Counting up concussions: when playing has a price

Orran Balagopalan

While football season might be over, the toll it has on its players will follow them for the rest of the year, maybe even the rest of their lives. 

Everyday life can be a struggle for Franklin Littaua, a Whittier College junior and former Poet football player. As an offensive lineman, Littaua was accustomed to life in the trenches. He expected contact on every play, and the crack of a helmet was just the sound of football. However, one collision in particular stands out the most. 

It was the 2014 season: Littaua’s first year, and he was running drills in practice like any other day. The drill called for the offense to make a first down on fourth and one. Littaua knew the offensive line would have to drive the defense back to get the first down. After the coaches blew the whistle, the rest was a blur. All Littaua remembers is a pile of people on top of him and suddenly feeling dizzy. He approached one of his coaches and told him his head hurt. “‘Just wait until the end of practice,’” Littaua remembers his coach saying. “So, I tried to fight through the pain,” said Littaua.

After struggling through the rest of practice, Littaua went to the trainers and told him he thought he had a concussion. The trainers did some physical tests — checking his pupils, making him stand on one leg with his eyes closed, and repeating back random words and sentences, and confirmed his suspicion. 

Littaua called his mom and had to wait for her to drive from Los Angeles to Whittier in order to take him to the emergency room. Some of his teammates stayed with him, keeping him awake  and helping him through the pain. While it’s long been a myth that concussion victims are in danger of falling into a coma if they fall asleep within the first 24 hours, the real danger is that they might vomit while sleeping . 

Littaua’s fourth concussion, and that meant no doctor would clear him to play football. More devastatingly, it meant he could not play rugby anymore. Littaua had impressed some professional scouts from Australia who had come to watch his games at Whittier. “Yeah, I got my foot in the door with a contract,” Littaua said. “But the scouts never contacted me again after my fourth concussion.”

Besides ending his chances at pro-rugby, but concussions have presented day-to-day challenges for him. “After my last concussion, I started noticing I have random twitches. Also, it is hard for me to study,” Littuau said. “I used to be able to read through material twice the night before a test and get an A. Now, I read through it three times and I fail.” Littaua tries new techniques all the time to help him retain information, some being more helpful than others. “I wish I would have just focused on rugby, but it’s cool,” said Littuau. “It’s not the end of the world.”

The short-term symptoms of concussions include pain, headaches, dizziness, irritability, forgetfulness, inability to focus, and depression. Those who have suffered repeated concussions are in danger of chronic symptoms, including degenerative brain function. Football players appear to be especially at risk. The effects of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) can be devastating, with symptoms including disorientation, memory loss, suicidal thoughts, loss of motor function, loss of verbal function, deafness, and dementia.

In October 2016, the Concussion Legacy Foundation published the results of a study that looked at the brains of 152 deceased former Division One college football players. The results were staggering — 138 (91 percent) were diagnosed with CTE. More than a third of the players whose brains were studied never went on to play professional football, adding weight to increasing concerns that playing football even at the college level presents significant risks to brain health.

Peter Landesman, the writer and director of the film biographical sports drama film Concussion, believes there is no difference in risk between college and professional players. “CTE is as real and dangerous for college players as it is for pros,” Landesman said, “[Because] many of these guys started playing as children, when their brains were most vulnerable.” Landesman sees CTE as a parasite on the game of football, noting that there is a growing number of CTE cases among college and high school players. He says that unless something is done to lessen the risks, CTE will erode the game until the best athletes play other sports.

Here at Whittier College, 90 percent of the more than a dozen football players responding to an informal survey conducted for this article said their coaches and trainers had not discussed CTE with them. What’s more, about half reported their coaches and trainers have never spoken to them about concussions. One team member said that he has heard the word concussion come out of a coach’s mouth, maybe once. Another on the team added that if you say you hurt your head, the coaches just tell you to get over it.

Since Whittier College is a member of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), the institution is required to follow the NCAA Concussion Policy and Legislation, which mandates that an annual report educating student-athletes about the signs and symptoms of concussions be presented to all intercollegiate team members. Whittier College’s Executive Director of Athletics Rob Coleman says the college is compliant with the NCAA rules. “The Whittier College Football team, along with the other 21 sports teams, are given concussion education every year before being cleared for activity,” Coleman said, adding that after a player sustains a concussion, “participation is not allowed until symptoms are completely gone.” In addition, Coleman said concussion protocols include a “return to learning component,” by which athletes under concussion protocol are provided with academic help from campus organizations like CAAS and Student Disability Services in dealing with the cognitive effects.

Just about all the football players interviewed said they think about CTE at least a few times a month, while nearly a third said they think about it almost every day.

Whittier football players are not the only ones worrying about their future mental health. Recently, Indiana University backup quarterback Zander Diamont announced he was not going to play in his final season or attempt to play in the NFL because he’s had too many concussions. “I think that for my safety and my future, I’m not going to the NFL,” said Diamont. “I need my brain. So that was the decision.”

Former Whittier College running back and senior Josh Thomas is another young man who has had to adjust to life with the lasting effects of concussions. During running drills in the 2015 football season, Thomas got a hand-off and was running up the right side of the field when he got tripped. As he was falling, a linebacker hit him head-to-head. “Everything around me was slow and I felt memory loss for sure,” said Thomas. “I couldn’t even remember putting on pads.”

After the collision, players and coaches told him to take a play or two off and watch from the sidelines. Thomas realized this wasn’t just a hard hit and that he had a concussion. He spoke to the trainers for several days following the inquiry. They had him fill out an evaluation form indicating whether or not he was feeling better or worse. 

“They [coaches/trainers] just assume you are going to tell the truth,” said Thomas. “I probably rushed mine, because, of course, I wanted to play.” Thomas eventually decided to cut his season short and didn’t play in the final two games. He says he did not feel he was sufficiently healed from his concussion.

The physical effects of his concussion have gone away, but Thomas says he’s still grappling with neurological ones, including increased difficulty managing stress  and depression. “There will be days when I’ll be fine,” says Thomas. “I’ll be the most lovable guy walking around campus. And there will be other days when I don’t want to talk to anybody.”

While Thomas does not regret playing football because he believes it taught him valuable life lessons ,  he says he’d play a different sport if he could do it all over again. Because of this experience, Thomas has decided to focus his senior seminar on the short- and long-term issues that go with concussions, as well as new technology and techniques to combat them. He hopes to raise awareness and educate those involved in football, including parents, players, coaches, and trainers about the dangers of concussions. So far, his research has led him to one solid conclusion — if he ever has children, “They will never play football.”

For Thomas, the short-term high of a victory on the gridiron isn’t worth the long-term damage caused by concussions. “We all value winning,” he says. “But what price do we pay?”