Injuries put football under microscope again

BOBBY BRIER | OCTOBER 11, 2022

NJ Spotlight News

Linden High School football player Xavier McClain suffered an apparent head injury during a game against Woodbridge on Sept. 9. McClain died on Sept. 21. He was 16.

Another New Jersey high school player, Aaron Van Trease, suffered a spinal cord injury during a game two days after McClain died.

Van Trease, a senior at Saint John Vianney High School in Holmdel, was airlifted to Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick, according to the Asbury Park Press.

He is listed in stable condition as of Oct. 6, according to CBS News New York. He cannot use his lower body, but his parents are optimistic about his recovery.

“High school football is such a high-stakes sport now where … everybody thinks they’re going to get recruited and thinks that it’s going to increase their opportunity to play at the next level and possibly get a better deal to go to college,” said Rich Hansen III, the head football coach at Saint Peter’s Preparatory School in Jersey City.

It’s not just the pressures of the sport itself, or fitting in the demands of practice and training with schoolwork. The pressure students face to get recruited by colleges, and with that the hope of a scholarship, adds additional stress, Hansen said.

“And then you add in injuries, and you take a kid out that thinks he’s working towards that goal, and I think it can become very, very difficult for a kid to deal with.”

Mental and physical impacts

The mental health impacts on athletes and their families after tragedy and setbacks on the playing field are not as easy to recognize as the physical symptoms of concussions or spinal cord injuries. And they can linger long after the injury itself happens. The physical and mental health effects of these injuries, especially in concussion-prone activities like football, have come into greater focus in recent weeks throughout the state and country after numerous, widely seen in-game collisions.

People who suffer from a concussion can have headaches and brain fogginess. They can be slower to understand things and be bothered by light and noise.

A 2019 study published in JAMA Psychiatry compared 1,155 patients with mild traumatic brain injuries and 230 patients with orthopedic injuries not involving the head. Patients with mild traumatic brain injuries were more likely to report post-traumatic stress disorder and/or major depressive symptoms three and six months after the injury. Additionally, among patients with mild traumatic brain injury, a number of pre-injury characteristics, such as prior mental health problems, and injury-related characteristics such as assault, were associated with increased risk of mental health problems.

“But also you can be more emotional in general and kind of more irritable because your brain’s just not working as well as it could or should and you’re not as quick as you used to be,” said Dr. Christina Lusk-Cáceres, a doctor of osteopathic medicine at Professional Orthopaedic Associates, which has three locations in New Jersey. “And so those with underlying anxiety, depression, even ADD (attention deficit disorder) find that some of those symptoms get worse during concussion just because the brain’s not working as well as it could or should and then slowly those symptoms usually get better over a bit of time.”

“The biggest thing that we see in athletics, and it’s not just with concussions but also with other sport injuries, is they’re not able to participate in their sport that they love — and that’s usually the contacts that they have, the social network … with their friends on the team. And if they can’t play and participate, then they feel they’re left out,” said David Gealt, a doctor of osteopathic medicine at the Brain Injury Alliance of New Jersey and director of the sports concussion program at Cooper Bone and Joint Institute, part of the Cooper University Health Care system.

Coping with injury

Several factors contribute to how an athlete responds and recovers, said Dr. Peter Economou, the director of behavioral health and wellness for athletics at Rutgers University.

These can include whether the athlete has ever been injured before. Athletes who have not previously been injured sometimes don’t know how to deal with injury, Economou said.

“What kind of coping skills do they have? Do they manage their life stressors in an effective or ineffective way? Are they predisposed to depression or anxiety? Are they having sleep issues? Are they eating well? I mean it’s really a holistic approach and all those things could certainly make them feel less than,” Economou added.

The effects of concussions and other sports-related injuries are felt not just at the high school level but among college athletes as well.

Eric LeGrand, a former Rutgers University football player, sustained a spinal cord injury while making a tackle against Army during an October 2010 game at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford that left him paralyzed from the neck down.

Eric LeGrand: ‘An athlete’s mindset’

LeGrand said he was in an “athlete’s mindset” after the injury, which helped him develop strong mental health awareness “because of everything that you go through as an athlete, especially at the Division I college level.”

“So, I was able to, when my injury happened, kind of shift my focus towards obviously not playing football anymore but fighting for my life and battling for my life and also working together with everyone that was supporting me,” LeGrand said.

“And the power of prayer and positivity definitely helped me through those early stages and then set … the bar high going forward where this is now the standard where I have to be the inspiration for people and the motivation.”

LeGrand added that his family was there for him.

