NFL player’s death reminds high school athletes about the dangers of concussions



After the death of an NFL player last year, high school players are becoming better informed about the dangers of concussions.

Henry Hill and Chris Morrison, Miramonte High School

When Vincent Jackson passed away a little more than a year ago, the football world experienced a collective shock, including local high schools such as Miramonte High where concussions are common among players. 

Miramonte has rigorous protocols for treating concussions, measures that seem more needed than ever in light of Jackson’s death. 

Jackson, who played 12 seasons in the National Football League (NFL) and amassed over 9,000 receiving yards, was found dead on Feb. 15, 2021, in a Homewood Suites hotel room in Florida after being reported missing for over a week. He was only 39 years old.

In the months following his passing, speculation arose that his death was related to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a form of brain deterioration caused by repeated head trauma. 

Although it can only be discovered posthumously (after death), CTE can be destructive in the daily lives of its many victims. According to the National Health Service, patients can suffer short-term memory loss, changes in mood, confusion and disorientation, difficulty thinking, and in more severe cases, slurred speech, significant memory problems, and parkinsonism. In rare cases, victims may also experience difficulty eating or swallowing. CTE is categorized from stage one to stage four, ranging from mild to severe, with stage four as the highest severity. While stage one can be simple headaches or loss of concentration, stage four CTE can cause severe cognitive impairment and dementia-like symptoms.

While a single concussion won’t develop into CTE, repeated concussions and/or head trauma can cause and accelerate its development. The most common groups at risk of developing CTE are military veterans with repeated head trauma from combat and athletes in contact sports such as boxing, rugby, or, in Jackson’s case, football.

Unfortunately, Jackson’s CTE-related death is not a rare case. Former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez, who was charged with the murder of friend Odin Lloyd and commited suicide in his jail cell, was later diagnosed by Boston University researchers with stage three CTE, the first ever diagnosis for an individual younger than 27 years. Hernandez’s behavior had become erratic by the end of his career. In his last season with the Patriots, teammates noticed his unpredictable mood swings, going from “the most hyper-masculine, aggressive individual in the room” to “the most sensitive person in the room,” according to former Patriots wide receiver Brandon Lloyd.

CTE is a problem throughout the entire world of football, from high school to the professional level. After opening a “brain bank” in 2008, Boston University conducted and released a study in 2017 to quantify the abundance of CTE in football players at each level. Across a total of 202 brains, zero of two pre-high school, three of 14 high school, 48 of 53 college, nine of 14 semi-pro, seven of eight Canadian Football League, and an astounding 110 of 111 NFL brains had a mild to severe form of CTE. Though the study’s findings are imperfect, they suggest a very grave trend.

Though football remains popular in Lamorinda, there is no organized youth tackle football in the area, with the vast majority of Lamorinda kids opting to play Moraga Orinda Lafayette Football, a flag football league made up of kids from across Lamorinda. Flag football has become increasingly popular as an alternative to youth tackle football since the local league’s founding in 1969. 

The New York Times reported that over 1.5 million kids aged six to 12 years old currently play flag football, a 40% increase from just four years ago. Across the country, tackle football participation rates have faltered while flag football participation rates have done just the opposite. Just 10 years ago, in 2012, the Miramonte varsity football team had 50 players. This year, the team only had around 35 players, with even fewer the prior season.

Since many NFL players start tackle football as early as elementary school, they have endured over 10 years of head trauma before even entering the NFL, a league where players are repeatedly clobbered by 300-pound super-athletes. Hernandez, who began playing tackle football when he was eight years old, was entering his 17th season of tackle football before his conviction. 

With such cases, doctors worry about the long-term impact of youth football on the brain. According to a 2017 study by Boston University, “participation in youth football before age 12 increased the risk of problems with behavioral regulation, apathy, and executive functioning by two-fold and increased the risk of clinically elevated depression scores by three-fold. The increased risk was independent of the total number of years the participants played football, the number of concussions they reported, or whether they played through high school, college, or professionally.” 

