Efforts under way to boost football player safety

By PHIL BARBER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

It’s a response as old as standing up for the kickoff. Any time a high school football player came up woozy after a hit, the usual reaction was to laugh about how he got “dinged,” or had his “bell rung.”

The goal among coaches, trainers and doctors now is to make everyone understand it’s no laughing matter. These are, after all, brain injuries.

In Sonoma County, the response to concussions is building gradually. Under the guidance of Heather Campbell, a certified athletic trainer who also teaches PE and sports medicine, Casa Grande High School in Petaluma uses a web-based platform called Concussion Vital Signs to baseline-test athletes in every impact sport.

Senior lineman Tyler Dodd saw the full scope of the program this year. At the first mandatory practice of the year, before school had even started, he wound up with a headache after hitting a teammate awkwardly during a tackling drill. Campbell sent him home, and the next day instructed him to take the cognition test. He failed.

Dodd couldn’t return to action until he had been cleared by a physician, and one of the doctor’s criteria was successfully passing the test. Dodd missed two weeks of football.

“It was frustrating to be out two weeks when I felt like I could have been back,” said Dodd, whose symptoms mostly disappeared after the first week. “But I understood the reasons.”

Analy High in Sebastopol and El Molino in Forestville have started baseline testing this year, the result of start-up grants from Dick’s Sporting Goods. Both are administered by Dr. Dan Parker of Santa Rosa. Cardinal Newman has initiated the process of signing up for similar technology.

Local schools also may benefit soon from a Wells Fargo program called Play It Safe. Launched a year ago, it includes education and baseline testing, but also has an insurance component that helps remove or reduce a school’s liability. John Breckenridge, a senior vice president in Wells Fargo’s student insurance division, calls it a “soup-to-nuts solution.”

Play It Safe currently works with about 25 high schools, districts and youth programs, mostly in California. Breckenridge has met with Santa Rosa Unified School District officials and believes they will team up, perhaps as early as next spring.

Dr. Ty Affleck wants to start a nonprofit organization with the aim of taking concussion education, including a plea for baseline testing, into Sonoma County schools. He currently is working with two Kaiser doctors and one public health official to get it started.

“We still need a CPA,” Affleck said. “Let me know if you have one.”

He is talking to the three major medical groups in the area — Kaiser Permanente, Sutter Health and St. Joseph Health — about initial funding. Affleck believes he can get his program running for $15,000.

Campbell, the architect of Casa Grande’s baseline program, thinks all of these approaches are useful — to a point. Without a doctor or certified trainer to interpret the results and monitor the return-to-play process, the student-athletes will remain at risk, she insists.

“You could put me in a math class, and I could look at the book and teach it,” Campbell said. “But I wouldn’t be able to explain anything if someone had a question. I’d like to see, at a minimum, athletic trainers for football season.”

Monica Ohkubo, the head athletic trainer at SRJC, agrees. And she is convinced it doesn’t have to be a budget-breaker for local schools.

At San Jose State, where Ohkubo got her master’s degree in kinesiology, many of the university’s grad students already were certified trainers. They acted as an available pool for South Bay high schools, working sporting events on a rotating basis.

Sonoma State does not have a similar program, but Ohkubo believes she could help recruit a pool of existing trainers.

Meanwhile, players are charging through another high school football season. Teenagers are hitting one another with the force of minor traffic accidents, and no one is entirely sure they have the equipment, the technique, the rules or the medical oversight to protect them.

Nationally, participation in high school football has been dropping about 1 percent a year. Varsity roster size is down somewhat in the North Bay League this year, too, though it went up the previous year. Coaches doubt the fluctuations have much to do with concussions. They’re convinced football is as popular as ever.

The players interviewed for these stories certainly remain committed.

“I think it all worked out — with my parents being very conscientious with it,” said Austin Nahmens, a Piner High senior who suffered three concussions in his freshman and sophomore years. “I think it was the right thing to do. But I was eager to play again.”

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil.barber [at] pressdemocrat [dot] com.