January 13, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Megan Scott turned downfield to get into a better position.

Smack!

A soccer ball nailed her in the back of the head. Megan blacked out for 30 seconds, finally mustering the effort to get to her feet. But then she fell back down into the grass. “I want to play,” Megan said to the referee crouched next to her. “You can’t,” he informed her.

Her club team, Omaha Futbol Club 9798, won 5-1 in the state finals. Megan doesn’t remember much of that game.

Headaches. Confusion. Fatigue. Megan felt all of these for the next month and a half. For two weeks, she attended school for only half the day.

Megan had sustained a severe concussion; a major brain injury suffered in a sport many parents may still believe is immune to the damaging violence of the gladiator games like football and hockey.

According to a National Academy of Sciences (NAS) study two years ago, football players have the highest rate of concussions among high school athletes, with 11.2 concussions reported per 10,000 athletes. However, many other sports account for the 3.8 million sports-related concussions per year as reported by the American Academy of Pediatrics. The NAS saw soccer, for example, as the most dangerous for head injuries among girls, with 6.7 concussed cases per 10,000 athletes. Lacrosse, meanwhile, has 6.9 concussions per 10,000, while basketball has also seen an increase over the years.

Dr. Tarvez Tucker, a neurologist at the Oregon Health and Science University, says concussions add up over a lifetime and can lead to dementia as an adult. She also mentions people’s brains are not fully developed until later in life, especially those of males. “An injury that occurs while the brain is not developed can be more serious,” Tucker adds.

Jacque Tevis, Millard West High School’s girls’ soccer coach, says she does not remember a time when she has gone a year without someone on her team having a concussion.  Tucker says most concussions are not even ball related, but rather head-to- head injuries.

Nick Brasel can relate. After sprinting for a fly ball during baseball practice with his youth baseball team, he hit his own teammate head on.

“Where am I?” Nick asked his father when he woke up in a car heading to the hospital.

Nick’s next memories are sporadic. He recalled being rolled into the hospital on a stretcher and receiving multiple tests, including a CAT scan. He has no memory of the incident.

He was left with a bloody baseball hat, swollen cheek and eye, and a severe concussion.

Like Megan, Nick fell behind in school and was able to go only half days for the next week and a half.

“I had trouble paying attention and kept falling asleep,” Nick says.

Across Nebraska, Including in Omaha Public Schools, districts have begun adopting new concussion-related policies. Millard Public Schools, for example, has a new concussion policy this year in compliance with the Nebraska Concussion Awareness Act, which allows students time to make up missed work since cognitive functions can cause an increase of symptoms.

Most doctors, including Tucker, believe students should have flexible schedules until fully recovered. Tucker says it is the responsibility of parents and coaches to get athletes “the heck off the field” when a concussion happens.

Megan’s father, Tim, knows there is always a concern or risk, but says it is tough to take away something his daughter loves. If Megan has a third concussion, Tim may encourage her to stop playing.

Tevis, though, says that, many times, she can’t see her players from across the field. She also has difficulties with athletes not informing her when a blow to the head happens.

“Hopefully, these young athletes will start to recognize, as we learn more about how serious even a ‘mild’ concussion can be, that they have to be honest with us because literally their lives could be at
risk,” Tevis says.

Tucker notes that getting kids to self-report symptoms of a head injury can be difficult. There exists a “suck it up and swallow your injury” attitude that infuriates her, she says. She worries students will be prone to second impact syndrome (SIS), which can result when a concussion injury is not fully healed and an athlete is hit in the head again soon after. The brain can swell acutely, and from there, everything can spiral downward with severe consequences. Even death.

But, as any parent knows, it’s tough to tell a son or daughter they need to give up the sports they love.

“I don’t think I could manage life without sports,” Nick Brasel says. “It’s a big part of my life.”