Six years ago Gwinnett County partnered with Gwinnett Medical Center, a highly-rated hospital and Level II trauma center that has its own concussion institute. Besides providing free ImPACT testing for 18,000 high school and middle school athletes, the medical center provides workshops for teachers, nurses and counselors in the schools. “At first, our partnership was about getting athletes back on the field safely,” says Mike Emery, the county’s athletic director. “Now that’s the least of our concerns. We’re more worried about making sure ‘A’ students don’t become ‘C’ students because of concussions.”
On the field, Archer coach Andy Dyer is doing his part. He’s informed on new initiatives, like Heads Up Football, and has changed practices over the last few years to include fewer contact drills. The Tigers have 16 assistant coaches. During the game, six are in the press box, wearing matching red polos and headsets. At halftime they briskly walk toward the locker room, carrying clipboards and playsheets, looking every bit like they belong in the pros. Archer has a $1.2 million football fieldhouse, paid for with taxpayer money. “When some of our kids go to D-III, or even D-I colleges, they come back and say, ‘Hey, my high school had nicer amenities,’ ” Emery says. “We try to remind kids how lucky they are.”
It’s hard to imagine a school district in America doing more to address the issue of concussions. That’s part of what makes the pattern of dissembling and denial among players and parents so scary. Emery says the county treats between 600 and 700 concussed athletes a year. “But I’m really lowballing that number,” he says. “Those are just the ones we have diagnosed. There are so many more athletes who do not come forward when they have symptoms. And that’s something we’re really trying to figure out.”
After the game, a 41-20 Archer victory, captains Duane Lee and John Gillis III are asked about their concussion history. Duane is a linebacker with cropped, curly black hair and light blue eyes. He wants to play football in college—maybe a Division II program nearby—and study to become a physical trainer.
“Duane, have you ever had a concussion?”
He smiles, then pauses for a second—a slight hesitation that seems to confirm his father’s suspicions of Duane being “loopy” after games. But he responds with a simple, “No.”
The same question is posed to Gillis, the kick returner who also plays cornerback—the one whose father believes hasn’t suffered concussions in high school. The cornerback has visited a few Division I schools and is confident that, if healthy, he can play at that level. He has a warm smile, just like his mother. But he’s serious, like his dad.
Yes, Gillis says, he’s had a concussion. He blacked out after one hit in middle school ball and woke up in an ambulance. Though not as severe, there have been others in high school.
“Have you ever lied to your parents or coaches to get back on the field quicker?”
“Yes,” he says. “I did it plenty of times.”
The instances occurred during games. He got hit and knew he should probably sit out. The coaches asked, “Are you OK?” They asked him again and again, but they didn’t know—they can’t see inside his brain. There’s a rule that a player must sit out one play if his helmet comes off. If coaches suspect any concussion symptoms, he must be examined by a doctor. But there’s no official protocol to examine players on routine football plays. It’s a matter of trust.
Are you OK? “I just nod my head because I could go in there and suck it up,” Gillis says. He knows it’s wrong, but the teenager does it, he says, “for the love of the game.”
All the players linger for about 30 minutes after the game. Most of the 1,000 fans have spilled onto the field to celebrate. Two boys wearing Lee’s No. 48 jersey ask him for an autograph.
Gillis goes home with his parents. He will rehash the game with his father. Tomorrow, his mother will take him to get a haircut for the homecoming dance.
Lee’s parents will monitor him closely tonight. They always do. They’ll turn the lights on and off—checking his eyes closely for signs that he might have a concussion—and make sure he’s not slurring his words.
“We kind of have to trick him and give him our own concussion tests,” Donnie says. “We don’t know what really went on in the game.”