Mom wonders if SD prep athletes are protected enough from concussion scares

Concussion discussion heats up after a major NFL incident
Published: Oct. 3, 2022 at 8:45 PM CDT
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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (Dakota News Now) - It was a jarring image that surely had parents of young football players all over the country shaken:

A pro football quarterback on his back, writhing in pain — teammates, coaches and fans looking on in horror — then requiring a stretcher to take him to the hospital for a head-related injury.

The NFL is under serious scrutiny for the way head injuries are handled after Tua Tagovailoa appeared wobbly in a game on Sunday, Sept. 25, was then examined for a concussion, but later returned to the game, and was then allowed to play four days later, when he was decked on his back, and laid motionless for several minutes before the stretcher came.

One Sioux Falls parent was watching with her two football-playing sons, ages 15 and 16. And while the scene was terrifying, it provided a perfect opportunity for Hurley to explain to her boys why she has always nagged and worried about their safety.

”We were immediately, like, this is why you need to be careful. Like, exactly this,” Beckie Hurley said. “And, there was no reason (Tagovailoa) should have been in that game.”

Hurley said players “have no business judging for themselves” on if they should remain in games in which their heads have taken major jolts.

They don’t in South Dakota, but she also thinks the state is too lax when it comes to how quickly kids are allowed to play once it is determined they had a concussion. More on that in a little later in this article.

South Dakota law requires that in sanctioned events, an athlete must be removed if he or she exhibits signs, symptoms, or behaviors consistent with a concussion, or is suspected of sustaining one.

Sioux Falls Roosevelt High School’s Kim Nelson has been a varsity head coach in South Dakota and Minnesota for 43 years and is the Rushmore State’s all-time wins leader.

Yet, he thinks he, nor any coach, should ever decide if a player should be taken out or kept in the action.

”If our trainer says he’s out, he’s out, and we don’t even argue about it,” Nelson said. “It doesn’t matter who he is or what situation in the game is going on. If they have any concussion symptoms at all, they sit out. I think all teams that I know are the same way in high school.”

Nelson and a couple other coaches were asked about concussion protocol on last Saturday’s morning’s prep football coaches show on FOX Sports 98.1 KWSN Radio.

Sioux Falls Washington’s Ryan Evans has been a head coach for 13 collective seasons.

“Concussions are a weird deal,” Evans said. “You try to do what’s best at all times, and sometimes even through those protocols, sometimes some things can slip through the cracks. That’s why we preach honesty with our kids, as much as possible. Whether you feel right or not, you have to let us know what’s going on.”

Kids, like college and NFL players, rarely want to be taken out of a game, coaches said. They want to play and they want to win. Former NFL safety Rodney Harrison said on Friday’s nationally-syndicated “Dan Patrick Show” that he had multiple concussions during games in his career, and each time he knew something was wrong but told coaches and trainers he wasn’t hurt and could play.

Nelson said that on a “much bigger stage” like the NFL, players are going to find a way to way to stay in the game “if it’s worth that much money to them.” Tagovailoa signed a four-year contract worth over $30 million in guaranteed money. But that didn’t stop him from insisting he was in good enough shape to play in the Sunday, Sept. 25, game against Buffalo, when he picked himself up, then stumbled and fell down after a hit.

The Dolphins initially announced Tagovailoa was questionable to return to the game with a head injury, but he came back out onto the field in the third quarter and finished the game throwing for 186 yards and a touchdown. Tagovailoa told reporters after the game that he fell onto his back before his head hit the turf causing his back to lock up and the resulting stumble. He added that he was evaluated for a concussion but was ultimately cleared.

Dolphins head coach Mike McDaniel alluded to a back injury after the game, saying that Tagovailoa back got “bent” on an earlier play but the hit “loosened his back” causing his legs to get wobbly.

Four days later, the quarterback took a vicious sack and was taken to the hospital for further evaluation. He was later discharged and allowed to fly back to Miami with the team while wearing a protective neck brace.

