In light of Tuesday night’s remarkably gripping PBS documentary “League of Denial,” here is a look at all UW and UW Medicine have done, continue to do and will do next to protect the heads of their Huskies. “We are on the cutting edge.”
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
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SEATTLE – Austin Seferian-Jenkins took time out of his school work and his preparation for his Huskies’ impending showdown with Oregon to watch television Tuesday night.
It was a show he – and anyone else who saw it – won’t soon forget.
“Scary,” UW’s preseason All-American tight end said of the PBS Frontline Documentary “League of Denial", which detailed the effects playing football can potentially have on the head and thus on players’ lives after their games end.
“That was pretty crazy,” Seferian-Jenkins told me following Wednesday’s practice at Husky Stadium. “Yeah, my mom told me to watch it.”
Now that’s a caring mom, Linda, back in the big tight end’s hometown of Fox Island, Wash.
“She wasn’t too happy afterward,” he said, referring to how jarring the documentary is those around this sport. “She blew up my phone” with messages.
Seferian-Jenkins and his Huskies are fortunate to be playing at Washington.
Their new Husky Stadium isn’t just a $281 million football palace. It also houses the two-month-old, 30,000-square-foot UW Medicine Sports Medicine Center, run by a medical group renowned worldwide as an innovator and leader in proactive research, treatment and reduction of head trauma in sports.
Our medical staff, Rob Scheidegger, remains to be on the front line of all of this, because we are aware this is a physical and violent sport. We want our guys to remain healthy and put them in the best position to go out and perform at a high level.
Husky football’s team physician is Dr. Kim Harmon. She was the lead author of the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine position statement on concussion in sport, published in October 2012. The statement, which outlined proposed standards for proper testing for and return-to-play standards following concussions, was co-written by UW basketball and Seattle Seahawks team physician Dr. Jonathan Drezner and Dr. Stan Herring, a Seahawks team physician and UW Medicine Sports’ medical director for spine and orthopedic health.
Herring also co-authored a consensus statement on concussion in sport at the fourth International Conference on Concussion in Sport held in Zurich, in November of last year.
“Absolutely, if you are going to get a concussion this is a great place to have one,” Harmon said from inside Husky football’s state-of-the-art training room.
“We are way ahead of the curve on this.”
I spent an hour Wednesday morning inside the training room on the ground floor of the UW’s new, 83,000-square-foot football operations center. That’s where head football trainer Rob Scheidegger showed me the latest in baseline and after-incident concussion-testing software, a cloud-based Integrated Concussion Exam that works off Husky football’s iPads. The Huskies bought the software from Seattle-based X2 Biosystems.
In a room across the main training room, two black, plastic cases that look like something a spy might carry house 80 micro-chip sensors with orange and green LED lights. The Huskies wore those throughout preseason practices and in the season’s first two games, wins over Boise State and Idaho. Each sensor has a player’s jersey number on it. It is placed by adhesive on the back of the player’s right ear and emits a signal each time it – more specifically the head to which the zip-drive-sized device is affixed – is hit.
So, yes, there are more than a few extremely qualified eyes and latest technology watching over these Huskies’ heads.
“Oh, man, I really believe we are on the cutting edge of trying to diagnose not necessarily how concussions occur, but the cumulative effect of hits and what it can mean to our brains,” Huskies coach Steve Sarkisian told me Wednesday. “We are exhausting as many resources as we can to enhance the safety for our players. It’s a real credit to UW Medicine for supporting us with this.”
Sarkisian said he didn’t watch “League of Denial”; “what channel was it on?” he asked.
Apparently, watching public broadcasting isn’t on the coach’s to-do list on Tuesday night of Oregon week.
But the coach is more than aware of the issues the documentary raised. He was a record-setting passer at Brigham Young in the mid-1990s, played three years in the Canadian Football League and then was a top assistant at USC before coming to UW and experiencing its innovative medical system beginning in January 2009.
“Our medical staff, Rob Scheidegger, remains to be on the front line of all of this, because we are aware this is a physical and violent sport,” Sarkisian said. “We want our guys to remain healthy and put them in the best position to go out and perform at a high level. So we will continue to do that. That won’t change, at all.”
Turns out, Scheidegger, fellow Husky head team trainers such as Pat Jenkins (men’s basketball), Jenn Stueckle (women’s basketball) and Chris Melton (soccer) plus team physicians such as Drs. Harmon and Drezner have been administering to players in contact sports baseline concussion testing -- using the iMPACT computerized neurocognitive testing system and another one called BESS (Balance Error Scoring System) -- in each contact sport’s preseason for years. They were doing it before the NCAA recently required it nationally.
“Oh, yeah, they are tremendous, man. Just tremendous,” quarterback Keith Price told me inside the Husky Stadium tunnel Wednesday. “They force us to take concussion testing before he gets concussed, just for precautionary reasons. I think that’s awesome.
“Concussions are terrible to the game. I think that’s why you see football kind of changing. But I think U-Dub has done a great job with it.”
YES, THERE’S AN APP FOR THAT
Scheidegger welcomes me into his office between the training room and a glass wall to the Husky weight-lifting room and shows me his black-covered iPad. He leans forward to demonstrate how the SCAT (Sport Concussion Assessment Tool) software works.
Each player has his own iPad for downloading game plans, playbooks and game films. But each took the SCAT test on Scheidegger’s iPad at the start of the season, to get a “baseline” reading of cognitive skills during the player’s normal, contact-free brain functioning. Each test includes 22 questions on symptoms: Do you have a headache?; Do you just not “feel right”?; Do you have any irritability?; Do you have trouble sleeping?
