UNL, Lincoln high schools getting ahead of concussions in football

Story, photos, and video by Matt Reynoldson, NewsNetNebraska

  • The UNL Center for Brain, Biology, and Behavior, or CB3, is located in the east side of Memorial Stadium.

LINCOLN, Neb. – The favorite pastime of many Nebraskans might be in jeopardy as concussions are causing people to take a closer look at the game of football. Growing concern with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) has led to a nearly 3 percent drop in high school football participation over the last seven years, according to Sports Illustrated.

Will this game soon be obsolete because of safety concerns? To understand concussions in football, it’s important to understand what concussions are.


Concussions and flash knockouts in football

Concussions are no longer thought of as just physical damage to the brain. Kate Higgins, a post-doctorate fellow at the UNL Center for Brain, Biology, and Behavior (CB3) has studied how concussions can occur from any violent movement of the brain.

“The brain rides in our skull in this cushion of fluid,” Higgins said. “It’s somewhat similar to a baby in a uterus. It’s surrounded by fluid, which provides cushion. When the head stops really fast because it’s run into something, everything sort of sloshes around in the brain.”

That sort of brain volatility has caused trainers to be more careful in establishing a strict concussion protocol. Nebraska starting quarterback Tommy Armstrong and place kicker Drew Brown are two notable Huskers that went through the concussion protocol this season. However, Armstrong’s situation was peculiar. He was knocked out cold in the second quarter of a game vs. Ohio State, yet showed no signs of being concussed.

This phenomenon is often referred to as a flash knockout, explained here in Dr. Michael Kelly’s book Fight Medicine. The actual cause of this is unknown, but Higgins has two theories.

“It could just be that the tests aren’t able to detect them,” Higgins said, “but maybe athletes at this level are able to recover that much faster.”

Armstrong returned to the field the following week against Minnesota, just as many boxers return to the ring after a flash knockout. According to Higgins, flash knockouts are one subject the CB3 staff doesn’t quite understand yet, but they’re working to figure out if an athlete can be safe returning to the field in such a short time.

Click the slideshow above for a tour of UNL’s Center for Brain, Biology, and Behavior.


Former Nebraska linebacker hung up the cleats before it was too late

Blake Lawrence had never had a concussion before 2008. But after four of them in a little over a year, he found himself walking away from the game he loved.

“It was difficult,” Lawrence said, recalling the day he made the decision to call it quits. “Any athlete at any level has a hard time hanging up the cleats, or stepping away from the game. For me, I’d been a football player my entire life. It was my identity. I woke up every day and said, “I’m Blake Lawrence, and I play football.” And one day I woke up and I could never say that again. It hit me pretty hard.”

Lawrence’s concussions were not light ones. He was extremely disoriented after each, but he said he didn’t take it seriously until head coach Bo Pelini called him into his office after his third concussion.

“Coach Bo sat me down one-on-one in his office and said, “Blake, if you were my son, I’d never let you play football again.” I was like, what are you talking about? It’s a concussion; everybody gets concussions. But he told me it was serious and I needed to get checked out.”

After that, Lawrence sought advice from doctors and neurologists from around the country, and he received an unforgettable lecture from one doctor.

According to a Bloomberg Politics poll, 50 percent of Americans wouldn’t want their son to play football. Lawrence is concerned about his younger brother playing now, but he says the game has changed for the better.

“They don’t teach them to tackle like they used to,” Lawrence said. “Your head is no longer a weapon. That’s where football needs to go to train the next generation of pro football players in 15-20 years.”

Lawrence doesn’t feel any lasting effects from the concussions today.

“I made the decision to step away at the right time.”

Click the video above to hear more of Blake Lawrence’s story.


Concussions through the current player’s lens vs. the trainer’s lens

Nebraska quarterback Zack Darlington suffered a serious concussion on national television during his senior year of high school. On the play, Darlington was headed toward the sideline when he took a big hit from a defensive back and went tumbling out of bounds.

“I didn’t think it was a dirty hit or anything,” Darlington said. “I’ve been hit much harder, there was just something about that one that did it.”

Darlington was knocked out on the play, leading to months of recovery. While this degree of concussion is rare, studies done by BioLogical Conclusions show that more concussions occur in football than any other high school sport.

Lincoln East high school trainer Mac McQuiston was among the first in the state, let alone Lincoln Public Schools, to adopt the ImPACT – Immediate Post-Concussion Assessment and Cognitive Test.

“We’ve always been more or less on the forefront of following procedures and being ultra-conservative,” McQuiston said. “We were the first to adopt the ANAM (Automated Neuropsychological Assessment Metrics) and we’ll try and be pioneers for whatever’s next.”

In a study conducted by the Department of Veterans Affairs and Boston University, 95.6 percent of deceased NFL players had some degree of CTE. With the growing concern for these traumatic brain injuries, McQuiston explained that it’s now more important than ever to make sure athletes go through proper concussion protocol.

When Darlington went down on that Saturday afternoon in 2013, many were fearing those consequences. It took him months of speech therapy and work with specialists to get back to functioning normally again. However, he hasn’t let that affect how he approaches football now.

“I don’t really think about it,” Darlington said about the risk of another concussion. “You’re more likely to get re-injured if you’re out there thinking about not getting hurt, so I just play my game and don’t let that enter my mind.”

Darlington came out on the positive side of a scary situation. But with greater consequences in mind, many parents are reluctant to let their kids play football. In fact, in a 2014 study by the Associated Press, 44 percent of parents said they wouldn’t be comfortable with their kids playing, a statistic that would have a huge impact on the future of the sport. But according to McQuiston, football isn’t going away anytime soon.

“I think football will last, but it’s going to change – and that’s okay, everything does,” McQuiston said.

“As long as they keep putting the pads on and paying people millions of dollars, football will be around.”

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