Making his first public comments since his unsettling injury, Tagovailoa shared a message on Twitter thanking the Dolphins, his loved ones and those who reached out to him for their support. Tagovailoa, who is currently in concussion protocol, also stated that he’s “feeling much better” and is focusing on his road to recovery.

Meanwhile, The NFL Players Association has dismissed a neurologist who evaluated Tagovailoa after Tagovailoa hit his head in the Buffalo game.

A few years ago, Nelson had one of the worst scares of his coaching career when one of his players laid paralyzed on the field for over 20 minutes. Nelson, players from both teams, and fans in the stands stood petrified, many in tears.

Pierson Evans was put on a stretcher, then an ambulance, and taken to a hospital. He recovered, with all extremities intact. But that was the last game of his football career. He was diagnosed with spinal stenosis, but anyone in attendance was convinced it could have been a lot worse.

This past Friday night, one of Nelson’s players showed concussion symptoms in the Riders’ game at Rapid City Central.

“It’s a very scary thing,” Nelson said. ”So, we’re going to keep a close eye on him, and keep him out of contact for most of this week, probably. And, there’s a pretty strict protocol that we have to follow to get him back, and that’s the way it has to be.”

That is where Nelson and Hurley, the mother of two high school football players, disagrees.

The South Dakota High School Activities Association adopts the state law on concussion protocols, and refers to a packet of information written by six Sanford Health doctors with expertise in neurology and sports training.

“The law requires that we provide information each year to kids and parents, that coaches take courses, that athletes are removed from contests when exhibiting symptoms, and that they are evaluated and cleared by a health care provider trained in the evaluation and treatment of concussions,” Dan Swartos, the executive director of the SDHSAA, texted to Dakota News Now on Monday.

“We provide the info from Sanford to the schools, along with recommended protocol. The ultimate treatment and clearance is between the student and their physician, individualized based on the student’s health profile.”

This means a player can potentially return the very next game, like Tagovailoa did.

Hurley has seen this happen at the prep level, and it worries her.

“I know there was a game where a kid had a concussion and he didn’t know where he was at or when the game got over,” Hurley said. “He very clearly had a concussion and then I saw him playing the next week. That was a little worrisome.”

Hurley, who describes her herself as a huge football fan who doesn’t think playing football is the best idea for kids, checked the SDHSAA rule and correctly found that is not set time a player is required to sit out, just a physician note required.

“We’re not dealing with professional NFL players who are in their 20′s and 30′s,” Hurley said. “We’re dealing with boys who, maybe they should have a set amount of time, like maybe they shouldn’t be playing that next week. They need to be taking a little time off.”

If one of her two boys suffered a concussion, and a doctor deemed it safe for him to play the next game, Hurley said she would still step in and make her sons sit out at least the next game, and then keep carefully going from there.

The chances that most of the kids playing football who are eventually going to continue to play in college and eventually as a professional are slim, Hurley said.

“And so, to end up ruining your life for something that’s literally a game, a kid’s game, is just crazy,” Hurley said.

”They’re just kids, and you don’t want to see things ruined for them because they want to get in and they want to help the team win that one game. I get it. They love doing this, and they want to be out there helping their team, but when it involves their health like this, sitting out for just one game — I mean, it’s worth it to save their health.”

Her sons started playing flag football around age 7, then tackle football by 12.

Hurley, who said her sons have experienced more injuries playing basketball than football, understands people might read this and wonder why she even lets her kids play football in the first place.

“I don’t want to be the person keeping them away from a sports they love,” Hurley said. “I’m not against football, but I want to make sure (they) don’t end up in a hospital bed when they’re 23.”

Does she fret about her sons ending up writhing in pain and carted off on a stretcher, especially after watching it happen to Tagovailoa?

“Always,” Hurley said. “It’s in the back of your mind. You’re trying to just watch and have fun for the kids instead of constantly worrying about what’s going to happen on the next play. But, luckily, we haven’t seen a ton of bad hits where people are really worried about that. We haven’t had to deal with that.”