Sunday slant: Caution with concussions

The NFL and players are finally coming to their senses when it comes to dealing with concussions. It's too bad that it's taken the suffering of NFL alumni, but at least something is being done now.

One of the most courageous things I've seen on an NFL field is Jeff Christy limping off the field toward the end of a game against the New York Jets in November 1997. The Vikings were scrambling to win the game and didn't have a timeout to spare. Turns out, Christy had a broken ankle.

I saw Christy this summer at Vikings training camp and he didn't appear to have any effects from the broken leg. Unfortunately, I've also seen reports on plenty of NFL alumni that are still suffering from injuries they couldn't see.

Concussions have becoming the hot-button topic in the NFL these days, and teams and the league are finally getting it right and taking it seriously. The problem to this point has been two-fold.

First, the science of the brain still isn't exact in a lot of areas. Christy's broken leg was easy to diagnose with an X-ray. Brain scans and other cognitive tests are just starting to come into play for concussions.

Secondly, NFL players by nature, and by and large, are tough guys. They don't want to admit injuries and teams don't generally don't want them talking about injuries. When it comes to various ailments around Winter Park, the game between reporters and coaches and players goes like this: Reporter asks player or coach how a certain injury is progressing. Player says to ask coach. Coach says you'll have to talk to the trainer about it. Trainer isn't available to the media. The public then waits for the injury report to see how the player is listed. I still smirk when I think of a time a couple years ago when I greeted a player in the locker with a casual, "How ya doing?" not even considering his injury and got this response: "I can't talk about it."

Teams feel they are giving up a competitive advantage if they let players talk freely about the extent of their injuries, which has led to a sometimes-comical routine of players saying they are feeling good and expect to play … and then don't – for weeks. It makes the players and coaches look like liars even if they aren't, not that most of them would blink twice at that accusation.

For things like sprained ankles and strained ligaments, the players usually recover and play again. For things like concussions, they usually recover, but the longer term affects can be devastating. Ask Mary Hilgenberg, who believes her late husband, linebacker Wally Hilgenberg, suffered from the fatal disease ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, aka Lou Gehrig's Disease) because of repeated blows to the head.

Hilgenberg's brain was donated to Boston University for research and images from his brain show obvious discoloration around the edges, which researchers say is consistent with trauma to the brain.

Finally, the NFL is getting serious about concussions. This week, the league issued a list of common post-concussion symptoms that players must not exhibit before they can return to practice or games. That list includes things like not being dizzy when at rest and then exercise, not being sensitive to light, being able to remember assignments on the field. Just like a player with a broken leg must be able to run on the leg before he can play, a player with a concussed brain must now be able to have that body part perform like it should before he returns to action.

Teams also began giving baseline tests to players during training camp. When they suffer a head injury, they must perform that test again to see if they are able to process the information in a similar fashion to their performance before the head trauma.

"Our trainers put them through a baseline. That's standard across the National Football League," said Vikings coach Brad Childress.

The test takes about 15 minutes to complete with written and other cognitive functions. If a player is suspected of suffering a concussion, he is then given the test in the following days and must perform similarly to his baseline test before returning to practice or games.

The test is "just a portion and then you're going with: does he have a headache, is he having trouble sleeping, does he have trouble concentrating, bright lights?" Childress said. "There's a whole myriad of things that neurologists look at."

"It's how fast can you process, how fast can you process? It's not calculus or algebra or anything like that."

Vikings guard Anthony Herrera suffered a concussion two weeks ago and didn't play last week against the Chicago Bears. I talked to Herrera during training camp, and it was obvious how much being there for his teammates last year during a shoulder injury meant to him. He suffered through the season in pain and had surgery when the games ended for the Vikings.

Thankfully, he wasn't pushing his body's limits this time with a concussion. In fact, Herrera took a stand early last week against comments made by Steelers WR Hines Ward toward teammate Ben Roethlisberger, who also missed last week's game with a concussion.

Ward told NBC he could see "some players and teammates questioning (Roethlisberger) like, 'It's just a concussion. I've played with concussions before. I'd go out there and play.'"

Kudos to Herrera, just as tough of a football player as Ward, for taking the right stand.

"Hines is being selfish," Herrera told Sirius NFL Radio on Tuesday. "Honestly and truly, in our locker room no one questioned my toughness or whether I could play or not. They knew it was a concussion and it was bigger than just football.

"That's why you see all these (ex-players) right now at 50 years old who are suffering from all kinds of different things. They put football ahead of themselves. That's now how it should be."

Ward ended up apologizing for his comments and to Roethlisberger.

This week, the Vikings could be facing another quarterback who took last week off because of a concussion. Cardinals QB Kurt Warner, who faced Roethlisberger in the last Super Bowl, is questionable for Sunday night's game and reportedly was still suffering a slight sensitivity to light late last week.

"I know concussions have been around this game for a very, very long time. I'm not sure exactly whether it is the high-profile players here, the two Super Bowl quarterbacks, are shinning a light on that," said Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt. "I know that certainly nobody around here kind of poo-poos that kind of thing. We have a specific set protocol that we follow with our guys and always have."

Part of the problem is that the science hasn't caught to the sudden concern revolving around concussions. Independent neurologists are being approved for each team, which is another solid measure to ensure that team-employed physicians aren't feeling pressured to return a player to action before he is ready.

"I'll say this, second opinion is not a dirty word around here and we talk about that right at the beginning of training camp every year. We've had experts that we deal with, whether it is orthopedically. We have a whole protocol if a guy wants to go see Dr. (James) Andrews or go see I guess leading neurologists that are experts in the area concussions …" Childress said. "There are very few of them that list concussions as their field of expertise."

The NFL is sending the message to the teams and players how seriously it is taking concussions, and the culture with the players seems to be changing on this as well.

Despite Childress telling me that Herrera was fine two days before last Sunday's game, he didn't practice on this last Wednesday and Thursday before being allowed to work on a limited basis on Friday. That cautious approach is the right approach when it comes to concussions. It appears that by holding Herrera out for almost two weeks of practice following a concussion that the coach had the player's best interest in mind.

Steps are being taken to protect players' long-term futures and that's not just a good thing, it's a great thing. I can stand not watching a player – even a star player – miss a game or two. It would hurt much more if Herrera or another player showed up at training camp 20 years from now had severe memory loss or other debilitating effects because he tried to play NFL tough man a few too many times.

Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.

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