Billy and Jake Reis wanted badly to play high school football. But their parents, healthcare professionals who had been reading the news about concussions, put their foot down: No way, they said. You’ll ruin your brain forever. Choose something else.
Grumbling, Billy, 17, and Jake, 15, acquiesced: When the two brothers from Coral Gables got to Christopher Columbus High, they signed up for lacrosse. And then Billy did some research. He found out that some studies are starting to finger lacrosse as one of the most concussion-prone high school sports, behind only football and hockey — but also that attempting to avoid concussions altogether was, in its practical impossibility, maybe not the best plan.
According to Billy, what matters is concussion management — and for that, kids have to be on board, too.
“What we want to do is reach out to the student population and get them to realize what they have to do. Because I don’t want a friend of mine suffering the long-term effects of concussions. And it’s something that they can have hand in,” Billy said.
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A single hit can create permanent damage, but the worst long-term consequences of concussions can come when kids continue to play and don’t rest adequately before they’re fully healed. Cognitively taxing activity after a concussion slows down healing, but the brain is also more vulnerable to further injury while it’s still in the healing process.
With concussions in the headlines, big strides have been made in concussion management, and Miami-Dade is in many ways a model county. Athletic trainers have been hired in every public high school, and a state law was adopted in 2012 requires all student athletes suspected of a concussion be taken out of play until they receive medical clearance. Countywide, any public high school athlete in a contact sport gets a free baseline test at the University of Miami’s Concussion Program at the KiDZ Neuroscience Center.
But the first step to treating a concussion appropriately is catching it in the first place, and coaches and trainers can’t see every hit. The Reis brothers want to focus on what top-down concussion management initiatives might not be doing so well on: getting kids to self-report.
That’s what PlaySmartStaySmart, the concussion awareness and fundraising program they started this year, is all about. The program, which is registered with the state as a nonprofit corporation, has already raised over $2,000 for baseline testing at schools that can’t afford it. But its main component is student athlete education — by student athletes.
“We’re kids delivering a message to kids. If mom and dad tell me something, I might not listen to it as much as I would a friend telling me something,” Billy Reis said. “It’s a different dynamic.”
In that vein, Billy and Jake have set up a website and started connecting with other schools and sports leagues, offering to come in and present, peer-to-peer, about the consequences of concussions and the importance of reporting them.
There isn’t much data on how much concussions go unreported, although one 2004 post-season survey of Wisconsin varsity high school football player put the number of unreported concussions at 53 percent. A more recent study at the college level put the number at 80 percent.
Anecdotally at least, the Reis brothers will tell you that they’ve seen plenty of evidence of that. Kids will regularly shrug off a hit, and one friend confided in them that his threshold for complaining to a coach was “a nonstop headache for six days,” according to Billy.
So Billy and Jake are targeting the misconceptions and rationalizations they know are relevant to their peer’s attitudes about concussions. And with the help of physical therapist and sports medicine expert Edward C. Garabedian — he’s the assistant vice president for The Center for Orthopedic and Sports Medicine at Doctors Hospital — they’ve become well educated on the subject.
“A lot of them come up and say, ‘Oh, I just got my bell rung, that’s not a big deal.’ And we tell them, ‘No, getting your bell rung can be a big deal.’ That could be a concussion, it’s something to be weary about,” Billy said. “Other kids say, ‘I have my helmet on, it’s the right size, I’m good to go, there’s no way I can get a concussion.’ And we tell them there’s no piece of equipment that can actually guarantee to prevent concussions.”
“Even some kids believe that, they play defense, so they’re giving the hit, they’re not receiving the hit, so they’re safe. And these are all things that I at one point believed too,” he added.
They also tackle the misconception that concussions require a loss of consciousness, that they don’t occur much in sports other than football, or that girls or younger players don’t hit hard enough to get them.
More than anything, Billy says he gets questions about what this means for football in general: Will it change?
“The answer is no,” he says he tells them. “We don’t want the game to change, because ultimately I don’t think there’s ever going to be a time when concussions are going to be eliminated from the game completely. What we want is for kids to know how to handle concussions effectively — know what it is they’re supposed to do and what they’re not supposed to do.”
Symptoms of a concussion can appear hours after the concussive event, and are generally broken into four categories. They include:
▪ Difficulty concentrating
▪ Difficulty remembering new information
▪ Nausea and vomiting
▪ Fuzzy or blurry vision
▪ Sensitivity to light or noise
▪ Balance problems and vertigo
▪ Irritability, mood swings
▪ Difficulty falling asleep
▪ Sleeping more or less than usual
More about PlaySmartStaySmart:
To find out more about Billy and Jake Reis’s project, or to donate to their cause, go to http://playsmartstaysmart.org/