Concussions a point of emphasis for sports leagues

New measures require caution in dealing with head injuries

September 05, 2010|By Jeff Barker, The Baltimore Sun

COLLEGE PARK — — It was no big deal, said University of Maryland football player Devonte Campbell. The tight end remembers catching a short pass in a practice scrimmage last month, lowering his shoulders as he turned downfield, and ramming helmet-to-helmet with an oncoming defender.

"I had a nice little headache," the third-year player said with a smile. "It wasn't intentional, you know. Just happens from playing the sport."

It happens a lot. As Maryland and Navy begin their seasons today at M&T Bank Stafium — renewing a 105-year-old rivalry — the public's focus will naturally be drawn to the game's most jarring tackles. But it is the gentler but still potentially damaging collisions, some on the practice field, that are attracting increasing attention from researchers and sports leagues. In the past year, the NCAA and NFL have adopted new measures to ensure that players with concussion symptoms are kept off the field.

This is the first season in which ACC officials on the field will be required to sideline players who appear disoriented or display other worrisome signs. Some connected to Maryland football are asking if the league is pushing its concern too far.

Maryland head coach Ralph Friedgen said he understands the increasing focus on concussions, but also worries that the 12-school conference's approach could have unintended consequences on the playing field.

"I'm not really fond of that rule because what if the official is not right — they take out your best player at a key time in the game [and it's] a major factor in the game," said Friedgen, 63, who has been in coaching for nearly 40 years. He said he hoped — and assumed — that the rule would be applied fairly and correctly.

Friedgen's anxiety is shared by Darryl Conway, an assistant Maryland athletic director for sports medicine. "That's kind of our worry. What if it's just a kid that's tired that's staying down longer? I understand the safety issues. But most concussions aren't apparent. They come to us the next day."

Apprised of Maryland's concerns, ACC associate commissioner Michael Kelly replied: "I can understand that. I don't think [the officials] will be overly focused when there is not a true issue there."

A Johns Hopkins neurocritical care doctor said the the rule is sensible. "To give the officials this authority is very appropriate if a player is showing neurological changes," said Dr. Robert D. Stevens. "The reason why is that the player's judgment may be impaired. It makes sense to have an independent person make that decision for you. For a long time there has been a culture of a tough guy who can withstand anything, and that needs to change."

Johns Hopkins Medicine recently directed an NFL-sponsored, head-injury conference in which Stevens was a participant. Stevens and others at Hopkins are concerned about the short-term effects of single hits and the long-term impact of multiple head blows. "The criteria we use for concussions may just not be sensitive or specific enough to detect some of the impacts people just brush off," Stevens said.

Campbell was diagnosed with a concussion and missed a week of practice. "Watching the tape — who knows with concussions? — he didn't really to me get hit hard," Friedgen said.

Within days, wide receiver Torrey Smith stumbled in practice and was hit in the head by a trailing player's knee. Maryland athletic trainer Wes Robinson "came up to me after the scrimmage and said, 'Torrey, he don't even know where he is. I don't know if he has a concussion or whatnot,'" Friedgen said. "Later that night, he was fine — he didn't have any symptoms" and was able to return after some rest, the coach said.

There was no specific label for Smith's injury. It fell into the vast expanse of head blows that defy characterization.

"He just got hit," Conway said. "We're not classifying it as one thing or another. "

Former Maryland quarterback Jordan Steffy said such injuries — physicians sometimes refer to them as "sub-concussive events" — are common.

"The thing that's so difficult is it's not a black and white thing," said Steffy, whose career ended in 2008 and who helps run a Pennsylvania foundation that aids at-risk kids. "Have there been times when I've taken a hit and the lights go out for a second? Sure. Is that a concussion? There are gray areas. A lot of guys continue to play. Certainly I did, too."

Steffy said he endured two serious concussions at Maryland, and two in high school. In 2007, Rutgers safety Joe Lefeged flung himself at the quarterback, hitting Steffy with an unnerving, helmet-to-helmet crack. Removed from the game, Steffy walked haltingly up the locker-room stairs and remained forgetful and occasionally disoriented for several weeks.

Despite his history of concussions, Steffy opted to return for another year in 2008 while enrolled in Maryland's real estate-development graduate program. He missed most of the season after fracturing his right thumb.

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