Football players undergo baseline testing and evaluation before resuming play

November 14, 2012
By Christy Cabrera Chirinos, Sun Sentinel

Cooper City football player Tyler Sabine took a brutal hit in a game early this season. The sophomore was throwing up just before halftime. His coaches knew it was time to pull the linebacker from the game.

Two days later, Sabine was diagnosed with a concussion.

That diagnosis kicked into place new guidelines passed by the Florida Legislature eight months ago, establishing strict procedures to allow concussed athletes, such as Sabine, back on the field.

As the high school and youth football seasons wrap up this month, many say the new law on concussion management is working.

Sabine was sidelined for more than two weeks before doctors cleared him to begin the gradual four-step return-to-play protocol now mandated by the Florida High School Athletic Association.

“Our trainers were amazing once they realized there was an issue,” said April Bourassa, Sabine’smother. “It was scary. It’s a brain injury, and it’s not like you have another one of those. But they’ve really made it to where now, you’re more informed and I love that. Everyone was very thorough. I felt like my son was being taken care of and informed.”

High school coaches and parents are being more hands-on about concussion awareness. Injured athletes are being evaluated by physicians, and sitting out as long as needed. Once medical clearance is given for them to return, athletic trainers are helping those athletes follow state guidelines that gradually manage a safe return to play.

“This is something that had to be dealt with,” said Archbishop McCarthy coach Byron Walker, who has seen one of his players, running back Nick Bost, sidelined with a concussion this season. “It takes it out of the hands of people who have an interest and puts it in the hands of professionals. It’s just going to be safe for the kids in the end.”

Bost, who was injured during spring practice, only recently returned to action after dealing with post-concussion syndrome months after his concussion.

“I knew it had to be done,” Bost said. “It may have been a mild concussion, but I wanted to be cautious and because I was still having symptoms, I held myself out. And my coaches were cool about it. They understood.”

Returning to action

The new law requires that if an athletic trainer or coach suspects an athlete has suffered a concussion, the athlete must be removed from play. And once an athlete has been diagnosed with a concussion, he or she cannot return to play until medically cleared by a physician.

Once that clearance is given, state policy dictates an athletic trainer supervises a four-step return-to-play protocol in which athletes see their activity level increase daily. If at any point in the process, an athlete exhibits concussion symptoms such as dizziness or sensitivity to light, they must wait at least 24 hours before attempting that level of activity again.

Youth football leagues across South Florida also are working to keep the youngest football players safe. Ross Sinel, president of the American Youth Football League, which includes teams from Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties, said educating coaches and parents has been a major part of the league’s concussion management efforts.

And like high school athletes, no concussed AYFL athlete can return to play without a physician’s clearance.

“We had a clinic for our coaches with the doctors from the University of Miami, we have a policy where all coaches and parents have to sign off on concussion documents, and the AYFL has kept a database of all the concussed kids,” Sinel said.

In addition to the new state law which went into effect July 1, Broward County Schools have mandated baseline concussion testing for all high school athletes.

In Palm Beach County, more than 600 football players have participated in voluntary baseline testing.

All of that has helped lead to increased education and awareness of an often-misunderstood injury that if not treated properly, could have lasting effects on young brains.

“I think it’s all helping people do their jobs more effectively,” said Stephen Russo, the director of Sports Psychology at the Nova Southeastern University Sports Medicine Clinic. “The athletic trainers are overseeing the return-to-play protocol, the doctor is doing the medical approval, I’m doing what I’m trained to do and the coaches, at the end of the day, are doing what they’re trained to do. Everyone has their assigned roles in helping the athletes.”

Russo is working with the Broward County Athletic Association to carry out its baseline testing program. He estimates that this year, more than 50 athletes already have come to Nova’s Sports Medicine Clinic for post-concussion evaluation. In the entirety of the 2011-2012 school year, the clinic saw 101 cases.

At Cleveland Clinic in West Palm Beach where Dr. Evan Peck is helping Palm Beach County schools carry out its voluntary testing, there’s been an increase in patients, too.

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