DENVER — Jake Bryant played hockey for seven years and was the goalie in an advanced youth hockey with the Colorado Rampage. He suffered five concussions in less than two years, which forced him to retire from the sport at age 16.
The same type of sports-related brain injury also sidelined Alexandra "Z" Karlis for three weeks, but the 17-year-old hockey player plans to return to the ice. She suffered the concussion — her first — when an opposing player blindsided her with an elbow to the head as she was about to make a pass.
Learning about the potential long-term impacts from concussions, which include mood and cognitive disorders, "completely freaked me out," said Alexandra, who plays for the Colorado Select in the Junior Women's Hockey League and is the daughter of former Denver Broncos kicker Rich Karlis.
Young athletes like Alexandra and Jake are the impetus behind a Colorado bill signed into law Tuesday that enacts the nation's most sweeping rules addressing youth concussions.
It requires coaches to bench players as young as 11 when they're believed to have suffered a head injury and need medical clearance to return to play. The law also requires coaches in public and private schools and even volunteer Little League and Pop Warner football coaches to take free annual training online to recognize the symptoms of a concussion.
"This is the most far-reaching bill in the country with regard to protecting children," said Republican state Sen. Nancy Spence, a sponsor of the legislation, which goes into effect in January.
A dozen other states have laws addressing youth concussions, but they don't cover athletes as young as 11, and most deal with school-related athletics, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Concussions in youth sports are receiving more national attention recently as the NFL helps states craft related legislation or endorse local measures. The league's senior vice president for public policy, Jeff Miller, said the NFL is changing its culture surrounding concussions and player treatment as information emerges about the risks and consequences of head injuries.
About 135,000 children ages 5 to 18 are treated in emergency rooms annually for sports- and recreation-related concussions, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Colorado's Senate Bill 40 is named after Jake Snakenberg, a high school football player who died in 2004 after he was hit during a game. His family said doctors told him his injury was likely compounded by a concussion he suffered in a previous game that went undiagnosed.
"To have Senate Bill 40, the Jake Snakenberg Act, serve as his legacy gives me some peace and provides some sense of purpose to our loss," his mother, Kelli Jantz, said when the bill was signed.
Connecticut, Idaho, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Oregon are among the states that have passed laws addressing youth concussions, according to NCSL. Utah signed a bill into law last week, and California and Nebraska are among states with pending legislation.
Dr. Michael Kirkwood, a pediatric neuropsychologist at the Children's Hospital and co-director of the hospital's concussion program, said he believes such injuries should be taken "especially seriously" because "the child's brain is still developing, is still immature."
Kirkwood added that another reason to pay attention to brain injuries from youth sports was the lack of information about long-term impacts that concussions have on young athletes. Most of the information doctors know about the consequences of concussions come from the NFL.
Jake, the retired hockey player, said he often did not see the players who collided into him skating by or when they crashed the net.
"As a goalie, you're really not focusing on the contact part, you're just trying to stop the puck," he said.
He said he and his coaches handled his injuries correctly because he was never pressured to stay in a game or return prematurely. He said he hopes Colorado's new law will help coaches recognize what is often an unrecognizable injury.
"You never know what's going to happen later on. I mean, it is your brain. It's different than a broken bone," he said.
Senate Bill 40: http://goo.gl/0YTDK