He has gone on to become a motivational speaker, entrepreneur and founder of LeGrand Coffee House in his hometown of Woodbridge. He is also a sports analyst, philanthropist and author. In 2013, he partnered with the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation to launch Team LeGrand as a fundraising arm of the foundation. Since it began, Team LeGrand has raised over $2 million for the Reeve Foundation, according to Eric LeGrand’s website.

“And yes, I still wake up every day, I’m paralyzed. I still have to have the mental fortitude to get through that morning, every single morning with my nurses going through that process,” LeGrand said. “But I just know that every day above ground is a good day and I’m so blessed to be in my situation because I know it could be far worse than what it is. So, that is my daily reminder each and every day to live life to the fullest.”

LeGrand reached out to Van Trease, according to CBS News New York. Rob Gronkowski, Tiki Barber and Greg Olsen, all former NFL players, also wished Van Trease well.

Recent injuries to NFL players

Several injuries widely seen during broadcasts of recent National Football League games have prompted more discussion about traumatic brain injuries at every level of the sport.

In a game last Thursday between the Indianapolis Colts and the Denver Broncos, Colts running back Nyheim Hines left the game with a concussion, The Athletic reported. After being hit hard on a third-down play in the first quarter, Hines stumbled when trying to walk to the sideline and had to be held up by trainers and teammates before being helped off the field and taken for an evaluation.

The injury came a week after Miami Dolphins starting quarterback Tua Tagovailoa was diagnosed with a concussion after being sacked in a game against the Cincinnati Bengals.

Tagovailoa had already been evaluated for a concussion in a game that was played less than a week earlier against the Buffalo Bills. Tagovailoa’s stumble in the Bills game, a visible sign of a possible concussion, brought widespread scrutiny to the sport’s concussion protocols, and its history of trauma caused by head injuries.

During the Bills game, Tagovailoa was pushed to the ground after throwing a pass, ESPN reported. He hit his head and got up but stumbled after that. The Dolphins originally said it was a head injury, but later said that the stumble was due to ankle and back injuries and allowed Tagovailoa to finish the game after he was cleared in an evaluation at halftime, according to ESPN.

The NFL Players Association exercised its right to initiate a review of the NFL’s concussion protocol in response to the quarterback’s quick return to the game. The independent neurological expert who was involved in the decision to clear Tagovailoa to return to the field during the Bills game was fired by the NFL Players Association.

Updated concussion protocols

The NFL and the NFL Players Association agreed to update the league’s concussion protocol on Oct. 8, and jointly announced the findings of the review into Tagovailoa clearing concussion protocols and returning to the game against the Bills on Sept. 25, according to CNN. Under the new protocols, players will not be able to compete if they are experiencing ataxia, which describes poor muscle control that causes clumsy voluntary movements, according to the Mayo Clinic. It may cause difficulty with walking and balance, hand coordination, speech and swallowing, and eye movements.

On Sunday, Teddy Bridgewater, the Miami Dolphins backup quarterback who replaced Tagovailoa, was placed in the concussion protocol during a game against the New York Jets in compliance with the league’s updated concussion protocol, according to ESPN. Bridgewater passed a locker-room examination after an ATC spotter — an independent certified athletic trainer who was watching the game for possible injuries — believed Bridgewater stumbled after he was hit on his first snap of the game. The perceived stumble triggered the recently added “ataxia” clause in the league’s concussion protocol — a “no-go” symptom that requires players be taken to the locker room and prohibited from returning to the game under any circumstances, ESPN reported.

Prior to the announcement of the updated concussion protocols from the NFL and the NFL Players Association on Oct. 8, New Jersey lawmakers and concussion-prevention advocates voiced their outrage and concern over the NFL and the Miami Dolphins for allowing Tagovailoa to play in the Sept. 29 game against the Cincinnati Bengals.

New Jersey Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-9th) wrote a letter to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and Miami Dolphins principal owner Stephen M. Ross on Sept. 30 demanding  to know why Tagovailoa was allowed to play in the game against the Bengals. Pascrell is founder and co-head of the Congressional Brain Injury Task Force.

“The tragic death of New Jersey’s Xavier McClain has been on my mind all week. I pray for his family and his loved ones. This never should have happened,” Pascrell said in a statement to NJ Spotlight New. “The NFL sets the tone for the rest of the sport. Young athletes follow what happens at the top. As the world’s most prominent football league, the NFL must raise the standard and prioritize the prevention and treatment of traumatic brain injuries. I will continue to press them until they do the right thing.”

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published this page in News and Politics 2022-10-11 03:16:02 -0700