Using your head: Concussions make an impact for Richmond football
Every morning when Sherman Logan wakes and struggles to get out of bed he reflects on his football career. He knows his joint pain may improve throughout the day, but he knows his senses will not. His hearing is muffled and his sense of smell is virtually nonexistent.
Ten years removed from being a college freshman, Logan cherishes memories of playing defensive end at University of Richmond. Ten years later, he still thinks about Friday, August 13, 2004, when a normal afternoon practice became a nightmare.
On that cloudy, gloomy day, Logan suffered a knee to the head that caused a concussion severe enough to bruise his spinal cord, paralyzed him for 30 minutes and left him with symptoms that plague him today. His injury made him a huge liability to NFL teams and his aspirations of an NFL career were finished. He is not alone.
As the Richmond football program named new head coaches for consecutive years and built an on-campus stadium, the world of professional football shifted its attention to the increasing knowledge and awareness of concussions. At Richmond, the national news intended to help players had the opposite effect. Players refuse to report their concussions in order to escape being sent to the sideline, and continue the pursuit of a professional career.
Since the Spiders won the I-AA National Championship in 2008, five recruiting classes of NFL hopefuls have walked through the locker room doors. Kurt Schmitz was another player who struggled to keep his NFL dreams alive.
Schmitz started as a freshman in 2010. He said he managed to hide two concussions he suffered, and easily recognized the signs when he suffered his third during the spring season, but still refused to report it to the training staff in order to keep playing. His fourth concussion was a different story only because he woke up in the hospital. When a doctor asked Schmitz where he was, he said he was "out in the field having fun on fun day."
As an offensive lineman Schmitz helped protect the quarterback. Now medically disqualified from competition, he helps protect his teammates in other ways. On most days, he finds himself grabbing his teammates helmets after they've put them on - swinging them around by the facemask to make sure they are not loose. He knows from experience that there is no quick way to fix your brain.
Schmitz's presence on the sideline is a reminder of the damage that concussions can cause, but he said many of his teammates, driven by competition, still refused to come forward.
The Protocol Problem
Ben Edwards, Richmond's senior wide receiver in 2013, walks into Mexico Restaurant and sits down at a table next to Michael Strauss, his starting quarterback. Today the twosome is more interested in free chips and salsa than the weekly margarita specials that have become a sensation among Richmond students.
Though they will not play together next season, they are each planning to continue their success on the field - Strauss as the senior quarterback and Edwards as an NFL rookie.
Strauss has taken his tie off and has already begun to devour his meal, his suit slightly wrinkled. He began the long day with business school presentations, and after spring practice realized all he had was his suit. Edwards has showered and put on sweats after a training workout. He's training harder than ever after an anterior cruciate ligament
injury that ended his season. When the waiter comes to take Edwards' drink order, he orders a Blue Moon Belgian White beer for himself and for Strauss.
At first glance, Edwards and Strauss appear completely different physically, but their similarities are undeniable: both received all conference and state honors at the end of the season, live for competition - hoping to eventually play as professionals, and agree that concussion protocol is a problem that only keeps them off of the field. They have taken their share of hard hits.
Edwards left the second game of the 2013 season after nine plays against NC State last September after suffering a direct contact hit that required nine stitches above his right eyebrow. As the trainer helped him off the field she asked him to remember a list of words. He said he was a little dazed, but the problem wasn't his head. It was more so the blood and chaotic environment of close to 60,000 fans.
Later in the season he suffered the third recorded concussion of his career, and recognized the symptoms immediately. Aware that the hits in the NFL will only be more devastating, he said he would play smarter - stepping out of bounds to avoid unnecessary hits - because he is weary of the strict concussion protocol he will face if he doesn't.
"The protocol is the problem," he said. "There are around 20 broad symptoms that are very vague: trouble sleeping, headaches, fatigue. I'm tired every day but it has nothing to do with my head."
The two players agree that they are capable of recognizing when a hit does serious damage, and know when they should report their symptoms. Strauss took a hard hit prior to Halloween but said he knew better than to report it.
"My first thought was to make sure I didn't stand near a trainer or give a coach the chance to ask if I was OK," he said.
The two list endless reasons for refusing to come forward about concussions as they finish their meals and their beer. They love their program and don't want to let their coaches or teammates down. They put in endless hours of preparation for only a twelve game season, and don't want to lose their spot. They want to make it to the pros where football will then be their primary source of income. Ultimately, there is one reason.
"College athletes are some of the most competitive people you'll ever meet," Edwards said. "We know when to draw the line."
Athletes are prepared to sign their National Letter of Intent, Strauss said. "We're aware of the risks, but at the end of the day we're competitors and we want to play. The decision of when to come back after a concussion should be solely up to the player."
