BOISE, Idaho — If Matt Kaiserman needs help convincing Idaho lawmakers to strengthen concussion protections for youth athletes, the game film from the 2010 Maaco Bowl in Las Vegas could work.
Kaiserman, 23, now a lobbyist for the National Football League's effort to pass head-injury legislation in Idaho, was a Boise State University Broncos' special teams player in the Dec. 22, 2010 game when he was on the receiving end of a vicious hit from a University of Utah player.
It broke his face mask, sent his helmet flying and left him unconscious for several minutes. Kaiserman still experiences splitting headaches during periods of stress that he'd never known before.
That blindside shot at the 35-yard line ended his promising college career, but also made him the ideal spokesman for the NFL's effort to transform the culture of contact sports.
Once, players were encouraged to "suck it up" and ignore bell ringers or other head injuries. Kaiserman's bill would require proper medical clearance before they're allowed to return to the field.
"It's OK to be tough, but we've got to understand our limits," he said Monday. "In no situation should the value of the game be higher than the value of human life."
The Maaco Bowl injury, shown first on national television and then replayed nearly 2,000 times on YouTube, lends credibility to his cause.
Even among the ranks of Idaho lawmakers leery of having the government intervene too deeply into people's lives, it's tough not to listen to a guy many of them watched lie unconscious on his back for anxious minutes that night in Las Vegas.
"I've seen the hit," said House Assistant Majority Leader Scott Bedke, R-Oakley. "Hasn't everybody?"
The NFL has been blitzed by lawsuits from former pro players who contend the league should have done more to prevent recurring head injuries.
Family members of former Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson sued last month after he shot himself, while former stars like Dallas Cowboys running back Tony Dorsett worry they may eventually suffer from dementia from the on-field pounding they took during their careers.
Consequently, the NFL is working to address not only its own issues with traumatic brain injury, but it's also joined the push for state-level changes meant to help younger athletes — in other sports, as well. After football players, participants in girls soccer are the second-most likely victims of concussion injuries, according to federal statistics.
Just last week, former Miami Dolphins star Nat Moore, whose 1984 "helicopter catch" where he was spun violently through the air is an iconic NFL image, asked the Florida Legislature to join more than 30 states with laws already in place governing high school athletes suspected of having suffered concussions.
"Whether they're college athletes like Matt who tell compelling stories, or they're retired NFL players like Nat Moore in Florida or (ex-Green Bay Packer) Matt Tauscher in Wisconsin, it's their real life experiences that are able to help educate policy makers about these bills," said Jeff Miller, the NFL's top lobbyist in Washington, D.C.
Dr. Caroline Faure, an Idaho State University professor and concussion expert, said Idaho's proposal would require schools to develop guidelines consistent with those from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that will protect young athletes — not just from hyper-competitive coaches or parents reluctant to pull them from games, but also from themselves.
"We need to take those decisions away from the athletes, the coaches and their parents and put them in the hands of health care providers," said Faure, part of a coalition that began advocating for legislation in Idaho in 2009, before the NFL joined the effort. "If we'd had these policies in place already, there are at least two or three cases of catastrophic injury that wouldn't have occurred. Right now, it's a guessing game."
In 2005, a series of concussions nearly killed a football player at eastern Idaho's Teton High School; Kort Breckenridge suffered permanent brain damage. At a northern Idaho school last year, Priest River's Lamanna High School, at least nine players suffered concussions during the football season, including one who was hospitalized for a time in a coma.
Kaiserman suspects his own history with concussions actually began when he was still an aspiring Division I college player at Boise's Skyline High School.
He was fielding a punt when an opposing player clobbered him.
"I came to when I was running off the field," Kaiserman recalled. "A coach asked me, 'Are you OK?' I told him I was all right and continued playing."
Four months after the 2010 Maaco Bowl hit, Kaiserman, his family members, team doctors and head coach Chris Peterson gathered around a conference table at BSU where the painful, if inevitable, verdict was delivered: He would never play college football again.
"It wasn't something I wanted to hear," he acknowledged, adding the will to play — even against the advice of experts — underscores why states like Idaho should have rules governing when athletes must be pulled from the field.
"I've heard stories of players and parents hiding concussions," Kaiserman said. "There's a huge need for this."
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