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January 13th, 2012
11:54 AM ET

‘Big Hits, Broken Dreams’ Examines Concussion Hazards in Youth Football

‘Dr. Sanjay Gupta Reports’ documentary debuts Sunday, January 29, 8:00pm ET

Football is a cornerstone of family life in Greenville, NC, and four-time statewide football champion JH Rose High School is one reason why. But the costs for all of that football glory can be very high. The hard hits can mean concussion injuries and the community has borne terrible consequences.

In summer 2008, JH Rose junior and star running back, Jaquan Waller, died as a result of repeated concussion injuries. Weeks earlier, neighboring RJ Reynolds High School sophomore Matthew Gfeller had died from concussion injury. In 2010, JH Rose head coach Todd Lipe had to permanently sideline the varsity quarterback, AJ Flores, after he sustained his fourth football-related concussion. In 2011, JH Rose starting linebacker Gray Dixon was one of nearly a dozen players to sit out part of the season with a serious concussion.

In a new, one-hour documentary, CNN chief medical correspondent and practicing neurosurgeon Dr. Sanjay Gupta had exclusive access to follow the JH Rose team for their full 2011 season, exploring concussion in high school football – what happens to the brain under concussive brain injury, and what parents, coaches, and athletes need to be aware of to try to protect themselves. Big Hits, Broken Dreams debuts Sunday, January 29 at 8:00p.m.  It will replay on Saturday, February 18 at 8:00p.m., 11:00p.m., and 2:00a.m.  All times Eastern.

In September 2008, Jaquan Waller hit a middle linebacker head-on during an intense practice. When he came off the playing field, Waller described headaches and balance issues, but the team trainer who later checked him, sent him home with no special instructions for further medical follow up. Dressed for practice the following day, team mate and friend Zach Rogers describes Waller as seeming “normal.”

But during that Friday’s game, some 48 hours after his first concussion, Waller sustained what has been described by others as a relatively low intensity hit, after which it was quickly apparent that something was very wrong with him. Waller seemed confused, began foaming at the mouth, and soon collapsed. Emergency medical services arrived approximately ten minutes after he was sidelined. Within the hour, Waller was declared dead.

The second guessing at JH Rose following Waller’s death has been painful. “You wouldn’t know how many times I thought about doing something different,” reflects Coach Lipe to Dr. Gupta in the documentary.

Superintendent Beverly Reep, PhD, acknowledges that having a certified athletic trainer on the field for practices and games, and having Waller medically evaluated following his first concussion, may have changed Waller’s outcome.

In 2008, the concussion protocol at JH Rose was not unique. Every season, according the Sports Concussion Institute in Los Angeles, one in ten high school football players gets a concussion. Yet, despite this troubling statistic, the Center for Injury Research & Policy at the Research Institute at Nationwide Children’s Hospital reports that less than half of American high schools have a certified athletic trainer on the field during games and practices. And many high school trainers are not actually athletic trainers, they may be skilled in first aid, but not certified to recognize possible head trauma. This is coupled with the fact that young players often want to return to play quickly – and some will even not tell the truth in order to keep playing.

Brock Niceler, MD, a Greenville family and sports medicine physician says that because their brains are still developing, “adolescents take longer to heal from their concussions, than their college or pro counterparts.”

“Everybody just thought that he just got his ‘bell rung,’” said Rogers of his friend, Waller in the documentary. “Nothing out of normal. It’s just how you play. You play hurt when you have to.”

Kevin Guskiewicz, PhD, one of the nation’s leading concussion researchers, feels that part of the problem is the terminology. Like Dr. Gupta, he prefers to refer to concussion as “brain injury” – since that is what it is – and he hopes the strong terminology will encourage players, families, and coaches to take the injury more seriously. And, Dr. Guskiewicz’s research demonstrates that even subconcussive blows to the head, particularly when repeated, can cause sustained cognitive impairment.

Coach Lipe and Dr. Reep have supervised the implementation of new procedures and protocols to improve the safety of the game since Waller’s death. Now, certified athletic trainers are present at practices and games and are considered essential. Athletes do not have the last word when it is time to assess whether they can play football. Cognitive baseline tests for each player are repeated at intervals during the season and following concussions, to determine if players are healthy enough to return to the game.

In addition to the documentary, more resources for athletes, parents, and coaches can be found on CNN.com about concussion. Online, Dr. Gupta, both a father and a neurosurgeon, describes why it is so important to protect young athletes – including young girls – from concussion and subconcussive blows. And Dr. Gupta has developed an online video demonstration of what happens to the brain when it sustains a concussion, which is supplemented by Dr. Guskiewicz’s “Five Things” viewers need to know about concussion.

Melissa Dunst-Lipman is a senior producer, and Nadia Kounang is a producer for Big Hits, Broken Dreams. Roni Selig is the senior executive producer for the CNN Medical, Health, and Wellness unit.

CNN Worldwide, a division of Turner Broadcasting System, Inc., a Time Warner Company, is the most trusted source for news and information. Its reach extends to nine cable and satellite television networks; one private place-based network; two radio networks; wireless devices around the world; CNN Digital Network, the No. 1 network of news Web sites in the United States; CNN Newsource, the world’s most extensively-syndicated news service; and strategic international partnerships within both television and the digital media.

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