Parents using concussion caution
Playing football has provided Steelers safety Troy Polamalu wealth, fame and Super Bowl glory. He also has experienced disorientation with sharp headaches dating to high school, when he was first diagnosed with a concussion.
Polamalu won't prevent his sons, Paisios and Ephraim, from following in his footsteps, but that comes with a catch: He doesn't want parents basing decisions about their children on his opinion that “the positives of playing football have shaped my life as much as almost anything else.”
Rather, he advises caution.
“I don't know if parents should feel comfortable, to be honest,” Polamalu said Thursday after the Steelers' offseason practice at their South Side facility. “It's not the responsibility of the game to make anybody feel comfortable.”
Youth football enrollment — about 3 million annually since 2007 — "potentially may" decrease over the next few years because of a concussion crisis, said USA Football executive director Scott Hallenbeck. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identified concussion among youth athletes as an epidemic, with 1.8 million to 3.6 million diagnosed annually.
About 67,000 concussions annually result from high school football, the most of any sport, according to medical journals.
“I'm definitely hearing concern from (youth football league) commissioners about concussions,” Hallenbeck said. “That's all they talk about. It's all anybody talks about.”
Parents are becoming more cautious about allowing their children to resume playing after a concussion, said Dr. Jack Wilberger, chief of neurosurgery at Allegheny General Hospital on the North Side.
“I saw a kid last week with his third concussion in two years. His father brought up that (he and his wife) were both perfectly fine with their kid not returning,” Wilberger said. “In the past, parents were pushing kids to go back, but that's decreasing.”
That development is welcome to agent Ralph Cindrich, who played at Pitt and several seasons in the NFL.
Cindrich's son, Michael, was diagnosed with a concussion while playing for Shady Side Academy in the late 1990s. Michael Cindrich recovered and played at Bucknell, but that career was cut short by a broken ankle.
“When he had his ankle shattered, I was very much relieved that he wouldn't play football anymore,” Ralph Cindrich said. “I was relieved he could get out of the game without permanent brain damage. When you look into your son's eyes and all you see is blurriness, all you can think is, ‘What, for a game?'
“That's about as sick and low a feeling as you can have as a parent, and I played football.”
Players at every level generally do not think about long-term ramifications of head trauma, Cindrich said. But professional experience helped convince Steelers linebacker Larry Foote that his son, Trey-veion Hammond, 17, should stick with the sport.
“I know the game better than the average parents because I've played it almost my entire life,” Foote said. “I like the steps being taken at all levels to make the game safer. You see it in our league, being conscious of head injuries and all injuries. At the younger levels we're teaching people how to tackle properly again, how to play rough and fast.
“Everybody can't play this game. Everybody shouldn't. When you sign up, you should know what you're getting into. If you're a kid, your parents need to get educated on the good and the bad, know all the risks.”
Michael Collins, a clinical psychologist who runs the renowned UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion Program, said neither parents nor youth athletes should fear playing football or any contact sports.
Collins played an advisory role for the Safety in Youth Sports Act that mandates concussion protocol for youth athletes in the state. Passed into law in October, the act requires a youth athlete with a concussion to be cleared for return to play only by a concussion expert or that expert's appointee.
The upcoming high school football season will the first played under the law.
Collins cleared former Seton-La Salle receiver Dylan Boccella for return to play after a seven-week absence because of a concussion last season. Boccella, set to enter his freshman term at Clarion, said he never considered not returning to play.
He had a hard time convincing teammates all was well upon his return.
“The first day I remember running routes, doing real good, took a couple of hits to the head,” he said. “But I jumped for this ball, the defender tapped me, my head crashed to the ground, and the whole team gasped. I'm like, ‘I'm good, guys. I'm good.' ”
His mother never lost a sense of nervousness about his return to football, Boccella said.
“I don't think anything calmed her down, but she let me do what I love,” he said.
Collins and Hallenbeck would love to see balance established, with the focus of many — parents, former players, the media — squarely on football and concussion.
“The pendulum has swung from one extreme — smelling salts, holding up fingers — and now it's wildly to the right — getting rid of football altogether — and the reality is somewhere in between.”
Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-380-5635.