For Love of the Game
In a Georgia school district that’s on the cutting-edge of concussion awareness, a pair of football captains are hell-bent on never leaving the field. Watching from the bleachers, their parents wonder just how much they can—or should—control
LAWRENCEVILLE, Ga. — When one of America’s fastest-growing areas needed a new high school, the folks of Gwinnett County built a sprawling $50.6 million brick complex about an hour’s drive from downtown Atlanta. Archer High opened in 2009, amid rolling acres of loblolly pines and traces of the old South (the country store sells red wriggler bait and homemade biscuits) and the new South (garden condos have sprouted along the winding one-lane roads).
Almost immediately, the school became a source of immense community pride. Its high-achieving student body of 2,100 boasts a renowned choir and state champion wrestling and girls volleyball teams.
But this is Georgia, after all, and football reigns.
“Friday we watch high school, Saturday it’s college and Sunday the NFL,” says John Gillis II, whose son is one of two senior captains for the Tigers. “That’s just the way it is down here.”
It’s 5:30 p.m. on a Friday in early October, so Gillis is at the senior parents’ tailgate on the grassy berm overlooking Archer’s stadium. A Stevie Wonder song blares from a small boombox as Gillis tosses a foam football to his 4-year-old nephew. Under a white tent, his wife, Melissa, stirs a pot of Brunswick stew.
“Football is about tradition, things we’ve done for generations,” she says. “And ritual.” At 6:20 John and the other fathers abandon the festivities to watch pregame warmups. He’ll stand on the back row of the bleachers for the entire game, next to Donnie Lee, whose son, Duane, is the other captain.
Gillis regularly checks his phone throughout the night, interrupting the ongoing conversation by calling out the scores of other district games. Sometime in the first quarter, the subject of head injuries comes up.
As obsessive as Archer can be with football, the school is progressive with concussion awareness. A trainer and a doctor must attend every varsity game. There are monthly parent meetings for concussion education. Baseline tests are provided even for youth leagues. “We do everything we can to become aware of the issue, and it’s still an issue,” says Lee, an inspector at nuclear plants. “I can only imagine what it’s like in more rural areas.”
Donnie knows his son has had concussions. He says he’s seen Duane look “loopy” after games. But the 18-year-old would never admit being concussed to his father, let alone his coaches.
“Duane has told me before, ‘It doesn’t matter if I have a concussion, I’m going back in,’ ” Lee says. “The kids are going to lie to you. They don’t want to come out and have someone take their spot. So we have a bunch of talks up here in the bleachers. What do you do? As a parent what can you do?”
“You’d have to tell them to sit out if you find out,” says Gillis, who believes his son has never had a concussion in high school.
“Would you want to tell your son that?” Lee replies. “I sure wouldn’t.”
“I’d have to lock his pads in the basement,” says Gillis, who works for a digital printing company.
Lee laughs, then sighs as he leans back against the brick press box that towers over the bleachers. Archer is up 6-0 against rival Central Gwinnett. There are two minutes left in the first quarter, and as if on cue an Archer running back is smothered by three tacklers. The ball-carrier lies on the ground for about 30 seconds before hobbling to the sideline. Lee barely flinches.
“You never really know how hurt they are if they’re not honest,” Lee says to a visiting reporter, who will interview the captains after the game. “I know what Duane says to me, and I know what he says to his coaches, but I’m curious to know what he’d say to a third party.”
The boys’ mothers are close enough to hear the conversation. Stacey Lee spends the entire game hunched over, sitting two rows in front of her husband near the top of the bleachers. Her shoulders are tense, her hands are clenched, and she taps her left foot often. Anytime there is a big hit—or any hit, really—she purses her lips. She doesn’t speak. “I pray before the game, I pray during the game, I pray after the game,” says Lee, a nurse at Gwinnett Medical Center. “That’s how I get through it.”
She loves football, grew up with it even, but can’t help being nervous. She knows one hit can change everything. In August, a 16-year-old from a nearby town went limp after making a tackle in a preseason scrimmage and died from a spinal cord injury. In September, a 16-year-old from the suburbs of Buffalo lost consciousness after suffering a helmet-to-helmet hit and died three days later. Some municipalities have even debated getting rid of football because of the risks—a doctor in Dover, N.H., caused a stir last year when he proposed a ban on high school football that the school board voted against, 6-1—but putting on a helmet and buckling the chinstrap remains a personal, sometimes difficult decision for families weighing the risks and the rewards.
Duane has been getting headaches since ninth grade. “It worries me,” Stacey says, though she would never think of telling her son he has to quit playing.
When Duane was younger, he often argued with his older brother; there was a lot of yelling, and sometimes things got physical. But then Duane found an outlet for his frustration, in football. When he began practicing every day, Stacey noticed a change. Over the last three years, she says, Duane has matured under the structure—and physicality—of the game. “This is what he does, this is what he lives for, this is where he thrives,” Stacey says. “This is what has made my son into a young man.”
Several feet away Melissa Gillis sits next to an array of four cowbells, each used for different kinds of plays. The largest—and loudest—is roughly the size a bear’s paw; she bought it at a livestock supply store for $25. She rings that one as the Tigers take a 27-13 lead in the fourth quarter. Her family loves football and hopes it will help pay for John’s education. Melissa, a stay-at-home mom and former hotel manager, justifies the sport’s physicality the way many Americans do: People can get hurt doing just about anything. What about basketball, she argues, in which players can slam against the floor or into the goal stand? And they don’t wear helmets. “You can’t let fear stop you from doing what you love,” she says.
Of course, Melissa worries about her son getting injured, especially when he returns kickoffs. As the booster club president she spent the game’s first half selling 50-50 tickets, but she stopped to watch the opening kickoff. Leaning against the metal railing in the front row of the grandstands, she bounced up and down in her gray Nikes, saying under her breath, “C’mon, c’mon.” Gwinnett kicked to left side of the field, away from her son. “He didn’t have to return, don’t have to worry,” Melissa said after the play, peeling away from the railing as her tone of quiet relief changed to full-throated shouts of “50-50!”
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.”