Increased awareness moves football concussions to the spotlight

Derrick Johnson, a Laurel resident, was playing defensive back for the University of North Carolina in 2002 when he went for a tackle on a third-down play.

"I went in low for a tackle and took a knee to the head," Johnson said of the game at Florida State. "I got up and jogged a little bit. Everything was spinning a little bit. When I first got up, I was going to the (wrong) bench. It was fourth down and I ended up jogging off the field. I got dinged up a little bit. I was a little woozy."

Now looking back Johnson, a standout at Eleanor Roosevelt High in Greenbelt, is fairly certain that he suffered a concussion on that play; though it was not diagnosed at the time.

Johnson is now the cornerbacks coach at Towson University, the 2011 Colonial Athletic Association champs, and the education about and prevention of concussions is just as important to him as scouting reports on opposing wide receivers.

"The biggest thing I have noticed is (trainers and coaches) are putting a bigger emphasis on the safety of the player," said Johnson, who grew up in Upper Marlboro and moved to Laurel about five years ago. "The health of the player: That is what it boils down to."

Concussion prevention and treatment has become part of a national debate, thanks in part to some high-profile deaths of former National Football League players. Dave Duerson, who played for the Chicago Bears, shot himself in the heart in 2011 because he wanted his brain to be intact so it could be studied for possible illness, according to a column in The Washington Examiner. His family filed a wrongful death suit against the NFL earlier this year.

Rick Peacock, the first-year head varsity coach at St. Vincent Pallotti High, is well aware of incidents such as these. Peacock has been the Southeast regional manager for USA Football for seven years. He said USA Football, along with the NFL, has been working at the grassroots level to educate parents and youths, as well as Congress, about trying to prevent concussions and how to handle them.

"You attack it in two parts. The first is technique. When you put a helmet on a kid it is not to be a weapon. It is there for their safety. We have gone over the proper tackling techniques, such as learning to hit and stay behind your pads" and not lead with the helmet, he said.

Peacock said the second part of the equation is what to do once a concussion does occur.

"We provide every parent (with USA Football) a concussion (information) sheet that lets them know how we hope to get the player back on the field in a safe manner," Peacock said.

A generation ago, football players would be "knocked out" and then return to the game a few plays later. This was also during a time when some teams would withhold the proper amount of water during hot days of practice in August. Now Johnson says it takes at least seven days between when a player has no more concussion symptoms until the time he can return to the field.

Football, of course, has also been a macho sport. "We are trying to take that (image) out of it," Peacock said. "It is a game. It is supposed to be fun. As coaches, we need to use common sense. Put the kids' health first instead of questioning someone's character" if they don't head right back on the field after feeling "woozy."

Peacock said a Pallotti player suffered a concussion Sept. 7 at Severn and he did not play on Sept. 14 at home against Pope John Paul the Great, of Northern Virginia.

Johnson said the Towson coaching staff was required to watch a video about looking out for and reporting concussions before practice began in August.

"There was also a paper we had to sign (stating) if a kid had concussion symptoms we had to report it. If a kid comes to me and says I am dinged up, I am required to report that," he said.

"Kids now are bigger, stronger and more athletic from top to bottom (than) when I played 10 years ago. It is definitely better in the long run for the kids," Johnson said about the focus on concussions.

David Driver is the former sports editor of the Laurel Leader.

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