Advocating For Player Safety After Tragic Loss

By Tino Bovenzi Cincinnati

PUBLISHED 5:00 AM ET Sep. 18, 2020

MIAMISBURG, Ohio — A blue-number yard marker 13 sits in front of Darren Hamblin’s house — it’s a reminder of his son Cody.

Darren Hamblin is an advocate for player safety after his son Cody was retrospectively diagnosed with Stage 2 CTE

Since Cody’s playing days in 2012 the OHSAA put rules in place to make athletes sit out after being diagnosed with concussion symptoms

In 2018 and 2019, OHSAA says there were 69 concussions each season, but that number may be low

Hamblin advises parents to consider flag football as an alternative to tackle for as long as possible

“I think about a lot of the good times we had, then it always circles back to the bad times,” Hamblin said. “One thing I never think about is watching them play. I definitely don’t want to watch (high school) football anymore.”

 Cody played for the Miamisburg Vikings football team.

“He was the quarterback, the starting quarterback,” he said. “But he was a running quarterback. So yeah, he pretty much had his hand on the ball on every play.”

Cody died suddenly in 2016 at the age of 22. He had a seizure while fishing with his grandfather, fell into a lake and drowned.

 After Cody’s death, Hamblin said he searched his mind for answers. Which led him to think about his football career. He recalled a game in 2009 — the first time he knew his son sustained a concussion.

 “The trainer came up and yelled for us to come down to the fence,” Hamblin said. “He said, ‘Cody’s got a concussion. We’re taking him in to the locker room and he won’t be back out to play the rest of the game.’ This was in the first quarter.”

 But right after halftime, Cody returned to the field.

 “Here comes Cody, marching out on the field, starting running back. We looked at each other like, what the heck is going on? Same trainer comes up and he said, ‘Hey, the doctor cleared him. He said that it was just mild. He’s okay to play.’” 

The Ohio High School Athletic Association (OHSAA) has since put rules in place to make athletes sit out after being diagnosed with concussion symptoms.

 Those rules were not in place when Cody played. He went on to have a great game. But years later, he revealed something concerning.

 “He never remembered that game for the rest of his life,” Hamblin said. “He didn’t remember before the impact or after. I found that pretty amazing.”

 After Cody’s death, Hamblin had his son’s brain analyzed by North Shore Neurological Institute in Chicago to determine if Cody had Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive degenerative disease of the brain found in people with a history of repetitive brain trauma.

“When he contacted me back, he said, yeah, we found three distinct areas of brain damage,” Hamblin said. "He said textbook-wise, they might say CTE level one. He’s like, 'Me looking at this, I might say CTE level 2 from my experience.' It’s like wow, this kid only played through high school.”

Darren said Cody played football from age 7 until the end of his senior year of high school. And while he cannot say how many concussions his son suffered, he feels strongly that repeated head trauma ultimately contributed to his son’s death.

“I don’t blame anybody or an organization, football organization for anything,” Hamblin said. “I mean, I think they only did what they thought they were supposed to do. And I don’t think CTE or brain damage when you’re playing football is just caused by concussions. I truly believe it just repeated trauma. Just the hitting over and over.”

It’s been eight years since Cody last took the field for Miamisburg High School, and many protocols have since changed with concussions being thrust into the forefront of player safety discussions.

The OHSAA has a medical advisory board that’s in charge of establishing safety and monitoring guidelines. One of the most important guidelines is making sure student-athletes are not subjected to returning to action after showing signs of a concussion.

Kettering Health Network Athletic Trainer Jeff Von De Linde said preventing second impact syndrome is the highest priority.

“If they sustained a blow to the head their neck their body which causes any kind of symptomatic changes to arise, they really need to just sit out and stop participating,” Von De Linde said. “The concern would be that if you were having those symptoms and you continue to play and you get hit again that you could then develop second impact syndrome, which could be catastrophic or fatal. Even though it’s rare for that to happen there are reported incidences and that’s what we’re trying to protect from.”

The OHSAA said 69 concussions were reported in football in 2018 and 2019 — but that number may be low.

 A spokesman from the OHSAA said concussion data is only collected from contests when officials pause a game to remove a player who is showing symptoms.

 Hamblin is concerned with this practice as it only displays a portion of the entire picture.

 “There’s at least the same amount of hitting, I would actually say a lot more hitting, and just as hard in practices these kids are doing,” Hamblin said. “And when they’re in team practices there’s no doctor on the sideline.”

 Hamblin is now an advocate for player safety. His son’s story is a part of the book ‘Brain Damaged’ and has a pending lawsuit against helmet company Riddell.

 Hamblin is hopeful better monitoring techniques can be implemented across the state. And offers this advice to parents.

