(Project Brain Wave) High school football is one of the most exciting, defining, and proud markers of American culture, and is a level of play that to many, extends beyond being just a game. The dreaded months of training camp, the long hours in the weight room and practice field, and the time spent studying playbooks to perfect a team’s system all contribute to the same goal—that being the unforgettable feeling of standing beneath the lights on a Friday night before your home crowd, set to take on the opponent you have prepared for. This feeling that empowers our student athletes, that makes our parents proud and supportive, that makes our friends anxious to witness game day, is what the coaches and players live for. High school football is defining, and is home to life lessons to be learned and experiences to cherish. But for the Fernandez family, the high school football season of 2008 is one they will never forget.
Drew Fernandez, a young up and coming running back for his high school’s football program that was known for state championships in seven of the previous ten years, was productive both on the field, and off the field, executing plays on the field and performing well in his studies in the classroom. His older brother had also been part of their high school’s championship legacy, and Drew was looking forward to contributing to such successes as well. His first year in high school was in 2008, and it would be the first time he would have an opportunity to be a part of his hometown’s illustrious football program also. According to his mother, Tracey, “football was everything to him.”
But such a mentality would soon be combated during one of his freshman football games, as Drew received the ball at running back during play, and then took hits from defenders in both the front and back of his head while he was being tackled. Drew had sustained a concussion, and would be removed from play. His mother told me of what events would then follow after her son took a blow to the head, resulting in his diagnosis.
“The trainer of the opposing team (the game was away) called me to tell me Drew suffered a concussion, and asked me if I wanted him to go back to school on the team bus or if he should call the paramedics,” said Tracey. “I asked him to call the paramedics, and I met them at the ER. The last thing Drew remembers from the day of his injury was riding on the bus to the game. He has no recall of the trip to the ER via ambulance or anything thereafter until the next morning when he woke up at home.”
The amnesic episode that Drew experienced as a result of his concussion was only a precursor to events that would follow him throughout the course of his high school career regarding the instance of his injury. It turns out that Drew may have been already healing from a concussion before the decisive blow—something that raises several alarms with how concussions are handled at the high school level of play.
“There is no doubt he sustained multiple minor concussions—we just didn’t know at the time,” Tracey explained. “He had been complaining about feeling dizzy and light-headed after practice the few weeks prior to his concussion. It was hot outside so the pediatrician guessed he was probably dehydrated, and we made sure he was drinking plenty of fluids. Knowing what I know now, there is no doubt in my mind that he sustained at least one, if not multiple, [subconcussive blows to the head] that made him feel that way. Taking the big hit [made] the result much worse.”
Drew’s concussion kept him at home for the next two weeks. Tracey was concerned with the health of her son and was devastated by how much of an impact it had on his daily life, which immediately turned into occurrences of memory loss and disorientation. Aside from that, what frustrated her most was the response of those who were in charge of his safety—his coaches.
“During Drew’s time home, the only person who called was the boy’s athletic director,” she said, “and he called [once] to see how Drew was doing and that was it. To this day, not one coach ever picked up the phone.”
Tracey then told me more about the mentality of the coaching staff at Drew’s high school.
“My older son played four years of football just prior to Drew, and was told by the coaches that ‘unless you were dying you were expected to keep playing.’ They were told that they were pussies—the coaches’ words—if they sat out for any reason, so they didn’t. Absolutely, the football players played with concussions and the coaches knew it.
Despite knowing that Drew was struggling with his memory and cognitive skills, he was once told by his coaches to buy the best helmet available—the ‘one the college teams use,’ etc., to get him back into the game. They were willing to do anything to get him back on the field; all the while he was failing in the classroom.”
Such a response by the coaching staff is outrageous, and makes me sick to my stomach to think about, but the fact of the matter is that the majority of coaching staffs act this way. As I discussed Drew’s predicament with Tracey, I could not help but to relate to the treatment he received, or rather, lack of treatment, from the coaching staff. Ignorance and a lack of consideration for the safety of student athletes was common at my own high school, and clearly was in Drew’s case. Sadly, this is part of the game, and something that needs to be addressed seriously, and is hopefully being improved upon with the publicity concussions have received in the media and in the school settings as of late.
The coaching staff did little to support Drew, for he was submitted in the face of expendability—another feature of high school football that I related to. Tracey went on to explain the emotional effects that Drew fought in response to the symptoms of his concussions, as well as the fact that he was told he could no longer play a game that he had dedicated himself to and loved for so long.
