When Westport native Chris Coyne began his career as a Yale College football player in the fall of 2011, he had five concussions under his belt, including three he’d suffered while playing football at Staples High School. But he didn’t worry about that. The idea that someone could end up with life-altering effects from head trauma was a one-in-a-million kind of thing, he said. And Coyne wasn’t the one-in-a-million guy. He was just him.
But two weeks into pre-season practice as a freshman player at Yale, he was on the receiving end of a career-ending helmet-to-helmet hit. He wasn’t planning to report it, but “since it was so early in my freshman year, I figured I should just nip it in the bud and get through it so I could get healthy,” he said. So he went to the team’s trainer who told him he’d have to sit out for a couple weeks until he could be cleared to play again.
Then came the memory loss.
“I’d get up off the couch to get a Gatorade and I wouldn’t remember why I stood up,” he recollected a couple weeks ago. “I’d go to meet friends for lunch and wouldn’t remember who I was meeting. I’d try and take notes in class, and I couldn’t hold the info long enough to get it down.”
Tests showed that his short-term memory ability had decreased exponentially. While a pre-season assessment indicated his memory had been in around the 70th percentile, he was down to the single digits after the concussion. The hit he took in late August wasn’t all that bad, he said, not when it was compared to a concussion he’d suffered his sophomore year of high school just before the Thanksgiving game against Greenwich – a game he said he “just couldn’t” sit out. But after several previous injuries, the injuries accumulated.
The Center for Disease Control reports that repeat concussions within a short period of time “can slow recovery or increase the chances for long-term problems” and that in rare cases, repeat concussions can result in brain swelling or permanent brain damage. It can even be fatal.
Concussions aren’t only a “football problem.” A national study of high school sports injuries conducted by the Center for Injury Research and Policy found that thousands of concussions were reported in soccer, volleyball, wrestling and basketball in the 2011-2012 academic year. Football had the most concussions, with 131,566 reported; girls’ soccer had the second most, with 53,077 reported. And while 23.6 percent of reported football injuries were concussions, they were slightly more likely in wrestling, where 24.6 percent of reported injuries were concussions.
“One concussion is probably not going to kill you, but the real danger is when you haven’t let that first concussion heal, and then you get repeated concussions over and over and over again,” said Susan Connors, president of Brain Injury Association of America.
“It’s called second impact syndrome,” she continued. “What happens is that over time, you become more and more debilitated or incapacitated – less functional. If you keep hitting your head and you don’t let it rest, you will end up with more physical, cognitive and behavioral problems and that’s really the issue.”
In Coyne’s case, he was never cleared to re-enter the game that he’d dedicated his life to since fifth grade.
That hit – the emotional sucker punch of learning he’d never suit up again – might have been the worst one. And in the two years since he’s had to turn in his Yale helmet, he and his family have been fighting to spread awareness of the seriousness of concussion injuries to schools in the area. They’ve helped guide policy changes, including the passage of a new Connecticut statute which demands that high school coaches pull children from playing fields and courts after suffering a concussion and keep them out of play until they’re medically cleared. And they’ve gained a lot of attention.
In Stamford, Superintendent Winifred Hamilton has led a charge for instituting tougher policies than the Connecticut baseline. In addition to the medical clearance, her staff is crafting a policy which would require students and parents to undergo concussion education before the sports season.
“As a former coach, I know that children don’t always self-report,” Hamilton said. “A child gets hit or falls and people go out to the field. The child may have blacked out or be disoriented, and yet if they don’t admit that, the coach may not know.”
Her plan empowers parents and players with knowledge, she said, so they understand that acting tough and playing through isn’t always the best idea.
“I do think that knowledge is power. Does every child know smoking can have long-term effects on your life? Yes. Does that stop every child from smoking? No, but it does stop a great many,” Hamilton explained. She hopes that a team full of players who understand the ramifications of playing with concussions will also create a culture in which teammates step up and report if their friends have been hurt.
The tactic has merit.
“Old statistics were at 1.3 million, 1.5 million, 1.7 million a year, and they have settled at 2.4 million traumatic brain injuries recorded in 2009,” said Connors of BIAA. “So what we’re seeing is an increase in diagnosis … and I think it’s really an increase in awareness of brain injury.”
Stamford isn’t the only school planning to expand its policies. Athletic directors and trainers from towns across Southwestern Connecticut – like Darien, Ridgefield and Greenwich – also said they’re stepping up efforts to help kids understand the severity of these injuries.
In Westport, where Coyne came up through the program, the district has already instituted those policies.
“I think the education piece is important because years ago, athletes would think ‘I got a little dinger’ and think it was no big deal and that the expectation was that they would go back into the game,” said Westport Public Schools Supervisor of Health Services Suzanne Levasseur.
“We need to make students aware of the potential detrimental effects of repeated concussions, and we want them to be their own best advocate,” Levasseur said. “We always assess them when they come off the field, but they’re the best people to tell us what they’re feeling. So it’s about changing that culture from ‘I’m going to be a hero’ by going back in to removing themselves and taking the time to sit and rest.”
But Coyne wonders if education alone will solve the issue.
“I don’t think watching a movie does enough,” he said. “It’s one of those things where it’s impersonal, and I think we may have even watched something like that when I was there. And it’s like, OK. Our trainer tells us to watch this and we sit back and we’re texting through it. We all knew what the risks were; we just didn’t believe it was as high as the trainer said.”
He says limiting contact practices may be a better bet. But that’s not an idea people will take lightly.
In Stamford, Hamilton said she would not consider limiting contact practices for football, likening its possible perception to an attack on apple pie.
But it has been done elsewhere. The Maryland State Department of Education passed new regulations in August limiting the number of contact practices for football teams to twice weekly during the season. In addition, no live hitting is allowed until the sixth day of practice each year, according to the regulation.
“It didn’t happen overnight,” said Bill Reinhard, a spokesman for the department. “At the same time, I’ve got to say the opposition to this melted away fairly quickly.”