WHEN DOES THE CONCUSSION ISSUE COME HOME TO ROOST IN THE HIGH SCHOOL RANKS?
There is this story that I like to tell from when I played high school football. It’s a story that I tell with pride. It’s a story that brings back great memories at the same time that it makes me worry about my future. It’s also a story that I think has a connection to some of the problems I’ve had in life since the day the story unfolded.
I remember the day so vividly which is ironic when I tell you the story and the central issue in it.
We were playing Father Judge, our arch rivals. This was my freshman year at North Catholic and I was starting on the Defensive line and Fullback. That’s kind of a story in itself because when I went out for the team I was unsure of my talent and thought I’d try out as a defensive back where I could sort of “hide out”. I eventually found out that I was just as talented and maybe a little more talented then a lot of my teammates. I was 14 and insecure which wasn’t unusual for kids that age. Things have a way of sorting themselves out, especially on the fields of competition.
Back to the game. We’re playing Judge at Picolli Playground in Juniata. It was our home field and we had this ritual before our home games. We would have to walk from the school which was just a few blocks away and we would approach the field from this alley/driveway right across from the field and there we would get together and then run onto the field. It was our version of running out of a tunnel just as you see on any Saturday in the fall at any given University.
On this day though the crowd lined the field on both sides going 3 deep. At least that’s how I remember it. To me and my teammates it was like running onto the field at Penn State or Notre Dame. We were pumped for this game like no other game I could remember.
Both teams came into the game with good records. We had only lost one game the entire year and I think the loss came after the Judge game but can’t be quite sure of it. It was 40 years ago this year. Thinking about that now kind of floors me. Sometimes it feels like it was yesterday. Anyway, Judge was the class of the Catholic League back then. North had its struggles and could never seem to break through to Judge’s level. The talent was there but for some reason we could never seem to put it all together.
North’s freshman teams however, seemed to always be good. Why it never translated to the Varsity level is unclear. Back in those days Frankford only consisted of 10th, 11th and 12th grades so many kids who may have started at Frankford if they had a 9th grade may have never even gone to North in the first place. We lost a few kids to Frankford. Not many but the ones we did lose were talented kids.
Let’s get back to the game. I can get sidetracked easily and you’ll probably have a better understanding of why after you read this story.
The game starts and it’s a battle. Both teams came to play this day and as I recall it was close all the way through but we ended up prevailing. I don’t remember the final score but I know it was close. Maybe a few points at the most. Like I said a battle all game.
Like most teams in that era we were predominantly a running team. A play that worked particularly well for us was the blast play with the fullback leading the tailback through the line kicking out the Linebacker. We had two pretty good tailbacks and each one was capable of scoring from anywhere on the field at any time.
We call the blast and I lead through to the linebacker, I’m going at him and the instincts of not only a football player but as a human being have me leading in with my helmet down to act as a battering ram. His instincts are the same. He’s countering force with force, his helmet lowering to combat my blow. At this point the circumstances get a little fuzzy. I couldn’t tell you what the results of that blast play call were. I couldn’t tell you that my name was Dave Shipton at that point.
Here is what I do remember from the aftermath of that play. I got up and with my mind in what I can best describe as in a state of wooziness, did what any football player would do at that point. I got back into the huddle. If my life or the life of my kids for that matter were depending on what Jimmy Seykot, our Quarterback, called as our next play I could not tell you what it was.
Here is my best recollection of what happened next. I do remember being in the huddle. I do remember Seykot mouthing the words of what I’m sure is the play we will run when we got out of the huddle. I do remember breaking the huddle and getting into our stances. I do remember Seykot barking out the signals to indicate the start of the play we were going to run. I do remember that the ball was snapped to Seykot. Really the only indication that the play Jimmy Seykot had called in the huddle was starting was that I had the feeling that everyone around me suddenly started darting to specific points on the field. There was what appeared to me be, chaos all around me. I was oblivious to it all.
Here’s what appeared to be happening to me. My teammates were moving all around me for reasons that were unclear to me. Me, I had no idea what was going on. All I remember is that when the ball was snapped I stood straight up out of my stance, looked around, and wondered where exactly I was. At that point my coaches knew something was seriously wrong with me and got me off of the field.