“It was awful. Initially, he continued to go to practice,” Tracey said, “however, he could not do anything. Standing on the sidelines during games was such a punishment for him. He fell into a significant depression—partially because of how he was feeling physically, plus his memory and cognitive struggles, and he was devastated knowing he could not play football anymore. He hated me for not allowing him to return to playing football, and he threatened to commit suicide a number of times. It was frightening and heartbreaking to see him go through so much.”
And as Drew stood along the sideline wishing that he could go out there with his teammates, he was battling debilitating symptoms that worsened when doing even the simplest of tasks. His life, in just a matter, of weeks, had altered in such a way that Drew had trouble adjusting, and was left in a condition that he felt he could not escape.
“He was sensitive to light and sound,” Tracy explained, as she elaborated on the symptoms her son endured during his freshman year. “He had horrible headaches. He could not be over-stimulated; two things or more going on at the same time was horrible. When I asked him something, there was a significant delay before he answered, and his first response was usually ‘huh, what?’ I would have to repeat myself, and once he was able to process the information there was still a delay before he would respond. For the first two weeks the house had to be dark and quiet.”
Tracey explained to me the worries she had for Drew participating in an academic setting, for the symptom severity would escalate whenever his brain was bombarded by what many consider to be the simplest stimulation—and by this, I mean the processing of information in the classroom to consolidate in his memory.
“When he first returned to school, he could not remember his locker combination. He forgot most of what he had learned in the past two years of Spanish. Math and science were the hardest for him—processing numbers. He could not perform anywhere near where he did before the injury. It was very difficult for him to focus and concentrate. By the time he returned home from school, he would have trouble remembering what he learned that day so it was like re-learning it every evening, and he was struggling with exams because he would study and by the next day forget everything. Learning in the classroom was not a problem, but his brain did not know where to retrieve the information for when it was time to recall it. These were daily occurrences for at least a few months and then he slowly started improving, but the improvement was slight and slow.”
Drew’s mother’s primary concern was the school providing him with academic accommodations during this time because he was having difficulty learning. She went on to pursue the attainment of such accommodations for Drew, but found it troubling to find approval for such a request. Looking for these accommodations required Drew undergoing several neuropsychological exams to gather an idea as to where he stood cognitively, as it would relate to his competence in the academic setting.
“Since Drew was injured the first month into high school,” said Tracey, “there was not an existing high school academic record. The initial neuropsychological tests in November and December of 2008 showed impaired fine motor dexterity, but that was not enough for Prospect to give Drew any academic accommodations, despite the fact that he was struggling in school. Fortunately, I was able to work one-on-one with his teachers, and most of them broke his exams down into smaller sections and/or gave him re-takes when he failed.
Consequently, he got through the year with an even amount of B’s and C’s. The downside is that the special accommodations the teachers gave him were not formal, so they [were] not documented. One might look at his final grades and say ‘that’s not so bad,’ which is true, but it is not indicated that he was given leniency, so it would actually help him more now with the ACT application if his grades freshman year were lower, which would have been a true reflection of his ability at that time.”
Aside from the troubles the Fernandez family encountered in trying to assist Drew academically, they also consultation with medical professionals as only a miniscule success, mostly outweighed by disappointment and misguidance. During Drew’s freshman and sophomore years in high school, they saw three neurologists, two neuropsychologists, and three psychologists, but found no definitive answers.
“He had [follow-up] neuropsychological testing at the one-year mark [of his injury], which was in December 2009, and that is the last testing he has had. The results were about the same as the year before. The testing was never consistent with his complaints, so I asked the [neuropsychologist] to have him study some stuff in her office and bring him back the next day to see what he remembered, and she told me there was no standardized testing for that. I was later told by a psychologist that the doctors were to lazy to test this way because it’s a pain in the ass, so they don’t do it—they simply default to the testing that is used for other types of brain injuries.
We exhausted every neurological exam—MRI, CT scan, ambulatory EEG. He did, however, learn new ways of studying which helped, but it took nearly one full year before the neurologists even suggested he work with a psychologist and the neuropsychologists were not helpful in this regard either. Basically, [we would walk out of] any given doctor’s office and were literally on our own with no idea of what to do next.
He also went for some vestibular rehab for a couple of months. It didn’t make much of a difference.”
The issues of post-concussion syndrome haunted Drew still leading into his junior year, but only now were they accompanied by migraines. The spells of headaches he would endure would keep him home for at least three days per episode, sometimes even extending to be lasting almost a whole week. It was found that Drew’s migraines were being triggered by physical movement. When Drew would dive back to a base during a baseball game for example, he would come to find himself in completely disorientation and would fall unaware of coaching instructions in game-time situations. There were instances in gym class where something would come in contact with Drew’s head and cause a major migraine. There was even a time where, at a school dance, someone accidently elbowed him in the head, and he would end up staying in at home for the next five days with a migraine.
