There's one word Jordan Sawyer uses to describe his actions
after he continued to play in a high school football game last fall
despite suffering a concussion.
Sawyer is an articulate young man whose mother is a doctor. He
speaks multiple languages, is a 2011 graduate of Chicago's Payton
High School and plans to major in international relations at
Still, "stupid" rolls easily off the tongue of the 6-foot-2,
220-pound former lineman when he talks about suffering a concussion
in the fourth game of the season.
After he missed the next game but was cleared for the following
contest, Sawyer suffered another concussion in practice so severe
that he fell to the ground and was taken to the emergency room.
"I kept playing (in the game after the first concussion), which
was stupid," Sawyer says. "In practice during the second one, I
kept going head-to-head. I was stupid at the time.
"It was really hard to understand what was happening to you was
Though Sawyer was concerned about his severe headaches and
memory loss, words from his doctor served as a wake-up call.
"If I would get a third concussion it could be serious brain
damage," Sawyer says.
Sawyer is not alone, and concussions are not limited to
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,
there are 3.8 million sports-related concussions per year in the
United States. For the 2010-11 school year, the Illinois High
School Association reported 166 cases of sports-related
concussions. In 120 of those cases, the injured athletes did not
return to the game.
While physicians won't tell kids to avoid playing contact
sports, they are asking athletes, parents and coaches to become
more educated about the symptoms and signals of concussions and the
"Part of team play, part of discipline, is playing through the
pain," says Dr. Hunt Batjer, chairman of the department of
neurological surgery at Northwestern Memorial Hospital and the
co-chair of the NFL's head, neck and spine injury committee. "You
don't play through a brain injury; you play through a knee injury.
We have to create a culture that people know the difference."
Spreading the word
Brian Robinson has been the head athletic trainer at Glenbrook
South High School in Glenview for 34 years and serves as chairman
for the National Athletic Trainers Association's secondary school
athletic trainers committee. He has witnessed a change of tune from
parents when it comes to noticing the warning signs of
"I get phone calls from parents saying (their son or daughter)
isn't feeling well, can you check them out," Robinson says. "I
think phone calls like that five or 10 years ago wouldn't happen.
Mom and Dad would have been trying to hide it because nobody really
knew the ramifications of playing with a concussion."
Anybody who watched the Bears or Blackhawks last season saw how
severe concussions can be. Quarterback Jay Cutler got up in a haze
after being sacked for the ninth time in the first half against the
New York Giants on Oct. 3.
Blackhawks forward Dave Bolland missed 17 games due to
Tragically, in the case of former Bears safety Dave Duerson, it
was learned that his suicide death in February could have stemmed
from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a condition linked to
athletes who have sustained repeated concussions.
"The media attention is a good thing," Robinson says.
What you can do
While headlines draw attention, education is the next step.
According to Batjer, children are more vulnerable to concussions
because their brains are not as mature, thus making the recovery
process longer. A second concussion, if not fully recovered, could
even prove life-threatening.
"It's critical that children know that coming in," Batjer
He also added that girls could be at higher risk because their
neck muscles are different than boys', and they may be more
vulnerable from a hormonal standpoint.
An athlete does not need to take a direct hit to the head to be
concussed, nor can a concussion simply be diagnosed through a CT
scan or MRI. Symptoms range from headaches to dizziness to memory
problems to a change in sleep patterns.
Physicians like Batjer and Dr. Dean Karahalios with the
NorthShore Neurological Institute provide resources to educate
schools and leagues throughout the state on the seriousness of
"(Concussion management) is working into its own niche, our
specialty," Karahalios says.
On July 28, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn signed a law protecting
elementary to high school students from the potential severe
effects of concussions. House Bill 200 states that any student
athlete diagnosed with a concussion must be cleared by a physician
to return to competition.
"We've got to take this beyond the coaches and into the
classrooms and help people understand that kids need to have time
to recover, not only to get back to play but also to their academic
cycle," IHSA Executive Director Marty Hickman says.
This legislation, however, is not the first step taken in
Illinois to protect athletes from concussions.
The Northbrook Hockey League holds a week-long program every
year to teach players 11- to 12-years-old how to deliver and accept
a body-check safely.
A large portion of schools throughout the state use a
computerized testing system-ImPACT-to set a baseline for concussion
recovery. Athletes take the test prior to their seasons under
normal conditions and again within 24-72 hours after a concussion
to see how well they score and if they need to seek further medical
The Illinois Youth Soccer Association is making its athletes and
parents understand proper concussion management guidelines as set
by the CDC by distributing fliers and concussion-related
While there is currently no football or lacrosse helmet made to
prevent a concussion, and soccer players can still suffer one from
improperly heading a ball, physicians, coaches, administrators and
athletic trainers are taking a proactive approach to make sports
safer and allow young athletes to enjoy the benefits that come from
"Maybe 20 years from now they will come up with some exercise
that will prevent concussions," Robinson says, "but for now
teaching a sport safely is all we can do."
Jeffrey Mezydlo is a Chicago-area dad and freelance writer specializing in sports.
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