Concussions: A Real Danger

(WTVM) - Football is a very popular sport filled with jarring hits, but should parents be worried about their kids facing serious injuries?

There's growing concern about dangerous hits to the head, football concussions, and the long-term consequences. Now, a new study being done in Alabama could help stop the damage.

We tackle the issue of concussion dangers in our special report, from pre-teens playing football, to rougher hits in high school and college football, up to the sometimes violent NFL.

A new study shows pro football players are four times more likely than the average person to have Alzheimers Disease or ALS because of concussions. That's the injury suffered by rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III, after a hard but legal hit.

It happens to one or two football players at Carver High School every season, including 16-year-old Khane Pass. The sophomore football player got a concussion from a hit in a game last month.

"The man was running towards the sideline, I came and we collided helmet-to-helmet, and I was out," Pass said. He was out of football practice for 2 full weeks.

Recent research shows high school athletes may experience more severe symptoms of concussions than college and pro players and take longer to recover.

"Felt like I was dreaming, until it wore off," Pass said, remembered how scary it was on that Friday night. "They said I didn't go unconscious, but on the bus, it felt like I just woke up."

At Carver's practice we talked with head coach Dell McGee, who played football at Auburn and in the NFL, where he suffered several concussions.

"You don't know where you're at. You don't remember exactly what happened," Coach Dell McGee told us.

Dr. William Roundtree in Columbus was a team physician for America's 1992 Olympic team. He's more concerned about concussions these days, saying football players are bigger and the hits are too.

In describing some of the symptoms of a concussion, Dr. Roundtree said, "If he doesn't have good balance and falls, if he's foggy, if he doesn't know what day it is or what team he's playing."

With a concussion, you cannot play football until you're cleared by a doctor – that's by law in many states, including Alabama. Dr. Roundtree says Georgia needs that law too, after similar legislation has stalled in the state several times recently.

An estimated 300,000 sports-related concussions happen every year in the U.S. - happening most often in football, that sport leading to more than 25,000 emergency room visits this decade, according to the CDC.

"I don't discourage kids from playing," Coach Mcgee said. "Injuries are part of football."

"I hear some parents say they feel like football may be a little bit too dangerous for them and their child," concerned mother Beth Brown said.

Brown is OK with her 9-year-old son Wesley playing in the River City Youth Football league. Like any mom, she's concerned about him getting hurt, also doing her own research on concussions.

"He (son Wesley) knows there's an element of danger to playing football, so he understands that," Brown told us. "You would hope a child that young wouldn't necessarily have a hit that hard, but I think anything's possible."

A concussion happens when the head is hit so hard that the brain is jolted, banging against the skull, often when players collide helmet-first or hit the ground hard, leading to potential neurological impairments.

"It can affect the thinking of the athlete going forward, and if they're repetitive, they may have physical problems like balance problems," Dr. Roundtree said.

What if an athlete continues having head injuries?

"They can have problems with emotions, they can be sad, depressed," Dr. Roundtree added.

Right now, if a player suffers from a concussion, he's seen by a trainer and might head to the hospital - but a team of researchers with the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) are using a $100,000 grant from the NFL to examine a new compound or drug that would help stop the body from doing more damage after a head-to-head hit.

Coach McGee says teaching proper techniques can be a lifesaver. That's why they focus so much on tackling drills.

"We actually show our kids a concussion video...what not to do on the football field, being a tackler," Coach McGee said.

"Coaches and parents, they try and show me how not to do it," said 9-year-old football player Wesley Brown.

As for high school football teams, they have to get their helmets re-certified every single season, to make sure they're protecting the teenagers' heads and brains. Last season at Carver High School, they had 15-20 helmets rejected, so they ended up having to buy some new ones.

"One of the most important things for kids to remember is to not use their helmet as a weapon itself. They teach them from the earliest practices to keep that head up," mother Beth Brown told us.

Pop Warner recently made changes to reduce concussion risks. Full-contact hitting is now only allowed for one-third of their practices.

Meanwhile, local doctors say they really like the new rule in college football that requires players to take the next play off, if their helmet comes off.

"They've changed the rules of the game to help with that. They're protecting the quarterbacks a lot better nowadays," Coach Mcgee said.

NFL players who have concussion-like symptoms must now be cleared by an independent neurologist before returning to practice or a game.

Coaches, players, even parents like Beth Brown know the risks of football going in - and some draw a line in the sand.

"His (son Wesley's) brain function supersedes any football career he may have," said Brown. "He's too young to jeopardize that, so if he were to receive a concussion, I think his football career would end."

Local doctors pointed out another concern: high school athletes' recovery from a concussion is also complicated by the student returning to the classroom immediately, because the brain needs to fully heal.

Football is not the only sport with concussions. A soccer ball hitting a player's head can be a 70 mile-per-hour impact. It happens in numerous sports, but another recent example is Nascar driver Dale Earnhardt Junior, who got a concussion after a big wreck on the track.

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