WEST JORDAN — It wasn't until after the football game that Copper Hills High School linebacker Troy Humpherys blacked out and collapsed.
He had been hit hard during a defensive play in the game and suffered a pretty serious concussion, but his coaches and trainers were unaware because Humpherys didn't say anything about it. The 16-year-old actually pretended not to have it just so he could stay in the game.
"I wanted to play," he said. "At the end of the game, I had to be rushed to the hospital because I kept playing on it. I ended up being out for two weeks because it got worse and worse."
Just this year, as a result of recent statewide legislation, the Utah High School Activities Association instituted policies that require student athletes to be removed from play when a concussion is suspected or does, in fact, occur, and coaches and athletic trainers must go through strict and lengthy evaluations of the student, including filling out a clearance form before kids with concussions can return to play.
"When they do get hurt, we do our best to get them back as soon as we can, but we want it to be safe as well," said Matt Gubler, athletic trainer for West Jordan High School and an employee with Registered Physical Therapists. More important, he said the student athletes are constantly educated to play smart and avoid head injuries altogether.
But, even with all the precautions, Gubler said between five and eight students at West Jordan High suffered concussions or minor brain injuries during the recent football season alone. And they varied in severity, keeping students out of the game for a minimum of one week and up to a month when symptoms persisted.
"It's scary because you don't really know what's going on," Humpherys said. The junior said he had to get his teachers to take it easy on him for a week or so, because "even thinking hurt my brain."
In order to help identify symptoms in the event of a concussion and override the athlete's tendency to lie about it, officials at three area high schools are in the process of issuing mental acuity tests to up to 900 of their student athletes. The $1,500 cost of testing is borne by the Jordan Valley Medical Center, to get information reported and recorded for a good percentage of the local athletes at Copper Hills, West Jordan and Riverton high schools.
The test, made possible by national imPACT Applications, is a tool that helps to measure the athlete's cognitive performance before, during and after a concussion. It has proven to be helpful in keeping student athletes safe, after 2009 study by the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, pointed out that 40 percent of student athletes who have experienced a concussion return to action too soon.
Dr. Joseph Fyans, Copper Hills High School team physician and a physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist at Jordan Valley Medical Center, said 60 percent of athletes who are concussed will recover within 24 hours, and up to 80 percent get back to normal within a week.
"Safety is our No. 1 concern," he said, adding that concussions can have long-term and potentially serious ramifications if they go unrecognized or are left untreated.
"They can have headaches permanently. They can have problems with concentration and issues with balance. It can affect their cognitive activities and ability to tolerate physical activity," Fyans said. In addition to bothersome physical conditions, something called second-impact syndrome can spell out an early death for the patient.
The cognitive examinations, in addition to physical exams on the sidelines and visual interpretations of a player's performance following a hit, can help officials resist putting the player in too soon. And while concussion rates among high school athletes continue to rise, officials are trying to find ways to minimize the impact a concussion could have on a teenager's life in the short and long term.
"It can really affect their whole future," Fyans said.
Research on concussions is gaining traction and as more information comes out about the life-threatening injuries, more is being done to protect athletes and people everywhere.
To prevent a repeat concussion, Humpherys was required to purchase a specialized helmet that provides more protection for his brain. He said it is worthwhile if it keeps him from sitting out of future games.
"I don't want to get hurt, I train to hurt other people," said Christian Rixe, a senior linebacker for Copper Hills. "It can be a dangerous sport if you're not prepared physically."
Students sitting out after a concussion have to get cleared by a licensed athletic trainer and a local doctor before returning to play, per the new UHSAA regulations.
"More than 50 percent of concussions don't involve someone actually losing consciousness," Fyans said. "Really it's a whole combination of symptoms as to how you diagnose a concussion."
In the event of a concussion, which has happened more often at Copper Hills this year than in years past, trainer Chelsea Jensen said she'll take a helmet, cleat or other valuable piece of the player's uniform, from the player in order to keep them from playing without further examination.
"They'd receive a penalty if they went on the field without it," she said. "And they'll do whatever they can to play."
Typically, the player will end up being referred to a doctor's office for a check-up and then, among other things, they must endure a full day of regular schooling without exhibiting any headaches or apparent confusion before they can go back to their sport.
They also must retake the mental acuity exam.
Dexterity, speed and problem-solving are a big part of the 20-minute computer test that is being taken not only by football players at the three high schools, but also the wrestling, basketball and soccer teams and cheerleaders.
"It's helpful for any student involved in contact sports," Jensen said. She said the students are also trained to look out for each other and report any unusual behavior of their teammates.
Using a national average, instead of a personalized baseline test to compare the student's performance, is less than ideal, Gubler said.
"It's really nice to have the baseline test when we're working with an eager coach or parent who wants their kids in the game and thinks the injury is trivial," he said. "We can show them their kids' deficiencies and provide an objective measure that proves it is a legitimate brain injury."
Much to the relief of her mother, Copper Hills' star volleyball player sat out for a match or two last year after enduring a concussion herself. Heilala Havea was headstrong for the ball but ended up hitting her head on the floor of the court, knocking her out cold.
"I was tired for like five days and it hurt to read," she said. Doctors told her to stay home and rest but there was little more they could do.Comment on this story
Havea, now in her senior year, is more conscious about how she's playing because she's been through the minor brain injury. And strangely, her tongue pops out of the corner of her mouth when she goes for a dig — it's something that never happened prior to the concussion.
"The reality is, this is a brain injury," Gubler said. It's more serious than it used to be, but only because more information is known about the young minds.
More tests might be annoying to the students, who already work hard to maintain good grades to keep playing for the schools, but doctors and trainers agree that having more information going into the situation will only help them get the best they can from results of treatment and rehabilitation, Fyans said.