Next month, middle school and high school students in Wichita will be going back to class…and some will also get back to their favorite sports. A topic often on the minds of parents is concussions, a brain injury that occurs after a severe blow to the head – and from high school teams to the pros, they’re as prevalent as ever.
In a hotel lobby in downtown Wichita, football great Karl Mecklenburg juggles a few suitcases as he checks into his room. He’s in town for a speaking engagement, but we’re here to talk about his career—concussions especially. Mecklenburg played linebacker with the Denver Broncos for 12 seasons. He’s what you’d expect from a retired pro football player: tall, with broad shoulders and a strong brow.
“I started playing football when I was ten years old. I grew up back in Minneapolis, Minn.,” he says. ‘I always loved the contact of the game; that's what attracted me to it.”
Mecklenburg says he was always undersized, but his work ethic eventually got him to the National Football League. He played with some of the greatest football players ever, most notably his teammate, John Elway.
From high school through the pros, Mecklenburg’s experience with football was different than what you see today; concussions were rarely talked about and instead of getting fines for hits to the head, the act was encouraged.
“To play the game at the level that is played in college and [the NFL], you have to have a bit of recklessness in you. You have to have pain tolerance; you have to be somebody that's not concerned about the future,” Mecklenburg explains.
That mindset has caught up with him. Mecklenburg expected to have a limp when he retired, but not memory loss at age 53.
“I have good days and I have bad days. There are times I turn on the shower and forget I had it on - my phone is full of pictures of hotel room numbers,” he says. “I have real issues with names and dates. I've thought about getting into broadcasting, but remembering all those names...I could never do it.”
The former linebacker is one of many retired athletes who share this experience, some much worse off than others. Mecklenburg says there are players he knew from his career who have committed suicide over the effects of chronic concussions.
He added his name to a recent lawsuit against the NFL, citing they knew the dangers of concussions, but kept them secret.
The High School Gridiron
The weight room at Wichita East High School is filled with football players, despite the rest of the school being vacant for the summer. In a room beside the loud clanking of weights, their head coach, Brian Byers, sits alongside athletic trainer Jennifer Hudson.
“If we suspect a concussion, or they got hit hard, the first thing we do is contact Jennifer, she's usually somewhere within the vicinity. She’ll evaluate them, and we'll go with whatever her evaluation indicates,” Byers says of their injury protocol. “If it's in a game, they have to get checked by a doctor on the sidelines. If it’s questionable, we won't put them back in.”
Byers has been at Wichita East for eight years, but has coached football for more than 30. He, like Karl Mecklenburg, remembers how the game used to be played.
“For years, when a kid would get hit, you just say they got their bell rung and you just let them sit, take a play off and stick them back in,” he recounts. “No one knew what the consequences were…now we're finding out what they are.”
The state of Kansas passed legislation in 2011 that requires any student athlete with an apparent concussion be looked at by a medical doctor before returning to play. Jennifer Hudson says these guidelines are in place not only to protect students from further injury, but also to keep them in class.
The Kansas Sports Concussion Partnership was also created in 2011 by a group of physicians - it helps to address concussions in prep sports
“Addressing their academics is really an important thing, too. That's the thing, we deal with adolescent brains that are growing and changing; they have a long life ahead of them, so we want to make sure they're fully taken care of,” Hudson says.
It’s not just football; athletes from all contact sports are experiencing concussions, often times from their heads hitting the ground. Whichever sport, it’s often not the first concussion that’s dangerous; it’s a series of them, especially when the brain hasn’t had time to heal.
“If they can’t sit in a classroom, there’s no way they need to be out on the field practicing,” Hudson says. “Once they are symptom-free, then it's a very gradual process. On first day, we have them run for a little while, make sure we don't reproduce symptoms. Once they're symptom-free, it's at least a five-day process just to get them back on the field.”
For medical professionals, the difficulty with concussions is that there are rarely any external symptoms. Steve Lauer is a pediatrician at The University of Kansas Medical Center in Kansas City. He has a unique specialty: he works with adolescents who’ve experienced concussions outside of sports.
“What we're finding more and more is that many concussions are just results of everyday life,” Dr. Lauer says. “People who take falls, are in car accidents, all kinds of trauma that occurs normally in life can result in concussions.”
Dr. Lauer says he’s treated everything from a child running into bleachers to someone getting kicked by a cow. The adolescent brain, which isn’t fully developed, is at an even greater risk of brain damage. He says no matter how you get a concussion, the danger comes when you have one after the other. That’s when short-term symptoms like dizziness, headaches, and depression can turn into long-term symptoms.
“About 80 to 90 percent of concussion symptoms resolve on their own over a month,” he explains. “For an individual, as they have repetitive concussions, that recovery path slows down, and the worry is that at some point those symptoms cross a line from something they recover from to something that's caused permanent alterations to their brain.”
Concussion rates among high school athletes have doubled since 2005, Lauer says that’s not due to more injuries, but to more being identified because of increased awareness.
Rehabilitation is like many other injuries, if you sprain your ankle, you stay off your feet. The brain is trickier, how do you rest your brain?
“They shouldn't be texting, playing video games, they shouldn’t be on the computer very much, they shouldn’t be reading,” he says. “They need to rest. I think we've just become much more specific about that and making the points to parents and students that they have to do this or they're at risk for those symptoms to continue.”
The damage from untreated concussions has already taken its toll on athletes like former NFL player Karl Mecklenburg, but he says he’d do it all again – with a bit more caution.
“I would've still played, but I would have treated concussions very differently,” Mecklenburg says. “If it had been a situation where I had a concussion, and I developed migraines, I would have treated them much more seriously and taken the time and made sure that I was right before I got back on the field.”
Just this week a federal judge approved a preliminary settlement of more than 600 million dollars that will go to roughly 4,500 former NFL players. All of which now struggle with the lasting effects of concussions. This will include Karl Mecklenberg.
For him, it wasn’t about money...it was about making sure new generations are safe.
When asked if he allowed his kids to play contact sports, he said "of course," knowing that information about head injuries is now widely accessible.
Follow Sean Sandefur on Twitter, @SeanSandefur