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College football

Gray matters

A recent injury to a Seminole is one of the growing number of concussions per game.

By BRIAN LANDMAN, Times Staff Writer
Published October 28, 2005

TALLAHASSEE - Florida State senior safety Pat Watkins can tell you exactly what happened the other night at Wallace Wade Stadium against the Duke Blue Devils.

To a point, anyway.

"I got cut blocked by someone," he said of a Duke offensive player trying to clear the way on a run, "and someone off our team (inadvertently) kneed me in the back of the head."

He remained conscious, but felt numb for a few seconds, frightening moments that can seemingly drag on for an eternity as trainers crouch around you.

"I got my feeling back and I tried to get up, but it wasn't really happening at that point in time so I just laid there and enjoyed it," he deadpanned.

Trust us. He didn't find the experience particularly enjoyable or memorable.

"I don't remember what happened after that," he said.

Watkins gingerly walked off the field, complained that the band right behind the FSU bench wouldn't stop blaring on and was escorted to the quiet sanctuary of his locker room. He was immediately diagnosed with a concussion that ended his afternoon and, perhaps, his availability for Saturday's ACC game against Atlantic Division rival Maryland.

Coach Bobby Bowden said he thinks Watkins, a steadying influence in an inexperienced secondary and one of the top players at his position nationally, will be allowed to play. But he stressed that if there's any question from the medical staff, "I guarantee you, they're not going to (clear him)."

While the medical community doesn't agree on a way to classify the severity of concussions, there is a consensus that it typically takes about a week for the brain to recover from the mildest case.

Watkins isn't the first Seminole to learn that this season. Linebacker Ernie Sims had one in August and special teams standout Jae Thaxton was concussed in the Citadel game Sept. 10. Thaxton is likely out for the season and probably will apply for a medical redshirt.

More are likely to come.

According to data collected by the NCAA Injury Surveillance System from fall 2004, the game concussion rate was 3.96, or about one concussion every four games for a team of 60. That rate has been increasing steadily, albeit slightly, in recent years. In 1997, the NCAA reported a game concussion rate of 2.4, which was then the highest in more than a decade.

Although some experts attribute the rise to a greater awareness by players, coaches and staff about concussions, they also point out that maybe as few as a fifth of the total number of concussions that occur are recognized - the player keeps playing without complaint or apparent sign of difficulty.

A concussion isn't like a sprained ankle or a broken finger. A physician or trainer can't see swelling or discoloration. X-rays won't show if the brain has been violently shaken. MRIs or CT scans also usually aren't useful diagnostic tools; a concussion, by definition, means there's no bleeding that those tests would reveal.

That leaves checking the player for the tell-tale symptoms and signs of a mild traumatic brain injury, including unconsciousness, disorientation, headaches, nausea or vomiting, dizziness, slurred speech or double vision. "No symptoms are meaningless," said Stephen Rice, who works at the Jersey Shore (N.J.) University Medical Center and has been a team physician for three decades. Renowned expert Dr. Robert Cantu, the chairman of the Department of Surgery at Emerson (Mass.) Hospital and a consultant to Boston College athletics, added that a player must by asymptomatic during both exertion and rest to return to action.

Some players, however, aren't candid about their symptoms. They don't want to miss a big game or lose playing time or look "soft" to their peers.

"That's extremely common and it's a part of the culture of the sport - kids denying the issue," Cantu said. So where does that leave a team trainer?

The key tool is neuropsychological testing, which includes a litany of mental exercises (recalling a list of words or diagrams or numbers, counting backward from 100 by 7s, saying the months of the year backward) and balance checks akin to a field sobriety test (walking heel to toe, closing your eyes and touching your nose).

"Some guys you really have to know and know how to trick them up on words to see how they're really doing because they want to play football so bad, they won't tell you what's going on," said Randy Oravetz, FSU's director of sports medicine.

Watkins hasn't had pads on all week, said he's recovering and no longer has headaches.

"If anything's wrong, I'm going to let the trainer know right away because if I go out there and hurt myself even more this game, then I might be out the rest of the season," he said. "I don't know too much about them, but I'm a smart man. I'm not going to risk anything. You only have one brain."

[Last modified October 28, 2005, 01:36:14]

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