Steelers: We made correct call on concussion
By Alan Robinson
Published: Saturday, June 8, 2013, 10:33 p.m.
Ben Roethlisberger said he could play. Then said he couldn't. Then he said he could.
The Steelers finally decided he couldn't, and they might have missed the 2009 playoffs because of their decision — the medically correct one, according to multiple concussion experts — to tread cautiously with their franchise quarterback.
At a UPMC-sponsored concussion conference Saturday that is believed to be the largest ever held in the United States, Steelers athletic trainer John Norwig outlined in unusually candid detail how and why Roethlisberger didn't play — even though teammate Hines Ward thought he should.
Roethlisberger sustained a concussion in a an upset loss to the Chiefs the previous Sunday but subsequently passed concussion tests administered on a daily basis.
But after a light practice Friday, Roethlisberger told Norwig, “ ‘John, I just don't feel right.' ”
“I had to go to the head coach (Mike Tomlin) and say, ‘Hey, look he's symptomatic. He can't play,' ” Norwig said.
The Steelers then issued a news release that No. 3 quarterback Dennis Dixon would start against the Ravens. Backup Charlie Batch also was out with a broken wrist.
Roethlisberger still didn't feel right before the Saturday flight to Baltimore but, later on, was running the halls of the team hotel and eager to play.
“Our quarterback comes up and says, ‘I'm feeling great. ... I don't have any headaches. I feel good,' ” Norwig related.
Norwig then updated team neurologist Dr. Joseph Maroon, but Maroon cited the team rule that any player who is symptomatic within 24 hours of a game doesn't play.
Team president Art Rooney II concurred with the decision, and Roethlisberger was held out of the 20-17 overtime loss — the third in a season-wrecking, five-game losing streak
“It was the right thing to do,” Norwig said. “We lost the game, and maybe we would have won. Who knows? It doesn't matter.”
In an NBC interview before the Sunday night game, Ward appeared to question Roethlisberger's toughness but later backed off the comment.
A year later, Ward wobbled off the field after being leveled by two Patriots players and was not allowed back into the game, ending his streak of catching a pass in 186 consecutive games.
“He said, ‘I'm fine, I'm fine,' ” Norwig said, relating how Ward chastised the medical staff at halftime for not allowing him to play. “But by Tuesday or Wednesday, he told me, ‘You did the right thing.' ”
Rooney and Steelers players Ramon Foster and Will Johnson were among those speaking Saturday, but reporters were not permitted to listen to their presentations. UPMC, citing health privacy laws, wanted the players to be able to speak candidly with the physicians and trainers.
This season, Norwig said, every NFL team will have iPads loaded with concussion testing programs, thereby allowing sophisticated tests that once could be administered only in a clinic to be done along the sidelines.
Certified athletic trainers with replay equipment also now sit in the press box to monitor every play for possible injuries that might not be immediately detected by doctors and trainers in the bench area.
During the three-day conference that ends Sunday, the estimated 500 attendees were told that the science of football concussions, an almost primitive field not that long ago, is moving at a speed comparable to the fastest man downfield on a kickoff coverage team.
“There aren't many concussions now we can't figure out,” said Michael “Micky” Collins, the director of the UPMC sports medicine concussion program. “A concussion is a manageable injury.”
Among the innovations on display are helmets with air bags and accelerators built into helmets and mouth guards to measure the force and locations of violent impacts. Expected soon are different helmets for different positions — one for a cornerback, another for a quarterback.
Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter @arobinson_Trib.
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