Head injuries in youth sports are fairly uncommon until students reach high school thanks to the growth of flag football. Even though Miramonte football players only play four seasons of tackle football, many players suffer from concussions or head injuries during the season. If players consistently suffer head trauma, they seriously risk developing CTE.

Miramonte senior Ryan O’Neill, an outside linebacker for the Mats, missed seven out of 11 games because of two concussions during his final season. He stood on the sideline with his football jersey over his normal clothes, unable to participate. 

A concussion is not a similar injury to a broken arm or a sprained ankle, where the damage is localized in the area of impact. In addition to missing out on football, O’Neill suffered headaches, nausea, sensitivity to light, and difficulty concentrating, especially in school.

“My concussions hindered my ability to learn as I couldn’t focus in class and would get bad headaches,” O’Neill said. “Headaches and memory loss were my two main symptoms.”

Preventing these head injuries is essential to the reduction or elimination of long term effects such as CTE. To combat serious head trauma, Miramonte follows a strict concussion protocol run by head athletic trainer John Grigsby.

 “If they sustained a concussion, we’re going to evaluate them on the field immediately to try to get the severity of it so that we know how the concussion progresses day by day. So we’ll get a symptom check,” Grigsby said. 

 Trainers check for common concussion signs, such as nausea, headaches, dizziness, or sensitivity to light. 

 “We can get an overall idea of whether this is something we need to send them to the emergency room for tonight, or this is just something that we can monitor day by day,” Grigsby said.

After sustaining a concussion, the student-athlete enters the Return-to-Learn and Return-to-Play concussion protocols. 

“Return-to-Learn is when you’re feeling asymptomatic or have a lack of symptoms and you feel like you can focus and concentrate — then you’ll start coming back to school,” Grigsby said. However, the mental strain of focusing on projectors or reading a textbook can be too much, inducing symptoms and forcing some students to remain at home. 

On the other hand, the strict Return-to-Play protocol enforced by the California Interscholastic Federation, keeps players from returning to the field until they achieve seven symptom-free days. 

“Each day I’ll call a kid at home or monitor them at school and get the same kind of symptom check. As soon as you’re clear, that’s day one, and then day two, check it again. How’s everything? Good? Good. Day three. If a headache comes back, clear the slate. We go back to day zero,” Grigsby said.

Even with the strict protocols, Grigsby worries that the team’s tackling and hitting fundamentals need to be expanded in order to prevent future head injuries and the possible development of CTE. “I’ve worked with many other teams – rugby, for instance, focuses really hard on proper technique to eliminate injuries or prevent them as much as possible — and in football, the kids just feel invincible when you throw a helmet on them. So unfortunately, I don’t think they’re getting the education as well as the information.” Grigsby said.

Though Grigsby believes more can be done, linebacker Grant Scanlan ’23 disagrees. Scanlan, who joined the team midway through this season, stresses that the coaches emphasize how to properly tackle and teach the necessary techniques to prevent head injury. 

 “We would practice tackling a lot and proper and safe form is stressed. In order to play in games, I had to have 10 padded practices,” Scanlan said.

Though Miramonte football players know the risks associated with tackle football, they’re confident that concussion protocols and proper coaching will prevent them from sustaining long-term head trauma. The technology surrounding helmet safety continues to improve with each passing year, something that gives Scanlan confidence.

“I think that improvements to helmet technology and coaching techniques will make the game safer in the long run,” Scanlan said.

With each brain scan, researchers learn more about CTE’s causes, symptoms, and potential treatments; however, they are unable to measure the years of difficulty, emotional turmoil, and heartbreak that CTE has caused. CTE’s infamous legacy lives on through the tragedies of victims Vincent Jackson and Aaron Hernandez, tragedies that Miramonte and countless programs throughout the country are attempting to prevent.