By Alyssa Girardi
Entirely East Lansing staff writer
In an East Lansing High School football game two seasons ago, a quarterback went down after a rough tackle.
That hit gave him his first concussion of the game. Unaware of the injury, he took the field a few plays later at cornerback. A head-on tackle raised the count to two concussions on the night and forced him to seek medical help.
Memory loss. Decreased attention span. Constant fatigue.
This is the story of Zach Francisco, a junior at East Lansing High School, who has suffered an estimated six football-related concussions in eight years, and how East Lansing is trying to combat the issue.
“I don’t remember the bus ride there or the bus ride after,” Francisco said. “I don’t remember that game. I don’t remember being there.”
Francisco is one of 1.6 to 3.8 million athletes to suffer a sports-related traumatic brain injury in the U.S. each year, according to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In an 11-year study of high school athletes by MedStar Sports Medicine, a Maryland-based health and research facility, football players suffered more than half of all sports concussions, with occurrences steadily increasing.
Football programs across the country, including East Lansing, are watching for concussions and ensuring youth players know the signs.
Randy Pearson, senior associate director of Sparrow-MSU Family Medicine Residency Program and MSU football team physician, described a concussion as a brain bruised by a collision.
Common symptoms include headache, blurred vision, sensitivity to light and slow reaction times.
Although concussions are possible in any collision sport, he said many football players aren’t taking necessary preventive measures. As long as players engage in unsafe behavior — leading with the head — and fans get excited about it, dangerous hits will happen.
“We try to counsel athletes that they can make a big hit, but if they keep their head up and look at where they’re hitting, it becomes much safer for them,” Pearson said. “Part of it is glorification of the big hit. Part of it is actually just the realization that head injuries happen.”
Concussion treatments differ, but Pearson said he first checks the athlete’s neck because neck injuries can be life-threatening. Next, there is a standard group of tests to look at short- and long-term memory, brain processing and balancing. Treatments become more specialized from there.
After his concussions, Francisco went to the Michigan State Clinical Center, 401 W. Greenlawn, Lansing, for “brain exercises” to rehabilitate his memory. He went three times a week for five weeks and improved 39 percent from his initial test.
Pearson said that treatment is relatively new, and used for patients with prolonged symptoms. He said most brains heal with rest, and cognitive exercises usually take place at least two weeks following the injury.
Despite his injuries, Francisco hopes to play football his senior year.
As Pearson said, concussions are bound to happen in collision sports, but Tom Hunt, East Lansing High School athletic director, is determined to reduce their frequency.
The school implemented ImPACT eight years ago, a computer program used to evaluate and manage concussions. Hunt said incoming athletes do a baseline ImPACT test that could be used for comparison later.
“Should one of our athletes get symptoms of a concussion or anything like that … they have to pass a subsequent test before they return to action,” he said.
Additionally, Hunt said the athletic department buys the best helmets possible, replacing them regularly. He said the helmets cost $300 each, and East Lansing High School buys 20-25 a year.
Hunt added the athletic department reconditions and recertifies the helmets each season.
East Lansing Junior Trojans president Tina Crawford said the league — comprised of players from fourth to eighth grade — also is concerned with the quality of equipment, but at such a young age it’s more about education.
Crawford said the coaches teach the players to tackle with their heads up, reducing some risk of concussions.
It’s an approach USA Football has gained ground with, creating a program called “Heads Up Football” and spreading it in youth programs across the U.S.
The program is based on four pillars:
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention approved concussion recognition
USA Football Communications Director Steve Alic said the governing body worked with experts and medical professionals to develop “Heads Up Football,” which piloted in three leagues last season.
He said 712 youth leagues are set to adopt the program next season and USA Football expects it to reach more than 900.
“None of them have to do it — this program cannot be mandated,” Alic said. “What you’re seeing are youth leagues who are committed to the health and safety of their players, and make safety the No. 1 priority of their program.”
Since the 1990s, the Michigan High School Athletic Association has focused on concussion education. Communications Director John Johnson said the association partnered with the Brain Injury Association of Michigan in the early 2000s to provide schools with concussion reference guides.
MHSAA has implemented rules and protocols on how to handle suspected concussions, and Johnson said it is reconsidering the amount of contact allowed during football practices.
Though many coaches and officials agree there is no way to eliminate the risk of football-related concussions, some also are focused on promoting awareness of signs, symptoms and safety.
“There’s a certain type of toughness that, I think, is inherent to the sport itself, but you can’t cross the line when there’s an injury involved,” said Bill Feraco, East Lansing High School football head coach. “You can’t look past the health of the student-athlete.”
To view an infographic on high school sports concussions, click here.