Tag Archives: concussions

Getting a New Sense for Concussions

August 16, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

As a linebacker for Omaha Gross High School more than 30 years ago, Stephen Eubanks slammed head-first into an Omaha Westside linebacker.

“I still have a very vivid memory of this,” Eubanks recalls. “It felt like someone opened the top of my scalp and poured warm sand down my neck.”

Eubanks got up and “shook off the cobwebs.”

He couldn’t make sense of the hand signals coaches were giving him as the defensive signal caller. He’s fortunate not to have sustained further damage.

Today, Eubanks is supervisor of athletics for OPS with oversight of sports at seven high schools. It’s in that role that he led a charge last summer to outfit OPS players with Riddell Speedflex helmets—high-tech, data-tracking helmets outfitted with the Riddell InSite Impact Response System.

Inside each helmet is a series of sensor pads that gauge impact. The sensor pads link to hand-held devices that track the number and force of hits players experience—in each practice and game as well as over time. An alert is given when impact exceeds a threshold that is predetermined for each position.

OPS was following the lead of Bellevue West, which started using the helmets in 2016, and Omaha Creighton Prep, which last year purchased the helmets for every player. Prep’s cost was underwritten by alum Jim O’Brien, a former football player for the Junior Jays. Bellevue, which started with 12 helmets, last year was able to purchase one for each member of their teams through the support of donors. 

Whereas Prep had been researching a switch to the helmets for nearly a year, the OPS switch was put into motion in summer 2017. Eubanks (and coaches at other schools) had to learn about the helmets’ technology, their uses, and their cost. Eubanks also worked with the district’s legal team to consider legal implications, and protocols had to be established for what happens when a sensor goes off. He got the input of an OPS sports medicine committee. The sensor-equipped helmets cost up to twice the cost of a standard helmet. Omaha’s Sherwood Foundation paid more than $360,000 for the 800-plus helmets.

Once helmets were received, training was provided to coaches and athletic trainers.

OPS had coaches holding monitors. Prep had its head trainer holding the monitor at varsity games and a coach for other levels. Bellevue had trainers holding monitors. 

Each helmet reports the player’s name, number, and position. A sensor going off does not mean a player has a concussion—only that a force strong enough to cause one has occurred. 

“That first fall it only went off two times,” says Bellevue West head coach Mike Huffman. “Both times it was our running back [current Husker running back Jaylin Bradley] actually running over people. A lot of times its these young men that are bigger, they are faster, they are able to deliver the hits, that cause the sensors to go off.”

Coaches look to see if a player is down or has an observable indicator of a concussion, such as reaching for his head or walking with a wobbly gait. They can call the player to the sidelines and have them go through concussion protocol as outlined by the Concussion Awareness Act that went into effect in July 2012.

So what were results? In OPS it was something of a mixed bag, due in large measure to the compressed timetable in which the helmets were received.

“We wish we had more time on the front end, but we can’t control that or turn back time,” Eubanks says.

Syncing was off between the monitors and the sensors in some helmets. Some had battery issues. A single, malfunctioning helmet went off more than 100 times. 

“There’s some work to do,” Eubanks says. “But we’re very excited, and I think that this next year will be even better.”

Each high school had at least one player whose sensor went off and who, ensuingly, was determined to have sustained a concussion. Other times, sensors went off but no concussion was determined. 

“One time, it went off when a kid was just holding his helmet,” says Huffman.

Overall, sensors went off more frequently for linemen and linebackers—which was expected given the more frequent collisions among those players.

OPS was still pulling numbers at press time, but Eubanks says overall, the number of concussions diagnosed among OPS players was down from the previous year.

At Creighton Prep, Dr. Daniel Schinzel, the schools’ athletic director, couldn’t point to any difference in the number of concussions diagnosed. He did like the cumulative data the helmets give, showing patterns for different positions and for specific individuals.

“If No. 88 has an inordinate number of hits at or near the threshold, you can coach the kid on using proper technique,” Schinzel say. “You can say, ‘Look, your hits are very close to the threshold because you’re not keeping your head up.’”

“It’s definitely a great tool,” says Huffman. “It doesn’t prevent things from happening.”

He continues, “Most of the time, you don’t realize the impact of the head hitting the group. Now, when that device buzzes, it makes you think.”

“I think the technology is great, but technology is only going to be useful as a tool if you have the right people running it,” Schinzel says while praising his school’s head athletic trainer, Bill Kleber. “It just gives him more information as he’s doing his job.”

Another point Huffman made is that costs for these helmets will be ongoing, although the imbedded technology is worth it.

“A helmet is only good for—10 years,” he says, though skeptical of that number. “I keep helmets for about 6. So, starting in two years, I’ll need to start replacing them at about 20 a year.”

Sensors or not, Eubanks says helmets are improved over what he wore when playing. “One-hundred percent,” he says.


This article was printed in the Fall 2018 edition of Family Guide.

Stephen Eubanks

Head Shots

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.”