To make it as an athlete in today's competitive world, kids quickly learn they have to be tough. Sometimes that means staying in the game despite an injury, even a serious one like a blow to the head. What many coaches and parents don't know is that returning to action too soon can put kids' futures, and lives, at risk. Andrew Holtz has the story of one young man's tragic experience.
ANDREW HOLTZ: Friday night fever in Anacortes, Washington. A showdown between the Anacortes High Seahawks and the Lyndon Lions brings fans to their feet.
Among them...Brandon Schultz, an honors student during his days at Anacortes High, who spent many of his nights out on this field.
BRANDON SCHULTZ: I love football, to this day I still love it. I still have dreams that I'm playing.
ANDREW HOLTZ: Brandon made varsity his sophomore year, playing right guard and left end. But now he's not just another former star recalling past glory. In fact, he has no memory of the events seven years ago that ended his football career, and changed his life.
It all started just after his 16th birthday. Following a hard tackle, Brandon suffered a mild concussion, forcing him to sit for the rest of the game.
LANE PHELAN, BRANDON'S MOTHER: He really wasn't down on the ground or anything, he was just shook up, 'got his bell rung' as we say.
ANDREW HOLTZ: Brandon wrote a letter to his father that week complaining of headaches, and he skipped several practices. But no one told his parents to get him medically evaluated. It just didn't seem that serious.
LANE PHELAN: He got up Monday morning, went to school and said, 'I feel fine, I'm gonna play.'
ANDREW HOLTZ: His family videotaped the action that night from the stands. After a tackle at the end of the half, number 61 seemed fine. But during the next few minutes, something happened.
LANE PHELAN: I looked up and there was Brandon just laying on the field flat, and it was kind of surreal as I look back. I didn't really panic, I just went 'oh, I guess I better get down there.'
ANDREW HOLTZ: Lane Phelan approached her son...who, it turns out, was unconscious. The coaches called for an ambulance.
Brandon was in a coma for five days and endured four operations on his brain and skull. And yet the fateful hit, at the time, seemed like so many others.
So why did a seemingly routine tackle have such devastating results? Doctors concluded Brandon had second impact syndrome. And what that means is that Brandon's brain had been injured and left critically vulnerable by the hard hit a week earlier. It hadn't had time to recover, so even a slight blow could trigger swelling and bleeding, squeezing Brandon's brain within his skull...causing permanent damage.
STEPHEN RICE, MD, PhD: It was as if his brain was exploding.
ANDREW HOLTZ: Dr Stephen Rice, an expert on sports-related head injuries, says a second hit, even a mild one like Brandon's, can set off a dangerous chain reaction in the brain.
STEPHEN RICE, MD, PhD, JERSEY SHORE MEDICAL CENTER: When his brain swelled, it was as if he had a sponge that absorbed large amounts of fluid and made its size much, much larger than it normally would. And, of course, being confined in the hard skull it had no place to go but to put pressure on the walls of the skull and on itself.
ANDREW HOLTZ: Brandon is now partially blind, his right arm and leg don't always do what he wants. It's unlikely he'll ever be able to hold down a job, or live alone. So many things that once came easily now are hard.
BRANDON SCHULTZ: That is very frustrating, especially when it's something that I know I could do before just fine.
LANE PHELAN: I think there are very few similarities. It's hard to come up with any similarities. He really is a total different person.
ANDREW HOLTZ: A legal settlement with the Anacortes school district funds Brandon's on-going care. And the district now takes a hard line on sports injuries.
GILL JAMES, ATHLETIC DIRECTOR: Our standard has been that if we even have any reason to think that there is a head injury, we immediately pull those kids out and we're going to send them to be evaluated.
ANDREW HOLTZ: The American Academy of Neurology issues this palm card for coaches...listing possible warning signs of concussions, like delayed response, confusion, and slurred speech. It also tells how long a player should wait before returning to action, in most cases at least a week. But a recent survey published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine found that almost a third of high school and college players who suffered a concussion still went back onto the field the same day.
STEPHEN RICE, MD, PhD: It's very important that we follow them to make sure that they truly are better, before they engage in additional activity. You should never be playing or participating if you're symptomatic, period.
ANDREW HOLTZ: The toughest audience to educate about concussions and second impact syndrome may be the athletes themselves.
BRANDON SCHULTZ: Players should realize when something is wrong with them that's serious, and they should, you know, in their own minds, draw the line and say, no you are not going back out. And I know that, I know that is extremely hard to do.
ANDREW HOLTZ: But Brandon also knows how hard it is to live with a serious brain injury, and how the hopes and dreams of a young man with so much promise can be crushed in an instant.
BRANDON SCHULTZ: I think about living my life more for the moment than for the future. Because I realize now that the future may never come.
SHARYL ATTKISSON: Of course, it's not just high school football players at risk of getting concussions. So are those in the NFL. We asked Harry Carson, a former all-pro linebacker with the New York Giants, to tell us how head injuries on the field have changed his life... and his outlook.
HARRY CARSON: When most people think about a concussion, they think about the guy who makes a devastating hit or gets hit and he's sprawled out on the field. Well, I've never had those. Everything might have faded to black. I might have seen stars or whatever, but I continued to play. I have lingering effects now. My eyesight, it seems like it's deteriorating. I slur my speech sometimes. I have involuntary muscle twitches. During the course of my years of playing, I even got hurt in games, and I went back in to play because that was what I was trained to do. When you're at the lowest level, you're taught, oh, suck it up, you have to go. Or be a man. You're expected to play when you are in pain. Players are going to want to play. But if a player sustains a ding or a concussion, he's knocked out, if he's complaining of headaches, I think the coach has to understand and be wise enough to withhold that player from play. Because this is a very complex piece of equipment right here, and once you damage it, there is no guarantee that it's going to come back and be one hundred percent.
SHARYL ATTKISSON: Keep in mind, the problem isn't limited to just football. Any sport in which you can be hit in the head, from soccer to field hockey, poses a risk of brain injury.
Brain Injury Association
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