In the moments after Lee Toulon blacked out during a football game last fall, he knew something was wrong. After coming to, he staggered over to the sideline. He had just suffered his third concussion.
Toulon, an 18-year-old senior at Maine South High School in Park Ridge, says he was kept out of practice and games for four weeks by his team’s athletic trainer.
But from his coaching staff, he says, he felt pressure to come back to the game sooner than he felt he was ready.
“They didn’t fully understand, so that was hard,” Toulon says.
A new Chicago ordinance, which may lead to a state-wide rule, is intended to help coaches better understand the seriousness of traumatic brain injuries.
The ordinance, passed Jan. 13, says an athlete suspected of having a concussion must be removed from play immediately and kept out of a game or practice until cleared by a doctor or team trainer. It is similar to stricter rules passed in the National Football League this season, and reflect a growing medical consensus that head injuries have not been taken seriously enough in the past.
Dr. Hunt Batjer, a neurosurgeon at Northwestern Memorial Hospital and co-chair of the NFL’s head, neck and spine committee,says the rule is rooted in the discovery of a “second impact syndrome” that comes from returning to activity too soon after suffering a concussion, especially among children.
“This really is a youth sports issue,” Dr. Batjer says. “This issue doesn’t arise in grown people, and girls may be at a higher risk than boys.”
But questions have arisen about the effectiveness of the new rule.
A press secretary for 14th Ward Ald. Edward Burke called the rule “self-enforceable,” and while some schools have access to athletic trainers, most do not.
“We are working toward building a network of brain and spinal cord injury trainers to deploy in different areas to monitor kids,” Batjer says.
Todd Kuska, head football coach at St. Rita High School in Chicago, has an athletic trainer at every practice and a doctor at every game. “The rule may be new for everyone else, but for me it’s common sense,” Kuska says. “I think this is a huge step, bringing awareness to all the schools.”
But strong incentives to play cause many athletes to neglect reporting an injury.
“My junior year when I was fighting for a spot on the team, I definitely would have kept playing if I thought I had a concussion,” Toulon says.
That sentiment transcends the high school realm.
Bob Christian, 42, of Evanston, is a former NFL fullback who played in the league for 11 years. Christian, who trains athletes, says he had about 10 concussions in his career. But he doesn’t recall missing practice or a game even once in high school, college or the NFL after having suffered a concussion.
On at least two occasions in his last season in 2003, Christian was knocked out cold for a few minutes, he says, but he kept playing.
“There were times where I don’t remember playing a whole half,” he says. But watching the game film the next day with his coaches, there he was, making tackles.
The play when Christian sustained his last concussion was his last play in the NFL.He says he was not and still isn’t aware of the dangers of multiple brain injuries, but he doesn’t think it’s had any lingering effects.
“I always knew there was a risk,” Christian says. “But I think that’s what part of what makes us play the game.”