A Tale of Two Concussions – What went wrong, what went right

It’s Brain Injury Awareness Month, and this year there is special focus on sports injuries, especially concussions, among young/student athletes.

This is such an important topic… and it’s had such a vital part to play in my own life. I think it’s safe to say I would not be the person I am today who experienced the difficulties I’ve had, if I hadn’t had two concussions in high school. It’s my hope that teachers and coaches and other folks who are concerned about the health and safety of kids in school-sponsored sports will read this and become a little more sensitive to the issues and hazards that can accompany sports-related head injury.

My first school-sports-related concussion came in my freshman or sophomore year. I was playing flag football at the high school, under the supervision of a regular football coach who agreed to take on intramural players on Saturdays. We were having a great time — I remember the day was bright and crisp, one of those amazing Saturday afternoons in the fall, when summer is well over and everyone is all too keenly aware that winter is just around the corner.

We had a great time playing football… such a great time, in fact, that we all started really feeling our oats, and someone said they didn’t want to use the flags anymore. They wanted to play tackle football. Like everyone else, I agreed – I was totally into it. I was feeling strong and vital and full of bravado, and I wanted to take my play beyond just dodging and diving for flags.

I wanted to tackle. I wanted to hit — and be hit. And I wanted to play free of pads and guards. I wanted to get back to basics and play football the way God intended — down and dirty and full-contact. Amen.

Well, we had a grand time. I dodged some close calls and fell flat on my face a bunch of times, trying to take other kids down. Then, in a carrying play, when I had the ball tucked under my arm and was making a break into the open midfield, I got sideswiped by another player who was bigger and stronger and a lot more solid than me.

I felt the hit land hard against my side and shoulder, and I tried to spin away from it and keep running downfield, but my feet suddenly buckled underneath me, and I went down. I don’t recall whether or not I hung onto the ball. I suspect it popped out of my arms and bounced away, but it doesn’t really matter. When I stumbled and crumpled to the ground, it was like everything ground to a slow-motion halt, and I found myself looking at grass.

The coach who was keeping an eye on us came over to me and checked me out. They asked me if I was okay and if I could walk. I said, yes, but I had a hard time picking myself up off the ground. They asked again if I was okay, and I insisted I was. I was feeling really woozy and out of it. Rattled and echo-y. Like my bell got rung and there was a long, lingering ring to it. I was embarrassed that I’d gone down so easily, and I wanted to get back to the game and redeem myself. And for a while I did. But I played badly. I was off-balance and slow and foggy — a noticeably different player than I’d been prior to the tackle.

The coach kept asking me if I was okay, and I kept saying yes, but the longer we played, the more out of it I got, and they finally called the game before we could finish it. I was so disappointed! Disappointed in myself for having been such a wuss who couldn’t take a hit. Disappointed with the coach for thinking so little of me. Disappointed in the game that I hadn’t had the chance to really shine the way I wanted to.

I’m glad the coach called the game. In retrospect, they probably should have forced me to sit out sooner. But I was so adamant about keeping on playing, there was no telling me “no” unless the game was over.

And it was.

The other concussion I had was in an intramural soccer match. It was senior year, and there weren’t going to be that many more opportunities for me to just play. College was just around the corner, and I was keenly aware that my “childhood”, such that it was, was about to disappear on me. My days of careless abandon couldn’t last, and all through my last year of high school, I devoted every spare moment to savoring the taste of youthful abandon.

That included sports. I had a strong feeling that once I was out on my own, I wouldn’t have any more time to play sports, so I wanted to really go for all the gusto I could get, however I could get it.

Well, I went for it in that soccer match. And I think I played pretty well. But at one point in the match, I was either tackled, or I tripped, and the next thing I remember, I was on my back, looking up at the sky. I was kind of out of it… not quite right… and I lay there for a little while. At first, I wasn’t sure I could move, but then I did a sort of body scan, and I could feel my whole body, so that was good. I didn’t quite feel like I could get up, though, so I lay there for a little while longer, eyes closed, collecting myself. I didn’t want to be injured. I didn’t want to be hurt. I wanted to finish the game and have a good time.

I’m not sure how long I lay there, but before too long, some of the teachers came running over to me to see if I was okay. By that time, I had collected myself and was sure I could stand and walk and play, so I bounded up and reassured everyone that I was fine. They wanted me to sit out for a little while, but I refused. I wanted to play on. If I recall correctly, one of the teachers whom I really respected managed to convince me to sit out the game and let others play in my stead.

Even though I was antsy to get back in the game, I realized that I was kind of wobbly on my feet, and I needed to take a break, so I agreed to sit out for a while. It had sunk in that my bell had gotten rung, and I wasn’t much use to my team, anyway. Plus, the weird feeling in my head made me a little nervous, so I was a little relieved to have been taken out. After a while, I was allowed back in the game, but like with the football injury, I was slower, less coordinated and not as adept at handling the ball. I really struggled, which was embarrassing.

Those two head injuries — both of them knocking me silly and altering my consciousness in the process — came at different times and under slightly different conditions. In retrospect, I wish that the coaches and teachers in charge had been more adamant about me not getting back in the game right away — or at all. But in the first case with the football game, I was so eager — hungry — to play, that wild horses couldn’t have kept me from it. I think I may have had some recollection about that football experience, when I was dealing with the soccer experience. I was much more compliant — though grudgingly — with the folks in charge. I think also the nature of the games made a difference — in the football game, it was all about drive, all about pushing onward, where in the soccer match, it was much more of a thinking-game than brute force. I suspect that made a difference in my own thinking process.

One thing that made it easier for me to sit out part of the game, after my soccer injury, was the fact that I had other team members who wanted to play. If I played the whole game, my classmates wouldn’t have gotten the chance. In the football game, there weren’t that many of us playing, and if I was out, the game came to an end — which is what happened — and I didn’t want the game called on my account. I do recall making peace with the idea of sitting out of the soccer match by agreeing to cheer my teammates from the sidelines. My teachers specifically asked me to do that, I recall, so that gave me something to do while I was recuperating from my fall.

I suspect that folks who continue to play after concussions are often such loyal and dedicated team players, that they don’t want to let their team down. Or they feel some pressure of some kind — whether from their coach or their teammates or themselves — to stay in the game. Don’t let the team down. Be a part of the group effort. Those kids often have such a spark, such a dedication, such a devotion to their team that’s really refreshing, in our me-first, winner-takes-all, I’ll-get-mine society. But that dedication can work against us in the long run, if we’re not protected by folks who know better than us — in the school sports case, coaches and trainers and teachers who supervise student athletes.

I was fortunate to have been supervised by teachers and coaches who cared very much about my well-being and safety, and who managed to prevail on me to get the hell out of a dangerous situation. I was also fortunate to have the kinds of coaches and teachers I truly respected, so when it came time for them to outrank me, I could listen to them, hear them, and follow their instructions, even though I didn’t want to.

When it comes to protecting kids from the after-effects of sports-related head injury/concussion, there’s nothing like mutual caring and respect, when it comes to making and enforcing the right decisions. And there’s nothing like keen awareness of the dangers of unmanaged concussion, to hasten the decision-making and enforcing process.

So teachers and coaches, please learn all you can about head injury and concussion. And for the sake of your students and student athletes, don’t let them play injured. I don’t care what they say or how hard they beg or how far behind you are in the game. One short-term win for the team means nothing, if it costs a player the long-term loss of their cognitive, behavioral, and physical well-being… not to mention their future.