A small monitor, just bigger than an iPhone, attaches to Davis Senior High School athletic trainer Megan Pereira’s hip. When it buzzes during a football practice or game, it means someone may be pulled to the sidelines for their own safety.
Pereira’s new gadget is synced to Davis Senior High’s brand-new Riddell helmets, equipped with the company’s InSite technology – a sensor pad inside the helmet that alerts her when players receive an impact hard enough to cause a concussion.
The change comes amid growing concerns about concussion risk, spurred by testimonies from NFL players in recent years about the long-term impacts of blows to the head. The discussion has filtered to the youth level, leading to a slew of state and federal regulations on tackling form, return to play and practice duration to make the game safer.
While most people can recover from a concussion with seven to 10 days of good rest, some suffer post-concussive syndrome for weeks and months after diagnosis. Recent research shows that people who suffer repetitive brain trauma can develop chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a neurological disease associated with memory loss, confusion, mood shifts and impulse control problems.
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High school football players are nearly twice as likely to suffer concussions as collegiate players, according to a 2013 study from the Institute of Medicine. Some research suggests that the developing adolescent brain is more vulnerable to concussion than the adult brain.
“Now our trainer has eyes on the kid (to) see how he is responding to a hit,” said head coach John Wiley. “Because the biggest things you got into is sometimes kids never reported any type of injury. They didn’t know, they’re trying to play through it.”
When a student receives a jarring impact to the head, a five-zone sensor pad inside the helmet emits a signal to a hand-held monitor on the sidelines. The sensor sends an alert only if the hit passes a certain concussion danger threshold, based on location, duration, acceleration and rotation of the hit. There are about 50 high schools in California using this technology, according to Riddell.
Once alerted to the impact, Pereira and coaches can check players for concussion symptoms, such as confusion, dizziness, slurred speech or light sensitivity. Coaches may choose to remove students from play, or remind them about safe tackling practices.
With just 40 players on the roster, Davis Senior High is extremely susceptible to injuries. If a star player like junior tight end and defensive end Tucker Fisk was forced out of the lineup for multiple weeks, the team’s shot at its first Sac-Joaquin Section playoff berth since 2007 could be out the window.
Fisk, whose father, Jason, played in the NFL from 1995-2006, said the new helmets make tackling easier on him and his teammates.
“They’re really lightweight, so it makes it easier to transition from going without pads to pads,” Fisk said. “Your neck isn’t sore … they’re comfortable, easy to wear.”
The high school hosted a concussion safety seminar last week, though most attendees had students playing sports other than football.
Tito Flores, 40, went to the seminar out of concern for his son Carlos, a sophomore on the junior varsity football team. Though Carlos has never had a concussion, Flores said stories of brain-damaged former NFL players made him wary.
“I’m worried about him, that’s why I’m here,” Flores said. “The JV team doesn’t get the helmets with the chips ... (so) they have to talk to the kids, see how they’re doing.”
At Davis Senior High, parents have been vigilant about concussion prevention. The Davis Blue Devil Football Backers, a group of parents and fans, raised nearly $24,000 for new Riddell helmets for the varsity and junior varsity teams. The district put in an additional $8,000 for the InSite sensor inserts for the varsity team only.
“We wanted to get ahead of the curve on this technology,” said Jeff Lorenson, athletic director for Davis Senior High. “We think it’s going to be a tool for our coaches and trainers to cut down on the number of unreported concussions.”
Dr. Jeffrey Tanji, a UC Davis sports physician who serves as team doctor for the Blue Devils, said concussions are particularly problematic for high school students, who may underperform in school due to concussive symptoms or miss class while in recovery.
“They’ll have headaches, difficulty concentrating, difficulty following what’s going,” he said. “Helmets protect the brains of our young people. We don’t want to have what’s happening to a number of football players happen to our youth.”