Roseburg High football coach Dave Heuberger is proud of the proactive way the Oregon School Activities Association approaches concussions and concussion-like symptoms.
Several years ago the OSAA took the decision-making process about possibly concussed athletes out of the coach’s hands and placed it firmly in the hands of medical professionals.
“There’s no such thing as a kid getting his bell rung anymore,” said Heuberger. “The really neat thing about it is, we err on the side that they do have a concussion. They have to go to the doctor, and then if the doctor says he does not have a concussion, he can come back and play.”
The OSAA handbook is clear regarding the issue: “Any athlete who exhibits signs, symptoms or behaviors consistent with a concussion following an observed or suspected blow to the head or body, or who has been diagnosed with a concussion, shall not be permitted to return to that athletic contest or practice, or any other athletic contest or practice on that same day.
“In schools which have the services of an athletic trainer registered by the Oregon Board of Athletic Trainers, that athletic trainer may determine that an athlete has not exhibited signs, symptoms or behaviors consistent with a concussion, and has not suffered a concussion, and return the athlete to play. Athletic trainers may also work in consultation with an appropriate Health Care Professional (see below) in determining when an athlete is able to return to play following a concussion.”
Every coach at an OSAA member school — and each sports official — must be certified through an online course in identifying a possible concussion.
“Concussions happen in every sport,” Roseburg High athletic trainer Julie Dever said. “Football gets singled out because of the NFL, but, if I remember correctly, girls soccer has the highest rate of concussions, and that’s because females tend to be more prone to concussions than males.”
Anytime an athlete visibly hits his/her head, says they hit their head or complains of headaches — among other signals — Dever sets about immediately checking the athlete. RHS conducts imPACT baseline tests for all athletes involved in contact sports and if an athlete misses the baseline, they’re benched until they’re symptom free for at least 24 hours. Then there’s another set of protocols the athlete has to clear before Dever will consider releasing them back to full-go in their sport.
“We have a very set protocol that follows the OSAA recommendations,” said Dever, who is also the regional athletic trainer for Douglas County, meaning she’s a resource for all the schools that do not employ an athletic trainer.
RHS has a working relationship with Umpqua Orthopedics physician Sandesh Pandit, who has a specialty in concussion care.
“We want the kids to be out and playing, but we also take every measure to make sure they’re safe and sound,” Dever said. “Sometimes that comes back to being very cautious. Education is a big part of it, letting the parents know that we’re going to keep their kids safe. Although they’re doing it (sports) for a short time, they need their brains for college and work and everything after that.”
“I’m lucky, I don’t have to deal with that (concussion protocol). I think Julie (athletic trainer Julie Dever) has the worst job in America, with the liability issues that are there,” Heuberger said. “I’ve had a kid (at Springfield) that passed all the protocols and I don’t know how he did it. But we came out after halftime and it was obvious he’d been concussed and we held him out even though he passed all the protocols.”
When quarterback/linebacker Zack Mandera was concussed last season at South Medford, Heuberger and his staff erred on the side of caution. Mandera might have been able to return for the Indians’ final game of the season.
“It wasn’t a win/loss thing,” said Heuberger, who was 1-8 in his first season with the Tribe. “It was let’s make sure the kid is 100 percent. We think football offers a lot of life skills that can carry forward. For us to rush a kid out there, well, it’s a trust thing between the coaches and the parents.”
Keeping that faith is one reason Roseburg spends $475 per helmet to help protect the players’ heads.
Two years ago, Yoncalla head coach Matt Bragg was told by an assistant that one of his players appeared to have a concussion in the third quarter of a state quarterfinal game. In eight-man football, losing a player for the rest of the game can mean a big drop-off in talent on the field and adjustments at up to five or six positions. That was exactly the case in that game.
“Don’t remind me,” said Bragg with a laugh. “For the information that I got, I was more than comfortable with the decision I made. There were people who I trusted and with how they taught us to look for the signs, it was what to do.”
It turned out later that the player — running back, safety, kicker, kick returner and punt returner Noah Loeliger — was not concussed. There was no medical professional on the sidelines to assess Loeliger, who missed the remainder of a 74-72 loss to Dufur.
Every coach in the county has a concussion story. Sutherlin had a lineman taken from the field to the hospital last fall after being concussed. South Umpqua lost a lineman similarly during a game with a concussion.
“I have a lot of smaller guys and I try to teach them to use their shoulders and not their heads,” said Bragg. “You’re going to get bumps and bruises in football, but you need to get the muscle memory not to stick the head in there.”
Concussions, how they are treated and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) have been a topic of discussion for several years and are hot-button items after a study by Boston University was published this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association. That study — which examined the brains of 202 deceased football players revealed that 99 percent of former NFL players suffered from CTE.
“I’ve asked around religiously, I want to be educated about it,” Heuberger said. “The CTE study, they can pin it down with guys who played so long, but they haven’t narrowed down it to what exactly causes it (CTE).”
The same study showed a reduced correlation for CET for athletes at lower levels of football. A study in Wisconsin dealing with athletes who graduated from high school in 1957, the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study, found “no statistically or clinically significant harmful association between playing football in high school and increased cognitive impairment or depression later in life.”
“You can take your kids to the beach and there may be sharks in the water, there are risks in life,” Heuberger said. “There are things with football that stick out that we think are important for young athletes to learn, there are risks involved and it’s a parenting decision” to allow an athlete to play the sport or not.
The reshaping of football and how concussions are handled is a natural progression of the sport. Oregon has been at the forefront of proactive approaches to concussion protocol at the high school level.
“There’s a reason pro athletes get paid the way they do, because it does tear the heck out of their bodies,” said Heuberger. “We’re talking about high school kids where we’re teaching teamwork and life skills.”