But the sport’s potential to cause head injuries took on a personal meaning for Harvey at the end of the 2011 season.
In the second half of the Delta Youth Football League varsity Super Bowl at Lincoln High in Stockton in December, Harvey’s son Jonathan, the team’s leading rusher at the time, was taken by ambulance to the hospital after a jarring hit to the head.
“When I got to him on the field, he was holding his head and his eyes were closed,” Harvey said. “When I told him to open his eyes, all the white in his eyes were gone — his pupils were that big,” Harvey said. “It was pretty scary to see his eyes like that. I knew he had a pretty bad concussion at that point.”
Now, eight months after that injury, Jonathan is ready to play as a freshman at De La Salle High School in Concord after doctors and family members were convinced he had fully recovered.
“The recovery time, it was a couple of months,” Harvey said. “Basically, we sat him out of all sports for the entire spring. He didn’t get to play basketball or run track. He wasn’t too happy about that, but as a parent, there was no way I was going to risk him bumping his head.”
Local doctors say that a cautious approach is necessary when dealing with a concussion, especially when an athlete is knocked unconscious.
“These symptoms can last for months and months post-trauma in the more severe cases,” said Dr. Larry Nicholson, a local chiropractor and the doctor for Kimball High’s football team.
What worries doctors most, Nicholson added, is when an injured athlete continues playing, making the risk of a second concussion even greater.
Symptoms of concussion
A recent wave of concussion-related lawsuits against the National Football League has reinforced among many parents and coaches at the local youth level the need for leagues to keep medical personnel on the sidelines and keep helmets in top condition in order to minimize their players’ exposure to potential head injuries.
A concussion occurs any time a jolt or a hit to the head causes the brain to move through its protective fluid and hit the inside wall of the skull.
The American Academy of Neurology, in a 1997 paper on “The management of concussion in sports,” grades concussions on a scale of one to three. “One” is considered a “ding,” where an athlete is dizzy or disoriented after a hit. “Three” is when the athlete is knocked unconscious, even if only for a brief moment.
Symptoms can intensify if an athlete gets a second concussion before the first injury has had time to heal.
“A lot of times, these kids get hit and have a grade-one concussion and won’t even tell us,” Nicholson said. “Hopefully, a kid will come over and say, ‘I got my bell rung,’ and we can evaluate them properly.”
At the high school level, team doctors will bench a player if they suspect a concussion and then call the player in for follow-up exams, Nicholson said. Other doctors who accompany the high school teams to games are Timothy Brown at Tracy High and Tim Coykendall at West, both chiropractors who specialize in sports medicine. Youth and high school leagues also require certified emergency medical technicians at games, and even a game official can bench a player if he suspects a concussion.
After that, a physician must clear the player for return to the field.
Dr. Ian Pulliam, one of two local physicians working with the Tracy, West and Kimball high school teams, affirmed that the frequency of concussions increases with the size and speed of the players.
But he said teams and players are becoming more aware of the impacts concussions can have.
“They’re treated a lot more aggressively, even if we don’t think it’s a full-blown concussion,” he said.
While statistics on concussion-related injuries are not officially tracked, both Pulliam and Dr. Robert Williams, the other team physician for Tracy, West and Kimball, see players who show symptoms of concussions every week during football season.
“At the varsity level, there’s at least one or two kids benched for every varsity game,” Williams said. “That doesn’t mean they have a concussion. Out there on the field, you can’t do a full neurological exam.”
Pulliam and Williams each said that in a typical season, about a half-dozen high school players are sidelined for at least one game because of a concussion.
Williams added that modern medical technology — magnetic resonance imaging in particular — has made diagnosis much more effective.
“The revolution came with MRIs, because we can see it,” he said. “If we see any significant swelling on the brain, they’re out for the rest of the year.”
Williams said players and their parents often think the young athletes are ready to get back in the game, and doctors have to defend their assessments of how long an injury will take to heal, especially if it's more than a couple of weeks.
“There is no simple answer to that, and that’s the controversy,” Williams said, adding that the age of the player and the severity of the injury make each case unique. “The younger the age, the longer they should stay out. If they lose consciousness on the field, that is a full concussion, and they’re out for the season.”
Nicholson said he tells players recovering from concussions to stay away from activities like video games and television, too. Nonphysical activities can slow healing if they require intense concentration, he said.
Protecting the brain
The potential for head injuries in football is what makes the helmet the most important piece of equipment.
That’s why Tracy’s youth programs continually examine and upgrade their helmets.
Tim Grover, equipment manager for the Tracy Junior Bulldogs, said the team spent more than $4,800 this year to have 183 helmets refurbished by Athletic Conditioning Inc.
The North Carolina-based company disassembled the helmets, sandblasted off the paint and examined the structural integrity of each using X-rays. They were then reassembled with new pads, hardware and face masks. Stickers affirming that the helmets were recertified and new Bulldog-gold paint were also included.
Junior Bulldogs President Jonathan Blackwell said that’s a process the helmets undergo each year, to determine if they are cracked or defective in any way. This year, 10 were discarded because of defects, while 20 new helmets were purchased by the team.
Blackwell said that Delta Youth Football League requires recertification of helmets every two years, which is typical for most leagues. Any helmets more than 10 years old are also discarded.
“We do it every year, because we don’t want to take a chance that there could be any problems,” Blackwell said. “The helmets have a shelf life. Even if they come back testing that they’re good, they’re still tossed.”
The Cougars and Buccaneers also have their helmets recertified every year and rotate out the older ones, though Harvey said that with youth helmets costing $150 to $200 each, it would be too expensive to replace all of them at once.
Organization leaders said the upgraded equipment still can’t eliminate risk altogether. Harvey said that last year, he saw the most concussions in the seven years he’s been with the club.
“We had two on varsity and one kid on JV who had two, and that ended his season,” he said. “I don’t think we had any on the lower levels. The concussions seem to be coming at the older levels, because the kids are hitting harder.”
Junior novice and novice divisions include children ages 6 to 10. The upper age limit for varsity players is 14, which can include some high school freshmen. In the DYFL the upper weight limit for varsity players is 190 pounds, though heavier players can still play on the offensive line.
Bruce Russell, president of the Tracy Buccaneers, added that game officials not only can bench a player who appears to be dazed after a hard hit, but are also proactive about preventing injuries.
“The referees are real strict about it, too,” Russell said.
Going head-first into an opponent with the helmet as a battering ram, called "spearing," draws a penalty flag at the very least.
“They see someone coming in and leading with their head, they’ll throw them out of the game. They don’t even mess with it,” Russell said. “All the way around, between the refs and rules, it’s getting better. It’s getting as good as it can get for a contact sport.”
• Contact Bob Brownne at 830-4227 or firstname.lastname@example.org.