 “My advice would be, number one, would be (play) flag football, as long as you can. Cause you get to run, you get to throw, you get to catch, you get to score touchdowns. Everything you can do in a regular game, except you’re not getting your head beat in, over and over. I would say stay away from tackle until you’re an adult.”

OHSAA Football Administrator Beau Rugg said concussions are being handled better all across the state of Ohio compared to 10 years ago. And as each year passes, more improvements continue to be made.



SPORTS MEDICINE: Concussion concerns must be on forefront as football season returns (opinion)

John Doherty Sep 7, 2020 Updated Sep 8, 2020

After a handful of games at the end of August, the college football season officially kicked off on Saturday. The NFL season follows right behind with one game on Thursday, followed by a full day of contests a week from now. High school football and soccer teams in Indiana are already into Week 4.

Consequently, concussion-related concerns cannot be far from the forefront despite ongoing COVID-19 worries.

The NBA demonstrated late last month that, despite its expert administration of shielding its personnel from the pandemic, the league still has a long way to go in how it handles head trauma.

Worse, if professional players and those caring for them continue to display a cavalier attitude towards concussion’s dangers, it should be no surprise that similar attitudes are found among too many athletes, coaches, and parents at the high school and youth levels.

Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, published a study last November in the Journal of Adolescent Health that looked at the barriers — some self-imposed — to reporting concussion for coaches, parents, and players.

The press release from Nationwide Children’s regarding the study initially noted, “All 50 U.S. states enacted concussion laws between 2009 and 2014 to mitigate the consequences of concussion. While details of the laws vary from state to state, all state laws address three main factors: concussion education; removal from play after suspected concussion; and return-to-play requirements.”

The study consisted of a telephone survey of 64 athletic trainers from 26 states and the District of Columbia. According to the press release, those athletic trainers complained that the education materials for coaches, parents and players often used complex medical terms, did not require active learning and were frequently unavailable in needed languages.

A study published in August 2018 in the journal Health Promotions Practice, examining the “Availability of Concussion Information in Spanish for Parents of Youth Athletes," agreed. That study determined, “Only one quarter of (state high school association) websites examined contained any concussion information in Spanish, and none of these websites offered a mirrored Spanish-language translation. Spanish information was also difficult to access, with the search process requiring English-language ability. Our findings suggest that non-English-speaking parents may be inadequately informed about concussion because translation of concussion educational materials is absent, incomplete, or hard to access.”

Still, even if state high school association websites lack concussion-related resources in Spanish, they are easily accessed at the Centers for Disease Control’s website.

Aside from language barriers, according to the Nationwide Children’s press release, “Athletic trainers noted a lack of buy-in to state law requirements from both coaches and parents, who may not understand the potential severity of these injuries, which, in turn, made scheduling a time for this training and full compliance with school concussion policies challenging.

“The barriers to removal from play were associated with athletes’ attitudes towards concussion and concussion reporting as well as their unwillingness to disclose concussion symptoms, and resistance from coaches and parents. Sports culture and ‘old school’ mentality of parents and coaches that encourage athletes to ‘play through it’ and ‘toughen up’ can create an environment that is not conducive to athletes reporting symptoms.”

Dr. Michael Owens, the medical director of Community Healthcare System’s Concussion Clinic, with offices in Schererville and Valparaiso, explained why it is so important for concussions to be reported and treated as soon as possible.

“There is a real concern with athletes who experience symptoms which might indicate that they sustained a concussion, yet continue to participate in play or practice, without bringing their symptoms to the attention of their coach or athletic trainer,” he said. “It is well-accepted that the concussed brain is in a vulnerable state. That is to say that when you have a concussion, less trauma is required to injure your brain further. Athletes need to understand that a later hit might cause their injury to change from one that might keep them out for days to weeks to one that may keep them out for the entire season. Another more serious concern is the rare but catastrophic Second Impact Syndrome. In those cases, the later hit results in brain swelling and other changes which can lead to death.”

Once a concussion was diagnosed, though, the athletic trainers surveyed by Nationwide Children’s also lamented the barriers they encountered when it comes to returning to play. They listed high cost, limited access to medical treatment, and lack of clarity in state laws regarding which medical professionals should be making return-to-play decisions.

The athletic trainers preferred their athletes to be managed by a medical professional with the most modern concussion-specific medical training. However, they reported such professionals were not always available.

As a result of their findings, the Nationwide Children’s researchers urged state and local policymakers to update concussion laws, clarify return-to-play language, and improve access to care for athletes who face socio-cultural or economic barriers in order that they may safely return to play.

John Doherty is a licensed athletic trainer and physical therapist. This column reflects solely his opinion.