SAN JOSE, Calif. - Matt Blea is awake and responding to commands. He’s even speaking.
The 16-year-old junior football player from San Jose Academy High School has been hospitalized since Thanksgiving when he sustained a hairline fracture of his skull during a traditional rival game with Lincoln.
He required life-saving surgery that day that included placing him into a drug-induced coma. He was in critical condition until Wednesday when doctors took out of the coma. After 24 hours, doctors say it is too soon to know if neurological damage that Bleu sustained will be permanent.
“But I’m very happy with his progress,” Neurosurgeon Marco Lee said at the press conference.
Blea’s father David, an assistant coach for San Jose Academy who tried to revive his son at the Thanksgiving game, is more than very happy.
“He actually whispered that he loved me, and that’s the greatest feeling,” he told the San Jose Mercury News.
Blea’s injury and emotional week-long saga has run parallel with a practical epidemic of head traumas that have occurred to some of the sport’s most visible stars.
Donovan McNabb, Ben Roethlisberger and Kurt Warner and even college football’s biggest and seemingly invincible hero Tim Tebow – have all been sidelined with head injuries this season.
That has spurred a national awareness about the dangers, complexities and frequency of concussions in a sport associated with controlled violence.
What people love about the game is in some ways hurting it. More important, it’s hurting players.
“We need to raise awareness around the seriousness of what are often dismissed as minor injuries,” California Interscholastic Federation Executive Director Marie M. Ishida said.
Ishida said this before the season even began.
Injuries will happen
The CIF launched a “Play it Safer” campaign to in part to combat concussions and even organized a pair of town hall meetings at either end of the state with national expert Tony Strickland of the Sports Concussion Institute of Los Angeles as a guest speaker.
He offered exhaustive numbers and helpful preventative measures concerning head trauma, like that between 1.6 and 3.8 million sports and recreation related concussions occur annually in the United States or that 12 percent of all high school sports injuries involve head trauma.
Perhaps more alarming is that another 3.5 million concussions that occur annually go undetected.
“We want to make sure that if someone suspects their child has a concussion, they know to seek medical attention right away,” he said. “Equally important to make sure the athlete is fully recovered before he or she returns to play and experiences another serious consequence.”
All the preparation, all the warnings, top helmets, town hall meetings and preventative measures can’t seem to combat this reality: when kids play high velocity contact sports concussions are going to happen.
After a blindside hit, he fell backward and his head snapped sharply against the San Jose City College artificial turf. He got up and went to the sideline before collapsing. According to reports, his pupils became fixed and dilated as he went in and out of consciousness.
"It's just one of the sad facts about football," San Jose High Academy junior varsity coach Inocencio Miramontes told the San Jose Mercury News. "No matter how careful we are, injuries will happen."
The numbers can be overwhelming and frightening.
About 1.2 million youth play football with the chance of a catastrophic neurological disability such as paralysis at 1.65 and death at 0.7 per 100,000.
A large portion of the catastrophic head injuries occur following an unsafe amount of time from a previous head injury.
High school and youth athletes, whose skulls and brains aren’t fully developed, risk serious injury by coming back to soon. The American Journal of Sports Medicine published a study stating that high school players are three times more likely than college players to suffer a catastrophic head injury.
Those facts are scary enough, but doubly so considering the invincible attitudes of teen boys and seemingly quick recovery rates.
“High school players just want to play,” said Ty Afflect, a team physician for Sonoma State University and Santa Rosa Junior College. “They don’t want to tell you “Hey, coach, I’m feeling a little weird. I might be suffering a little memory loss.’ I think older players have a little more perspective and take their health a little more seriously.”
NFL takes stand
The NFL this week took its strongest stand on managing concussions, requiring that any player who shows signs of head injury be removed practice or game and be banned from returning the same day.
This comes after years of studies showing that former NFL players who sustained three or more concussions were three times more likely to experience clinical depression and five times more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease.
Despite all the warnings and even measures by their sport’s grandest league, high school players still aren’t full convinced they’ll do the smart thing.
A pair of Tustin (Calif.) players told the New York Times that they wouldn’t tell coaches if they sustained concussion-like symptoms during its Southern Section playoff game tonight against Trabuco Hills.
“It’s our mentality toward football – you put team first,” defensive end Kuresa Moaliitele said. “I’d keep playing. It’s the dedication I have to the team.”
Their coach Myron Miller wasn’t surprised by Moaliitele’s reaction.
“They shouldn’t do it, I’ve told them not to do it, but it takes a lot of maturity to put your health ahead of the team,” he told the Times. “If I was playing in a game tomorrow night and got a concussion, I don’t think I’d tell anyone either. I’m not a hypocrite.”
Such honesty is appreciated but is frightening to educators and certainly parents.
Strickland is trying to introduce mandatory baseline neurological testing for all high school athletes before they ever participate. That way after a head injury, a second test can be performed to see how the neurons have shifted.
“It makes all the difference in the world,” Strickland said. “It’s the difference between making an informed decision on returning to action or an uninformed one.”
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Strickland and the CIF have passed out 12-step pamphlets to recognize and treat symptoms related to head trauma. It includes:
“Most athletes play sports without injury. Sometimes a player may receive a blow to the head but not recognize they have an injury that may require medical attention.
The appearance of any of these symptoms may signify head injury that requires immediate medical attention. Report to the nearest emergency room or call 911:
- Balance problems and dizziness
- Double or fuzzy vision
- Sensitivity to light or noise
- Feeling sluggish
- Feeling “foggy”
- Change in sleep pattern
- Difficulty remembering recent events
- Change in personality or increased irritability
- Difficulty concentrating
- May experience initial improvement followed by worsening symptoms
- Symptoms may worsen with exertion.