CHICAGO — The scowl that creased Troy Piccinini’s face on a recent afternoon was not the game face of a football player, at least not this fall.
Piccinini, 16, just had struggled through tests of his short-term memory and other cognitive functions. After suffering three concussions in as many years, the drills are as familiar to the Conant High School junior as any he’s done on the field.
A week before the Cougars’ first game, the hours-long battery of tests ended with neuropsychologist Dr. Jill Dorflinger gently offering advice that left the defensive end slumped in his seat.
“I’m going to suggest you not play football this year,” she said.
Even a few years ago, Piccinini and any number of young athletes might have been sent back into a game only minutes after “getting his bell rung.” But as the high school football seasons are kicking off, there’s an unprecedented awareness of brain injuries which may be slowly transforming the football culture.
A report last year by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that from 1997 to 2007, the number of emergency room visits for sports-related concussions had doubled for children ages 8 to 13, and more than tripled for high school-age athletes. And it’s not just football — but soccer and even cheerleading.
The reason, says Dr. Hossam AbdelSalam, a neurologist at Alexian Brothers Neurosciences Institute, is heightened awareness by coaches, parents and players.
“There are probably not more concussions. There is more awareness,” AbdelSalam said. “Ten years ago, they would dress and go home and rest a couple of days and play again. That is not going to happen anymore.”
While most of the attention has been on the pros, many are taking a closer look at what contact sports are doing to kids.
For the first time this season, a state law in Illinois requires any high school athlete who shows signs of concussion to be cleared by a medical professional before returning to the field.
Prompted by concerns from parents, many schools had already adopted policies, and an increasing number of schools perform testing to evaluate a player’s brain function before and after injury. Coaches and parents are crowding seminars on head injuries, and the number of youth athletes treated for concussions at hospitals nationwide has more than doubled since 1997.
Illinois was the 28th state to adopt concussion laws, standards that are backed by national campaigns by brain injury advocacy groups, pediatricians and a public that has seen a number of retired star athletes — including former Chicago Bear Dave Duerson — suffer untimely deaths linked to brain trauma.
Piccinini suffered blows to the head in each of the last three seasons followed by months of lingering headaches, moodiness and memory lapses that are symptoms of post-concussion syndrome, his mother and doctor said.
“As a mother, I would like to think I would have known something was not right with Troy,” said Maribel Piccinini. “But without all the hoopla, would I have known about it? Probably not.”
Her son is disappointed, but focusing on the big picture. “I’m just going to try to come back next year and just have some fun as a senior. It’s annoying, the irritability, the headaches, just forgetting everything,” said Piccinini. “I just thought it was normal.”
In fact, the battery of testing that followed each of his concussions is becoming the norm for many young athletes as a growing body of research has pointed out the danger of head injuries to still-developing brains.
“I recently had a parents meeting where the first few questions all had to do with concussions ... and that never used to happen,” said Craig Buzea, who has 29 years of football coaching experience under his belt, the last two at Homewood-Flossmoor High School.
“This (concussion awareness) will be the new dynamic of how you play the game,” Buzea said. “People will take notice and try to do things in a different way. I think everyone will be forced to.”
At Homewood-Flossmoor and many other high schools, that means rarely going through a full scrimmage during practice. “Why have a train wreck every Monday through Thursday, when you know you’re going to have one on Friday?” he asked.
Technology and education is changing, too.
Where coaches once would hold up two fingers to gauge mental fitness, there are now more sophisticated tools for young athletes, similar to the ones used by NFL players.