For any “yes” answer, the player is asked to assess the degree of the symptom on a 1-6 scale.
The test also measures players’ short-term memories by providing five words. The player must repeat those words three times. The test provides number combinations, such as 8-4-9, and asks the player to recite those numbers back in reverse order. It asks for the months of the year in reverse order, too.
The SCAT test on the iPad also tests balance. It requires the player to stand with two feet together, on one leg, and with one leg in front of the other. He is timed in 20-second intervals on each, to see how long he can maintain his balance in each setting.
Scheidegger takes his iPad with the SCAT software loaded on it out to the sidelines for each practice and to game, loaded in the team’s field locker. If he or any member of his training staff see or get reports of a hard hit to the head, he can assess the player right there on the sideline with the iPad. If the players’ symptoms or answers are different than they were on his baseline test, the player stays out of further participation pending more diagnoses for a possible concussion.
In August during preseason practice, running back Dwayne Washington ran a dive play. A blitzing linebacker and teammate met Washington head-on before he reached the line of scrimmage. Washington fell to the ground and was obviously dazed when he finally got his feet.
“They did a test on the iPad, a concussion test. It was me remembering what day it was, what month, balance testing – things like that,” Washington said Wednesday.
It was Washington’s first concussion. He said he felt better a couple of days after the hit. He sat out a few days of practice, until Scheidegger’s follow-up tests on the iPad showed the running back was symptom free and that his assessment was back in line with the one he got before practices began. Before he returned he followed a graudual return-to-play program monitored by Dr. Harmon. It included weight-lifting, exercise testing and some no-contact practices in a yellow jersey to ensure his concussion symptons did not recur.
Washington was wearing the head-impact sensor, also developed by X2. The sensor gathers information on the magnitude of impacts over the course of a season, to aid in the study of what the cumulative effects of hits to and around the head might be to cognitive functioning.
The Huskies looked like Bionic Men wearing those chips behind their ears. They did so to help the Seattle company determine the practicality of the sensor. Scheidegger found the devices often fell off during practices and games. Players also complained they were uncomfortable or just plain weird looking to wear. One player got hit on the device and the impact left a large bruise behind his ear.
So the Huskies are now contemplating amending the application of the device, to putting it on the inside of the helmet shell with Velcro – though Scheidegger wonders about the changes in assessing hits to the helmet shell rather than impact to the head itself.
The Huskies trainer is already working on putting the sensor into a sewn pocket on the back seams of skin-tight, purple or black skull caps many players wear for comfort under their helmets. One such headpiece was on top of the sensors we looked at Wednesday, ready to become a truly innovative think cap.
The possibilities for more assessment and proactive care of Husky heads excite Scheidegger.
“It’s cool,” he says of the sensor. “We’d like to see what we can do with it and with the data.
“What I’d like to do is to be able to do real-time monitoring of our guys, so that if he takes a hit, say a plus-30G hit, it alerts me. Or if he takes a 70G hit, it alerts me. Then at least I can take a closer look at those guys. For me, functionally, I do know it would be a great idea to have a closer eye on guys who get hit like that.”
“I SIGNED UP FOR THIS GAME”
All of this goes on well behind the scenes, of course, so far beyond what you and I and 70,000-plus screaming fans see on the fields each Saturday.
And, no, the No. 16 Huskies didn’t get to their highest ranking in a decade and to this weekend’s golden chance to remain at the top of the Pac-12 North against the Ducks by thinking about how violent their sport is.
“To be honest, I don’t. I don’t think you really think about it until something happens, such as a concussion,” said Price, who didn’t watch “League of Denial” Tuesday night.
“I just feel if you play the game thinking about injuries you are probably going to get injured.”
Even after watching the gripping PBS documentary, the worldly Seferian-Jenkins isn’t thinking any more about risk.
“Not at all. I signed up for this game, and it’s a hard-nosed game. It’s a tough game. That’s why it’s not for everybody, you know?” he said. “(It’s for) people who are willing to sacrifice. I think that’s what makes it special. People are out here sacrificing. You sacrifice every part of your body when you play – including your head, including your everything. It’s not just your knees, your shoulders, your elbows.
“You are going to get hit in the head, man. It’s head-up football. I just play.”
“It’s a game for hard-nosed, tough people. No excuses. You’ve just got to just play. We all know came up playing this game. Everyone knows.”
Seferian-Jenkins is considered to be a top NFL prospect. I asked him if he considers that he may be sacrificing capabilities later in life to play football at this high of a level now.
“Sure. Sure,” he said without hesitating. “Thirty, 40, 50 years down the road, I mean, sure I might be sacrificing something. I’m enjoying my life now, that’s the most important thing. I’m playing the game I love, you know. ‘Love’ is another word for ‘sacrifice.’ I love this game. It’s the most important thing to me. I’d do anything for this game. That’s just how it is.
“Not everyone is going to be like that,” he said, meaning severely, adversely affected later in life by having played football. “The very sad stories of Mike Webster and Terry Long (two former Pittsburgh Steelers star offensive linemen who were profiled in the “League of Denial” documentary Tuesday for their deaths), not everyone ends up like that. I think people are getting a false illusion that everyone that plays the game of football at a high level is going to be like that. There are going to be people like that, but at the same time you have to understand the risk. There are people who aren’t that way.
“You are going to get hit in the head, man. It’s head-up football. I just play.”
Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director or Writing. Previously, Bell served as the senior national sports writer in Seattle for the Associated Press. The native of Steubenville, Ohio, is a 1993 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He received a master's degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley in 2000.
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