How many hits to the head will accumulate during hundreds of practices and games? Will they be candidates for chronic traumatic encephalopathy or early onset dementia? The scientific jury is still out.
“To thine own self be true”
One hundred and twenty days after his helmet-to-helmet collision, Drew was cleared to play baseball. But it wasn’t until a full year later that Drew returned to his pre-injury levels of reading and cognitive thinking. He was a lucky kid. Some athletes who sustain a serious hit never return fully to their previous selves — physically, emotionally, and intellectually.
Drew did play football again in 2010-2011. “It was a hard choice, and a scary choice,” says Jean. “He is at higher risk now if he gets hit; he will be at higher risk for the rest of his life. But he is a football star and where we live, football is everything. If I had said no, I honestly don’t think our family would still be intact.”
In fall 2011, Drew started his freshman year at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma. He plays baseball, not football. It was entirely his choice. Sometimes kids do listen to their mothers.
BrainLine. Photograph, courtesy of the Rickerson family.