“Has anyone in the room had a concussion before?” sports medicine doctor Hamish Kerr asked the auditorium full of Galway High School students Wednesday afternoon. Hands shot up all over the place, accompanied by chatter and giggles.
There didn’t seem to be all that much concern about concussions in the young crowd, but Kerr was there, along with retired National Football League tight end Derek Brown, to give students a lesson on how serious such head injuries can be.
As a doctor for the U.S. Rugby Team and head physician for Siena College, Kerr has seen all sorts of concussions in his day.
As a nine-season veteran of the NFL, Brown knows all about concussions, too — and his knowledge is firsthand.
Both men offered the students their perspective on what has become a topic of much concern in sports circles.
Kerr set the stage by explaining what a concussion is, in the simplest of terms: “Your brain has to get shaken up. There’s not much more to it than that.”
Contact sports are the ones usually associated with the injury, but those who ski, snowboard, bike and ride horses are also at elevated risk, he noted, adding that concussions can also result from non-sports-related accidents.
Between 5 percent and 15 percent of high school football players will suffer a concussion during any given season, as will about 5 percent of soccer players, Kerr told the students. Although those might seem like small percentages, he stressed that concussions should be taken seriously because they can have serious repercussions.
“Even if you only have one or two concussions while you’re in high school, that can affect you for the rest of your life,” he said, noting that lifelong problems could include difficulties with memory and with processing information.
In 1992, when Brown began playing football for the New York Giants, concussions weren’t considered a big deal.
“Back then it was, ‘I got stung a little bit,’ ‘I got dinged a little bit.’ We never reported it, because it was a little different then. You had to basically pry us off the field before we’d come off,” he said.
Veteran players had tricks to stay in the game even after they were “seeing cross-eyed” from a head injury. “You know what they told us to do, the other veterans? ‘Look at your jersey and go to the sideline with the same color,’ ” he recounted. Sometimes, players got hit so hard they would become confused and wander into the other team’s huddle, he said.
Brown, who left the NFL in 2000 after playing for the Giants, the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Oakland Raiders and the Arizona Cardinals, has lasting physical issues that may be a result of his football career. When he wakes up, his hands are numb and his equilibrium’s not what it used to be.
“I sneeze and I see dots, like I hit somebody,” he said.
He can’t say for sure if his ailments are a direct result of the concussions he suffered, but admitted they could be.
He equated the hits running backs endure with the severity of a car crash.
“They’re probably in anywhere from 15 to 25 car wrecks a game. That’s basically what it’s like,” he said. “We’re talking guys that can create 4,000 pounds of pressure in a hit. My year at the Raiders, I counted: I went through seven facemasks. You get hit, they get bent,” he said.
Although helmets are an important safety measure, there’s no evidence they protect players from concussions, Kerr noted.
The best defense, he said, was for students to develop awareness about the injury, to be responsible, play fairly and respect opponents.
“We don’t want sports to be absolved from contact, because playing contact sports is fun. I’ve played soccer my whole life and I have gained a lot of benefit from that, but there are risks involved and what we have to do is play our sports fairly,” he said.
Brita Donovan, athletic director for the Galway Junior-Senior High School, said there have been no reports of athletes suffering concussions on the Galway sports teams yet this season, but there have been some concussions that have occurred in gym class and at students’ homes.
The school recently received a grant from Dick’s Sporting Goods for a computer-based neuropsychological test that will provide a pre-concussion baseline result for each student. If students experience a concussion, they will retake the test, which includes cognitive challenges, to help determine if they have recovered sufficiently before they are allowed back on the field. A doctor’s examination is required as well.
On July 1, the New York State Public High School Athletic Association instituted an act that requires public school or charter school students suspected of having a concussion to have a signed authorization from a physician before they can return to play.
In June, in an attempt to prevent concussions in athletes ages 5 to 15, Pop Warner Little Scholars announced rule changes that limit contact during football practices. Pop Warner’s new rules ban full-speed, head-on blocking or tackling drills involving players more than 3 yards apart. They also limit contact drills to 40 minutes per practice or no more than one-third of the total weekly practice time.