High School Football Deaths Bring Change, Education To Local Teams

A coach demonstrates to a football player how to properly use the new sensor technology developed by Riddell for its football helmets. The technology works by placing special sensors inside the helmets with the data being sent to a monitoring device on the sidelines. The device then sends the data to a computer utilized by trainers and medical staff to monitor a player's vitals following a hard hit to the head. Photo provided by Riddell.
A coach demonstrates how to properly use the new sensor technology developed by Riddell for its football helmets. Special sensors inside the helmets send data to a monitoring device on the sidelines. The device then sends the data to a computer so trainers and medical staff can monitor a player’s vitals following a hard hit to the head. Photo courtesy of Riddell

Every time Brooke Griffin, a certified athletic trainer, goes to work, someone’s life could be in her hands.

She coaches football players and other athletes at F.W. Buchholz High School on how to recover from injuries and protect their bodies on the field. This year, Griffin said, she has diagnosed about seven or eight concussions at the local high schools.

Being able to do that is important, because since July 1 of this year, 11 high school football players have died from football-related injuries, according to a USA TODAY High School Sports article.

That is six more deaths than in 2014, when five high school football players died as a result of football-related activities, according to a study conducted by the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research.

In response to these deaths, the High School Football Safety Study Act was introduced to Congress Nov. 5.

Lawmakers are calling for increased education on safety practices in high school football. The act calls for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to study the causes of these deaths.

One way some schools try to diagnose and prevent athlete injuries is through hiring trainers like Griffin, according to a National Athletic Trainers’ Association study. But many high schools don’t offer full-time access to athletic training services: Of the 8,509 high schools that responded to the study, only 37 percent offered such services.

“I have worked with a wide variety of athletes, from those that try to hide their symptoms and those that have reported them right away,” Griffin said. “We try to educate them on the importance of resting from a head injury and not trying to play through the symptoms.”

Athletic trainers can spot concussion symptoms through various tests on the sidelines during games, something that has proven to be a valuable resource at all levels of the sport. Griffin performs a Sport Concussion Assessment Tool (SCAT) test and a cranial nerves assessment when evaluating athletes. The SCAT test is used in conjunction with a Baseline Concussion Test administered before the season to compare athletes’ reflexes, cognitive abilities and impulse control.

“If I see anything alarming on either of those evaluations, or just by talking to the athlete, that is usually when I refer them on to the physician,” Griffin said. “As far as treatment goes, there isn’t a whole lot to it. Athletes are told to rest and can sometimes have formal physical therapy.”

Mark Latsko, the head football coach at Gainesville High School, said the varsity team has had one concussion case this season.

The school’s “Return to Play” policy ensures that a player is healthy enough to return to a game after a hit to the head.  If an athlete is removed from a game for concussion symptoms and has been treated, the policy requires written consent from a physician to return to play. However, if no concussion symptoms are apparent, the sideline staff makes the decision to let them back in the game or not.

This is where developing technology can make a difference in the safety of the players.

The helmets the football team uses are equipped with the latest technology and protection against blunt force trauma to the head, Latsko said.

The helmets have sensors that send information to the athletic trainer any time the player has impact to the helmet, including location, duration and strength.

“We buy between 10 to 15 new helmets from Riddell every year, in addition to reconditioning all of our previously used helmets from the season before,” Latsko said. “I believe the helmets do a good job of preventing [concussions], but nothing is 100 percent.”

Riddell Sports manufactures many of the helmet models used by high school and college athletic programs across the country.

New helmet technology is allowing trainers on the sidelines to monitor and react to a typical head injury suffered by players on the field, said Erin Griffin, the director of corporate communications for Riddell Sports.

Erin Griffin said many of Riddell’s models are now incorporating sensors into the helmets that can detect potentially dangerous head trauma to athletes wearing them.

“We believe integration of head impact monitoring technologies into helmets will be expected in the next five years,” she said.

However in some situations, little can realistically be done to prevent further damage once it has occurred to the head and neck areas of the body. Regardless of where the technology leads, Brooke Griffin said she believes education is key to lowering the number of concussions and football-related deaths in the U.S.

The education begins with a chain of communication between trainers, the coaching staff, players and parents, she said.

Brooke Griffin said the first person she communicates with about an injury is the athlete, followed by the coach. She also speaks with every parent of an athlete who has sustained a concussion to explain warning signs and how to handle the situation.

For Latsko, making sure young athletes are physically able to walk away from a game remains his top priority.

“We are always going to error on the side of safety for the student athlete,” Latsko said. “That hasn’t changed and will never change.”

Brooke Griffin echoed that sentiment.

“When it comes to head injuries, I always try to tell the students that they are only given one brain,” she said. “And we don’t want them to ruin it.”

About Erica Brown

Erica is a reporter who can be contacted by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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