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Concussions turn 15-year-old football player's dreams into 'nightmare'

A 15-year-old football player's new realities: headaches, insomnia and depression after concussions

For one Southern California mother, the thrill of victory has been lost to the agony of concussion.

We will call her Mary, her son Rick.

"He's 15 now," Mary says. "He's been playing tackle football since he was 5. He has always seen himself as a football player named Rick, not Rick, who plays football."

At 13, in a parent-organized league called the Junior All-American Football Conference, Rick had a concussion that put him out for three games. In his second game back, he was hit from behind on a tackle, fumbled and appeared to go limp for a moment. When parents and coaches started out on the field to come to his aid, Rick popped up and waved them off. Shortly after the game, the concussion symptoms were back.

"Later, a coach from the other team called and said he had a video from a different angle," Mary says. "He said I would see that Rick was knocked out cold. Only a few seconds, but he was out."

Mary says she wanted that to be the end of football for her son, but she and her husband didn't have to make that decision right then because there was time. His season was over.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 173,000 recreation-related traumatic brain injuries to children and adolescents are treated in U.S. emergency departments every year. Boys between 10 and 19 who play football are far more likely to suffer such injuries.

—DC Child Accident & Safety Blog, Patrick Malone and Associates, November 2013.

Rick is 5 feet 9 and weighs 134 pounds. That's a 10-pound gain over the summer. He made his high school team's starting lineup as a wide receiver, even though he was only a sophomore. He is a strong student too, but the game is what matters.

"Football is his dream," Mary says. "He wants to play football because that's what he is — a football player."

In practice Sept. 16, Rick banged heads with another player and Mary got the call to come and get him. Another concussion.

"He told me that his neck and both arms went numb this time," Mary says. "When we went home, I couldn't talk to him because he seemed to have trouble making out what I was saying. He couldn't focus."

It is five weeks later and he hadn't been able to make it through a full day of school until Monday. This is a student with mostly honors classes. He has dropped one course, is trying mightily to recover enough in his classes so he won't lose an entire semester, and has special permission to take extended time on tests and papers.

Under the headline "Football cannot be made safe — not for our kids, not for our souls": Research at Boston University found that the typical high school football player takes 1,000 blows to the head each season, with the average force of 20G. That's more than college football players.

—Dave D'Alessandro, Newark Star Ledger, Oct. 17, 2014

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Rick saw a neurosurgeon at a nearby hospital. She had seen him before after concussions. Now, she was blunt.

"She asked him if there was somebody forcing him to play football," Mary says. "Then she said, 'If you feel like you are going to have an NFL career, we'll talk. But if not, you better value your brain more than that.' "

Mary says the doctor likened repeated concussions to a piece of cauliflower. Each time the top of the cauliflower is hit, the stem weakens and breaks a little more.

Same with your brain stem, the doctor told Rick.

Mary says the month away from school has been a "nightmare" for her son.

"He mostly sleeps," she says. "He has headaches, insomnia, depression — all the classic concussion symptoms. He can't watch TV for long, can't play video games."

The dream of being a football player, especially one with Rick's exceptional skills, doesn't end easily.

Tom Cutinella played guard and linebacker for a Long Island, N.Y., high school, Shoreham-Wading River. He was 16. He had a collision with another player in a game Oct. 1 and died shortly afterward, "becoming the third high school football player nationally to die in a week." His team had started the season 3-0, and after one of those victories, Cutinella tweeted: "Best moment of my life."

—New York Times, Oct. 2, 2014

Mary says, with all of Rick's various injuries, including a shoulder separation and knee and back issues, her 15-year-old son "has the body of a 40-year-old man."

She says, "He should be out with his friends, not staying home and being moody and depressed."

She says it is best not to identify the family members by their real names because Rick still craves being part of the team in whatever way he can and hopes he played enough of the season to get a letter. Her implication is that, while his coaches have treated him wonderfully, the old school mantra, gut it out no matter what the cost, still applies. And if you can't, you have somehow failed.

In a 15-year-old, that still clashes with the reality that, if you play again, you may suffer very serious brain damage.

Nor does it make it any easier when there remains the hard-to-silence, and badly flawed, theory that football is one of the best measures of real manhood.

"We've spent a lot of time with doctors and heard a lot that it's not worth it," Mary says. "I think we know that now."

bill.dwyre@latimes.com

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