Every August when the Virginia humidity reaches its peak, a new cycle begins. Before football's training camp, Chris Jones, the assistant athletic director of medicine, addresses the entire football team about training staff protocol, and that is just the way head coach Danny Rocco likes it.
Rocco had a good number of concussions in his playing days, but he and his staff agree their expertise is in coaching football, not medical training. The staff has seen positive changes come to the game as a direct result of the improving education and growing awareness surrounding concussions, especially through rule changes.
Rocco said player safety was his top priority, and that he and his coaching staff were frequently engaged with their athletes. He said they got to know players so well that they could look into their eyes, even in heightened environments, and make sure they were tuned in and clear of thought. If they are not, they are taken to an athletic trainer.
Rocco said he knew he coached a physical game, and that the violent collisions were not always the ones that created the result. But his coaching staff can't worry about every collision. "If we do that," Rocco said, "we'll be trying to see who is standing and moving as soon as they get off the pile."
As the lead trainer, Jones said he had seen some concussion testing in his time that had needed to be re-administered, but he was still not sure whether the student-athlete was being lazy - the test does require effort - or intentionally trying to cheat.
Every student-athlete is educated about specific Richmond protocol and the possible long-term risks of concussions, which include memory loss and dementia. All are also given pre- and post-concussion tests. Robert White, the team neurologist, dictates all of the head injury protocol, Jones said.
There are two concussion tests: the ImPACT - a neurological baseline test and the Sport Concussion Assessment Tool (SCAT-2). Jones said the assessments test for symptoms, neurocognitive abilities such as memory, and postural stability - a fancy word for balance. The test accounts for differences in student-athletes such as learning disabilities and primary language preferences.
Jones and his medical staff pay close attention to athletes who have had prior concussions and are therefore more susceptible to the injury. The staff agrees the testing is effective, but believes medicine is an ever-evolving field, and will remain aware of the best new practices.
Jeff Barth is one of the pioneers in the field of neuropsychology, and works just 70 miles from University of Richmond at University of Virginia in Charlottesville.
The League of Denial, published in 2013, tells the story and provides horrific insight into the traumatic brain injury within the NFL. Barth has studied head injuries at UVA since the early 1980s, known then as mild head injuries. He is one of the pivotal neuropsychologists in the book.
When Barth began his studies, he faced strong resistance from the sports community. Coaches were unreceptive. The prevailing attitude was that players should be tough enough to shake off their injuries. Everyone seemed to deny the existence of a problem.
Over time, the attitude has changed, but Barth said players were probably still pretty poor at telling the difference between minor and major hits. He said the key to preventing major damage was to report all concussion instances.
"It's easy to catastrophize concussions," Barth said. "There's definitely the possibility for catastrophic injury if you get two concussions in close proximity, but having two within hours or days of each other is a rare occurrence."
According to Barth's studies, not reporting multiple concussions and not fully recovering could impair someone's ability to think over time. In some instances, genetics and other qualities can increase some players' risk. Barth said concussions were similar to many other types of injuries, but,much like knee injuries, sitting out and getting healthy was the answer to preventing catastrophe.
Learning Tough Lessons
Every morning before Logan leaves for work, he puts on his shiny Division I-AA national championship ring. He's learned firsthand that college sports can provide endless opportunities to further one's education. The gleaming ring is the bait he uses to initiate this conversation with teachers and students with whom he works closely with as a manager for Axiom Educators in Richmond, Va.
After his initial concussion, Logan said he knew he suffered other minor concussions and still chose not to report them. He said if one day he had a son who wanted to play football, he was going to have to wait until he's in high school - old enough to understand proper technique.
"I think I definitely could have raised some red flags," Logan said. "But when you're an 18- to 22-year-old kid, and your only dream is to play football. ... You'll do anything to keep playing and keep your dream alive."
Both of Schmitz's grandparents suffer from Alzheimer's. When Schmitz's father heard he suffered his last concussion, he called his son and said he needed to stop, think about his grandparents and that if he'd like to live past 50, stop playing football.
Schmitz said players everywhere needed to realize they have to come forward. "Guys on the team aren't superman," he said. "You may want to play through days where you can't see straight, but from what I've experienced, it will catch you."
Logan said current players should stop and think about the rest of their life and the quality of life they want to live. He said football had provided him endless opportunities, and he was forever thankful, but at the end of the day, "it's just a sport."
Contact reporter Lauren Shute at firstname.lastname@example.org
Tagged: athletes, ben-edwards, college, concussions, danny-rocco, football, impact, jeff-barth, kurt-schmitz, michael-strauss, nfl, physical, protocol, safety, sherman-logan, sports, the-league-of-denial, top stories, university-of-richmond