I got my bell rung. That was what it was called in 1976 and that is what it would be called for many years after that. It wasn’t until many years after that Fall day that getting your “bell rung” would start to be called something else.
I was immediately taken out of the game at that point and given what passed as “concussion protocol” of the day. What is your name? How many fingers am I holding up? Two pretty innocuous and simple questions to answer in order to get back in the game but to me it was two extremely difficult questions to answer.
As I recall it took me around two more quarters to get back into the game. That’s how long it took me to answer those two questions. That was the concussion protocol of the day.
I get what I want though. I get what almost any football player wants. I get to go back into the game. I had successfully navigated through the two questions that would get me back onto the field.
I don’t recall how long I was back before the second bell was “rung”. Another play we called with success was the fullback or middle screen. Two steps on a forty-five degree angle towards the line of scrimmage and then retreat back to my original position while the line is doing their thing before getting into their position in front of me. Jimmy Seykot rolls right letting the oncoming rushers get right up on him before lofting the ball over their heads into my waiting hands. Just as it had done before, it was executed to perfection. I ran the ball down deep into Judge territory and almost scoring before “bang”. I don’t know if it was the same linebacker who knocked me out earlier in the game but when I tell the story I say it is the same kid. I’m not lying. I’m just not sure but it makes for a good story. Call me a liar. Call me a bullshitter. All I know it sounds good coming from the bar stool.
Regardless of who hit me that second time the result was the same. I once again had my bell rung. Unlike the first time when I was able to retreat to the huddle in attempt to regain my senses this time I was unsuccessful in getting back to the huddle. Think Stewart Bradley the Eagles Linebacker stumbling off the field after he was concussed in a game against the Packers (try finding that video online. It’s not easy and I’m guessing the NFL has something to do with that). My coaches immediately saw what was going on and quickly got me out of the game. My day was finished and I would not be returning.
After the second hit I didn’t even get the obligatory who are and where are you questions. It was late in the game and we were ahead so there was no need for me at that point. I’m not trying to make my coaches out to be heartless monsters who used me up until I wasn’t needed anymore. That was far from the truth. It was just the sign of the times and the way things were done in those days when it came to concussions.
That game against Judge wasn’t my first time experiencing a concussion and it wasn’t the last either. I’m not quite sure how many concussions I suffered either on the field or off for that matter because there were a few there too. All toll I would say there probably were at least ten concussions.
Flash forward a few years and I start hearing about Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy or CTE. Actually let me back up a second. Before we hear about CTE we started hearing stories of former NFL players and the bizarre acts associated with them.
Mike Webster, All-Pro Center for the Pittsburgh Steelers was the first player to be diagnosed with CTE but not until after his death. His life after football and before his death was a sad story. According to reports he was homeless for a time, dealt with issues of drug abuse and suffered from bouts of amnesia and depression. Webster died of a heart attack at the age of 50 but the underlying issues which led to his death seem to stem from concussions he suffered during his Hall of Fame career.
Justin Strzelczyk, another Steeler Offensive lineman died a particularly gruesome death. He maneuvered his truck into the opposing lane then proceeded to drive his pick up truck head on into a tanker truck going the other way.
Andre Waters, Junior Seau, Dave Duerson and Terry Long are just some of the names who’s deaths have been attributed to CTE. All of these guys had pretty long careers in the NFL so their exposure to concussions was much longer.
Costa Karageorge, an Ohio State Defensive Lineman, who’s death has been attributed to concussion related CTE, was found in a dumpster of an apparent self inflicted gunshot wound.
Closer to home Andre Robinson, a former Temple Owl football player and who played in the NFL for a handful teams including the Eagles, hung himself last year in Philadelphia. Robinson’s autopsy revealed he had suffered from CTE.
According to Frontline, the PBS news show who’s piece on concussions in the NFL opened a lot of eyes to the growing problem of concussions and CTE in former NFL players, 87 of 91 deceased players have tested positive for CTE.
As in all other parts of life the more successful and higher a person climbs up the ladder the more scrutinized their lives become. The fact that Frontline’s statistics focuses on NFL players attests to this.
The lower you go down the totem pole the less brighter the light becomes.