According to Tracey, “the migraines added another level of difficulty, but was finally enough ‘evidence’ to warrant a 504 plan in school—something he was not given prior to this because his neurocognitive testing results did not show enough deficiencies because he was not tested properly.”
To Tracey, the ACT’s, specifically Drew’s collegiate future, are of a concern.
“Having the 504 plan in school has no bearing on Drew receiving extended time on the ACT,” Tracy explained, “as the standards are marked differently than those governing school-based accommodations. The clinical notes we submitted indicate the diagnosis of post-concussion syndrome from the neurologist, but they are asking to see a ‘paper trail’ that describes the record of academic impairment and the limitations experienced over time. They need to see a substantial limitation as the result of the diagnosed condition. I told the doctor this, but [that got us nowhere].”
Doctors suggested neuropsychological testing results to be used in working with the ACT, but Tracy believes to include this would hurt Drew because the results did not accurately reflect the problems he was having. The only way it would work is if she has a supporting letter from a medical expert stating that the reliability of such testing of concussed patients is questionable.
The pressure of knowing that the ACT’s are around the corner for Drew, on top of the onset of migraines and struggles with focusing, caused neurologists to suggest that he take neurontin for the migraines, followed by focalin to get his body used to the effects to help prepare him for the spring ACT’s. Tracey explained to me her stance on the medications.
“I hate meds,” she said, “and up until this point I did everything to avoid them. The doses of [neurontin and focalin] were too high so [they] were adjusted to a level that was better, although it makes him feel sick, he does not eat, he feels depressed, and doesn’t no want to interact with anyone or talk, which is the exact opposite of his real personality.”
Medication has served as a bittersweet component to Drew’s recovery process.
“The meds helped with his academics, and he finished his first semester this year with A’s and B’s—the best grades he has had in high school. But the trade off is feeling like [expletive], and he is at the point where he is willing to take the hit with the grades in exchange for dumping the meds. I cannot blame him, as it makes me sick to see how the medication alters him.”
To date, Drew has recovered a lot, but still struggles with memory issues, slower processing time, and migraines, although he has not had one in five months because of the medication. He has also been prescribed medication for focusing and concentration. According to his mother, there is “no way of knowing whether Drew will improve more—only time will tell.”
As Tracey explained her son’s story, I asked her how other parents in the community and involved with the high school football program reacted to Drew’s injury. Also, I was interested in hearing about what kind of treatment he received from his peers, specifically, because there was no doubt in my mind that the stigma associated with the concussion injury would prevail in Drew’s situation as well, as it has been so often seen in cases throughout the country.
“After Drew’s injury, I did not know of any parents who were concerned about concussion except myself. One would think that after seeing what [Drew] went through, the others would take note, but they didn’t. One of the older boys who played with Drew’s brother suffered at least six or seven noted concussions and he continued playing. I know he began suffering from some cognitive issues once in college. The coaches didn’t want to hear it, and the parents didn’t want to hear it, especially with a football program so well-known statewide.”
As for his teammates…
“Some of his friends thought he was over-exaggerating his injury and symptoms.”
I then asked Tracey what sort of suggestions, or points, that she wants to make clear to parents who have children involved in contact sports, specifically football. Her response was strong, insightful, and quite admirable.
“Education, education, education. For those with young children, I encourage them to educate themselves about concussions. If a child sustains a concussion, I would advise getting in touch with the school administration immediately and request a meeting with them to put together an academic recovery plan. Nothing much like this exists, and it is a huge problem, as you are literally left on your own with no clue what to do. We lived it. If something doesn’t seem right, it probably isn’t.
You have to fight for everything when it comes to concussions. Despite all of the progress that has been made since Drew’s injury, we still have a very long way to go and the children are the ones at risk. Ask questions and demand answers and do not rest until you get them. Ask the team of doctors you are working with to work as a team so they are all on the same page. There is an absence of this—no one knows what the others are doing.”
To the student athletes…
“Speak up if [you] take a hard hit that goes unnoticed and don’t feel like you aren’t tough enough. It’s not about being tough; it’s about protecting your brain. Take the time needed for it to heal properly and work with your teachers at school to help you through the recovery if needed.”
It’s clear that Drew has missed out on a part of his high school career that will leave the rest of his peers with memories to hold on to for a lifetime. For Drew, he is battling the after-effects of a concussion that significantly altered his life. Football meant the world to him, and “nothing makes him feel more awful than talking about this because it is a reminder that he cannot play football anymore.”