Traumatic Brain Injury in Football

-Candice Smith, contributing writer

According to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons, football contributed to 46,948 head injuries treated in U.S. hospital emergency rooms in 2009, second only to cycling. Traumatic brain injury occurs when an external mechanical force causes brain dysfunction, resulting from a violent blow or jolt to the head or body, according to The Mayo Clinic. The leading cause of death from sports-related injuries is traumatic brain injury.

John Bland, head football coach at Mississippi College, works very closely with his coaching staff and trainers to ensure proper communication between the players and staff about injuries.

Bland (FieldPortrait)

“Matt Verrett, one of my football trainers, reads into every symptom and checks the player thoroughly if he feels a concussion has taken place,” said Bland. “I also ask that my players watch one another like family. I tell them if they see another player displaying symptoms of concussions, to let us know because many times, a player will allow his pride to get in the way. The players will watch one another for unlikely characteristics such as sensitivity to light. We teach the players to lead with their shoulders and not with their head. We also teach proper tackle and blocking techniques to reduce the risk of injury. We receive a lot of information from the NFL that allows us to stay aware and knowledgeable of traumatic brain injuries.”

Traumatic brain injury has a wide array of psychological and physical effects. Mild to moderate brain injury physical symptoms can include loss of consciousness, confusion and disorientation, headaches, nausea and vomiting, drowsiness, dizziness, and lack of sleeping or sleeping too much. Sensory symptoms can include blurred vision, ears ringing, sensitivity to light, and changes in taste. Cognitive symptoms include feeling depressed or anxious, mood changes, and memory or concentration problems. Moderate to severe physical symptoms can include a longer loss of consciousness, convulsions and seizures, pupil dilation, fluid drainage, numbness in outer extremities, loss of coordination, and inability to awake from sleeping. Cognitive problems can be falling into a coma, slurred speech, violent behavior and intense confusion.

Ex-NFL player Doug Cunningham played for seven years with the San Francisco 49ers and one season with the Washington Redskins. Cunningham also played for Ole Miss in the mid 1960s as a wingback, tailback, and kick returner and was inducted into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame during the Summer of 2014. He received three severe concussions during his time with the 49ers.


“When I was young and was asked to sign with the 49ers, I was excited to sign, but also was not as aware of the risks as players are today,” said Doug Cunningham.

“Back then, they would give you smelling sauce and get you back in the game,” said his wife, Allen Cunningham. “Today, Doug is on anti-depressants as a preventive measure for dementia and anxiety because it has progressed over the last 5 years. He is in great physical shape, but exhibits difficulty trying to relay his thoughts and maintaining concentration.”

“Problems didn’t creep up on me until my 60s,” said Doug. “It wasn’t bad at first, but my short term memory has gotten worse.”

According to The Mayo Clinic, traumatic brain injury includes many factors such as damage to brain cells. A severe blow can cause the brain to shift in the skull, and bleeding around the brain can cause swelling and clots, disrupting oxygen supply to the brain.

A person’s state of consciousness can have permanent changes depending on the severity of the injury. Football players who suffer from traumatic brain injuries may have seizures usually within the first week, fluid buildup in and around brain, infections from fractures, blood vessel damage, nerve damage, intellectual problems, communication problems, behavioral changes, emotional changes, sensory problems or degenerative brain diseases.

Since a traumatic brain injury can be life threatening, immediate action needs to take place. Medical professionals use the Glasgow Coma Scale, a 15-point test that helps measure the severity of the brain injury. The higher the score, the less the severity of the injury.

Ex-NFL player Todd Wade, who was drafted in the second round to the Miami Dolphins during the 2000 NFL draft, played offensive lineman. He said, “The rules of the game have changed since the early 2000s. Now, the players are less likely to be pushed onto the field after a concussion because of the amount of education and knowledge.”

Wade also said, “Football helmets need to be improved. A company called X2 is currently in the works for future modifications to improve helmet protection. Hopefully, a type of patch with an enclosed chip will be able to be placed behind the ear during the game, and afterwards, the chip can be downloaded to read the data from the brain activity. It’s tough for a player because the worse thing a player can have is too much pride.”

There are support groups for players who are trying to cope with the traumatic brain injuries that often affect their daily activities and relationships. Injured players are encouraged to write things down and follow a routine to maintain consistency.

If you are suffering from a sports-related brain injury and feel you need to speak with someone, please call Student Counseling Services at 601-925-7790.


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