So going by that theory we can say that NFL players got the most publicity when it came to brain injuries and CTE. College players got a little less and going down the pole, high school players the least.
It makes sense on a number of levels. The higher and farther you go the more hits you’re going to take and deliver. The more hits , the more susceptible to a disease like CTE.
The opposite side of this coin is that the younger you are the less developed your brain is which makes the hits you take far more dangerous. The fact that the NFL guys continued to take those hits into college and then the NFL doesn’t make the hits they took less dangerous. It also doesn’t make the hits the high school kids took less impactful on their lives.
I guess why the Judge game gives me pause is because it was not one but two pretty devastating hits in one game. We know now that after a player gets a concussion that he or she needs to come out of the game immediately and is not allowed to return to that game or any game after that until the effects of the concussion has completely subsided.
Although I neither knew or cared what the effects of returning to play after a concussion were, I do know what they are now.
Second-Impact Syndrome(SIS). Now I’m not going to bore you with the details of SIS but I think the name speaks for itself. I will tell you that Brainandspinalcord.org, another name that speaks for itself, lists athletes as the population most susceptible to SIS. More specifically, young athletes.
The more I read about SIS the luckier I felt. The fact that I did not die on that field at Picolli Playground that day is a miracle in my eyes. But the more I started seeing what happened to guys like Mike Webster, Justin Strzelczyk and Andre Robinson and Andre Waters the less luckier I felt.
I may have lived that day we played Father Judge but I think parts of me died that day too.
I’ve had my struggles in life since that day. For the most part I’ve been able to keep it together. If your idea of “keeping it together” means not being homeless or committing suicide like some of those guys I mentioned earlier than yes, I have kept it together. I’ve been able to maintain a job for virtually my whole life. That looks good on the outside to other people. But like I said, I’ve had my issues. I choose to keep them private for now but maybe someday I’ll tell you the whole story.
And all along or at least from the time I started becoming aware of the effects of concussions and CTE, I’ve wondered if this had anything to do with me and my issues. It’s at least got me to thinking of donating my brain after I die to the CTE Center to see if this lowly high school football player was affected by the game I so loved for my whole life.
I’ve had so many great experiences in football both as a player and also the short time I spent as a coach. I am beginning to come to the conclusion that maybe the single proudest moment I’ve had was being a member of a coaching staff that refused to let a kid back into a game after he had sustained a concussion. As a matter of fact I don’t think that kid played another down of football due to the concussion he had sustained. It was that serious but yet in the moment it seemed to just be another kid who got his bell rung. It was not a devastating hit. It was just another hit. That kid experienced the effects of the concussion for quite some time afterward. In light of those effects I thank God we didn’t put him back into the game. Who knows what could have happened.
I don’t blame my coaches for putting me back into the game that day. I wanted to go back into the game. Desperately. They just did not have the information that we do today. It was more than info though. It was this attitude of “being tough”. If it wasn’t a knee injury or something that physically restricted us to run or throw than we were able to get back into the game. Honestly, that attitude for the most part still prevailed years later when I was coaching. At least it does with the player. Thankfully we’re more educated as coaches and parents now.
I started writing this article before I saw the movie “Concussion”. The only eye opener for me was how the NFL tried to downplay the issue and even went so far to discredit the Doctor who first identified CTE. The same Doctor who performed the autopsy of Mike Webster and others.
I don’t want to see the game go away. I applaud the youth and high school coaches who now not only teach the correct way to tackle but also stress the importance of it. It’s a physical and fast moving game. You’ll never be able to totally eliminate concussions from the game.
There are many occupations that put its workers at risk every time they punch the clock. None as lucrative as that of an NFL player. So I understand when a former player who has had issues with memory or some other concussion related symptom say if he had to do it all over again he wouldn’t hesitate to do it again.
I wonder sometimes that if that question was posed to Mike Webster when he was at the deepest depth of his depression and delusion what his answer would be. I doubt that he would give the “do it all over again” answer but I also don’t think it would be a slam dunk and that’s how much pull this game can have on somebody who played it.
Me? It used to be a slam dunk for me but as some issues I’ve had in my life rear their ugly heads it seems to alter my thoughts on this a little bit more each time I consider the question.