Risky business: Polamalu's concussions could be a concern
Not every potential Steelers draft pick is ordered to visit a neurological surgeon, but the team had hard-hitting USC safety Troy Polamalu undergo a neurological exam a few weeks before last weekend's NFL Draft.
That was because of Polamalu's extensive concussion history. He has sustained at least five concussions since his freshman year in high school, including three during his career at Southern Cal.
Steelers neurological surgeon Dr. Joseph Maroon determined that Polamalu had sustained no lasting damage and was fit for the NFL. The team proceeded to make Polamalu the highest-drafted safety in franchise history (16th overall).
The question is, does Polamalu's history make him vulnerable to more concussions• Medical studies suggest the possibility. Dr. Mark Lovell is the director of the UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion Program and the person who oversees neuropsychological testing programs for the NFL.
"What we found, in general, is that the more concussions you have, you may tend to develop a concussion easier the next time -- you may experience a concussion with less provocation," Lovell said. "There appears to be a threshold effect. The tricky thing is, it plays out differently in different players. There's no magic number. There are a number of athletes who've had multiple concussions who appear to be absolutely fine."
Polamalu fits that category. The Steelers are banking he will stay there for the foreseeable future.
"Because of the history, you bring him in to get looked at by your specialist; you never know," Steelers director of football operations Kevin Colbert said. "Once we checked, we were satisfied there was nothing to be concerned with. ... Players are going to get nicked, especially players who play as hard as he does. I think he'll probably deliver a few more blows than he'll take."
The 5-foot-10, 206-pound Polamalu said his worst concussion was his first one, sustained during his freshman year of high school on one of the first tackles of his career. He later described it in an interview with SI.com, saying, "One minute it was daylight, the next it was dark, and I heard people calling for smelling salts."
On the day the Steelers drafted him, Polamalu said he is not concerned about his concussion history.
"I don't think it's an issue at all," he said.
The second concussion apparently occurred during Polamalu's junior year of high school. His aunt, Shelley Polamalu, recalls Polamalu's brother visiting him at halftime and saying, "Troy doesn't quite know where he's at."
Polamalu's high school coach, Neil Fuller, recalls that Polamalu had "only a couple of (concussions), that I remember, in high school. The times he got dinged he led with his head instead of his keeping his face up. When he came in as a freshman, he only weighed about 130 pounds."
In his freshman year at USC, Polamalu missed four games because of a concussion sustained at practice. The following August, before his sophomore season, the school's Web site listed him as missing a scrimmage because of a concussion. His latest concussion, he said, occurred at fall camp before his senior year.
The NFL's recent history is dotted with players whose careers were cut short because of the effects of multiple concussions. Former Pro Bowl quarterbacks Steve Young and Troy Aikman are on that list, joined by former Steelers running back Merril Hoge and former New York Jets wide receiver Al Toon, among others.
It stands to reason that Polamalu will be more at risk to sustain concussions in the NFL than he was in college, because the players are bigger, faster and stronger. In his favor, he refined his tackling technique over the years, so as not to put himself at unnecessary risk, according to his uncle, USC assistant coach Kennedy Pola.
"He used to lead with his head, and he'd sacrifice his body by jumping over people," Pola said. "He's learning to play. He came from a really small (high school) program. In his first (college) game, against Hawaii, he tried to jump over three blockers on the kickoff. He's still growing, technique-wise. He's gotten better at techniques."
Pola said that his nephew, while at USC, did not wear any special equipment to protect himself against concussions because "they ran him through all the tests, and he was fine." Oakland Raiders linebacker Bill Romanowski, who worked as an ESPN analyst on draft day, said that Polamalu was amenable to a special mouthguard that Romanowski wears (some studies have shown that mouthguards can protect against concussions).
For now, it's all systems go.
"It was determined that he's in no more danger than any other player," Colbert said. "Really, from this point forward, there's no concern, no extra precaution."