Judy Morgan could sit anywhere in the mostly-empty bleachers at North County High School but she prefers her perch in the last row, where she can better see her grandson, Devonte, a senior defensive end at Northwestern.
She has attended every practice and every game since he started playing football in elementary school, when she had to be convinced to let him play. Each time, she sits and she worries and she prays.
"I am praying every time he goes out there," she said.
But this mid-week warm-up before the Baltimore Touchdown Club Senior All-Star Game on Saturday has an assurance which none of those other games or practices had. If Devonte suffers a high-intensity hit, the coaches will automatically know to take him out and test for a concussion.
That's because each player's helmet has a Brain Sentry sensor attached to the back. The rectangular sensor weighs about an ounce and detects the top 2 percent of hardest hits to the head.
When the helmet accelerates quickly after serious impact, a bright red LED light flashes, letting coaches know to get that player off the field.
"The lower the level of football, the more apt the kid is to say, 'I'm OK, let me get back in the game," said Mike Working, a Brain Sentry regional representative who coached at Mount Saint Joseph for 10 years. "I think it goes underreported a lot."
After interviewing 167 high school athletes in various sports, one study by professors across the country determined that as many as 60 percent of known concussions were not reported to a supervisor.
Younger athletes are also at a higher risk to have a concussion. High school players suffer concussions at a rate of 11.2 concussions per 10,000 athletic exposures — a practice or a game — as opposed to 6.3 for college football players, according to a study released by the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council.
Brain Sentry, a Bethesda-based startup, donated more than 100 sensors for the Metro and Baltimore All-Star teams to wear over the last two weeks. Greg Merril, the company's co-founder, used to build concussion-recognition technology for the military, before launching this project two years ago.
"Some of the statistics are a little bit scary in terms of the reporting of concussions," Merril said. "You have got to get the ego out of the assessment process and that's what the sensor does."
Participation in youth football has decreased in recent years, at a time when player safety concerns in professional football have been highlighted by a class-action lawsuit that the National Football League settled for $765 million with former players in August.
Tackle football has seen a 13 percent decline nationally since 2011, with more than half of that drop coming in the 7-to-10 age group, according to the 2013 National Sporting Goods Association report. Metropolitan Baltimore Pop Warner youth football has seen its numbers fluctuate in the last few years, after the national office recently announced a 9.5 percent drop from 2010 to 2012.
In part because of his grandmother's worry, Devonte understands the concerns.
When he was a freshman, he suffered a concussion early in a game but stayed in because he didn't know the severity of it. In the second half, after a head to head collision, he stumbled off the field.
"I was on the sideline and was getting dizzy, just started shaking," he said. "After that, I blanked out."
Devonte sat out the next two weeks, but wishes that he had known not to stay in the game.
Merril said fans need to know that football is in trouble without further research.
"This is just one more step in trying to save the game of football," Merril said. "It's not just about saving the players. It's about protecting the game."
Research has already convinced youth football officials to decrease the number of tackling drills, the distance between players during tackling drills and the distance of kickoffs (which lessens the number of kickoff returns, often considered one of the most dangerous plays in the sport).
Merril imagines a day when coaches can manage their players' hit total, in the same way baseball managers might hold a pitcher to a pitch count. Some Brain Sentry sensors can record the number of hits taken and their intensity, and the LSU Tigers football team used them this past season for research purposes.
A hallway at the Brain Sentry office bears the pictures of 27 youth players who have died or been severely injured while playing football.
"It keeps it real," Merril said. "Brain Sentry is a double bottom-line business. One bottom line is to make profit. The other bottom line is to save kids from catastrophic injuries and the long-term effects of brain injury."
The sensors used this weekend don't collect or store data, except to blink twice if a player has suffered a concussion for the second time since wearing it. The sensor can last a full season without being replaced and is being sold individually for $60 and in bulk for a team discount.
"It's laser focused on trying to support one question," Merril said. "Which players need to be assessed for a concussion?"
That question is at the forefront of coaches' minds, who can't see everything that happens on the field. If players can't always be trusted to know and report a concussion, a device that flashes for everyone on the sideline to see becomes invaluable.
South River head coach Lance Clelland, who was chosen to lead the Baltimore team in the All-Star game, said there are both practical difficulties and problems caused by old mentalities.
"It's a very tough injury to diagnose and a very tough injury to see," Clelland said. "We were told so long as football coaches that the tougher you are, the better you are, but that's not always the case."
For players like Devonte, football is important, but it isn't everything. The 16-year-old wants to play college ball and has gotten some interest locally, but his focus will shift to getting a degree and studying to become a computer technician.
Devonte said he hopes the sensors will be adopted by schools, and not just used sparingly at events like the All-Star game.
"My grandmother always told me not to put all my cookies in one basket," Devonte said. "I think it's a good idea to help out."
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