Serving Gogebic, Iron and Ontonagon Counties

How concussions are changing football

IRONWOOD — Former head football coach Pat Gallinagh recently gave the Daily Globe sports department a copy of the book Unintended Impact, written by Jim Proebstle.

Proebstle tells the gut-wrenching and powerful story of how his brother, Dick, suffered a number of concussions playing high school and college football. The repeated head concussions and sub-concussions caused brain trauma and led to Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE).

Many people have never heard of CTE or think a concussion and CTE are the same thing, but they are not.

A concussion is a type of traumatic brain injury that changes the way the brain normally works. A concussion is caused by a fall, bump, hit or jolt to the head or body that causes the head and brain to move quickly back and forth.

Signs and symptoms of concussions can show up right after the injury or may not appear or be noticed for days or weeks after the injury.

Some but not all of the signs or symptoms of a concussion are headaches which can be severe, nausea/vomiting, dizziness and/or balance problems, memory problems, poor concentration, sluggishness, confusion, vision problems, mood, behavior or personality changes and appearing dazed or stunned.

A person suspected of having a concussion should seek medical attention right away from a health care professional.

CTE has been known about since the 1920s. Boxers who suffered repeated punches to the head or were knocked out were probably suffering from CTE but were called “punch drunk.”

CTE is a progressive degenerative disease of the brain found in athletes (and others) who have a history of repetitive brain trauma or concussions.

This trauma triggers the progressive degeneration of brain tissue. The brain degeneration is associated with memory loss, confusion, impaired judgement, impulse control problems, aggression, depression and eventually progressive dementia.

“I wrote the book to benefit people and give them first-hand knowledge of what CTE is like,” Proebstle said. “It caused my brother’s life to unravel and destroyed his family.”

In the late 1950s, Dick Proebstle was a very good football player and one of the best athletes to come out of Central Catholic High School in Ohio, where some of the best football in the country was being played.

He was also very smart with a great work ethic and he was good at everything, whether it was Boy Scouts, the choir, community service, student council, National Honor Society, the honor roll and even was an altar boy.

Later, Proebstle started his own business and was “tremendously successful” and made a great deal of money.

His prowess at playing quarterback led to a scholarship at Michigan State University and eventually a starting quarterback position.

Life was good for Dick Proebstle, but that was about to change. He had suffered through concussions in high school and some devastating hits at MSU led to more concussions. Proebstle lost his starting job and eventually had to leave the Spartan’s team. His many concussions became too much to handle.

This was a down time in Dick Proebstle’s life, because football meant everything to him and it was the first time he had failed at it, even though it was through no fault of his own.

But Proebstle had too many things going for himself to stay down and he began to build a new life. Proebstle started his own construction equipment business and made a great deal of money. He lived in a big, beautiful house, had a great family and lots of friends. He was back on top again.

But at age 38, the problems caused by CTE began to emerge out of nowhere.

“Personality and behavior changes, paranoia, his physical capabilities, his decision-making and problem-solving skills and even his strong fundamental values and moral compass began to leave him,” his brother said. “He ran the whole gamut of problems from CTE and they got worse as the years went by. He no longer was the person he once was, but no one could figure out what was wrong with Dick. His success in athletics turned out to be his traitor in later life.”

Jim Proebstle said CTE also led to his brother’s brain becoming atrophied a little more each year and his problems became more severe.

“His brain shrunk about 30 percent,” Jim Proebstle said. “When your brain shrinks that much, it is no longer functioning. Dick’s whole life just unraveled. ”

For decades, Proebstle fought the demons that trapped him in a world of confusion and confinement. He died at the age of 69.

Making it a safer game

After hearing all that, one might conclude that football has become too dangerous and may not survive as a sport. And although it’s not possible to make any contact sport concussion-proof, there are changes constantly being made to make football much safer.

When Hurley football coach Scott Erickson played varsity football from 1985-1986 and new Ironwood coach Ryan Niemi played from ’91-’93, both said there was “no talk” about concussions.

You only “got your bell rung” or got “dinged” or “saw stars.” A coach may have asked you what day of the week it was or what team you were playing and the correct answers had you right back in the game. After all, you went out for football to help the team win, so you needed to be out on the field.

Gallinagh, of Ironwood, recalls that when he played football for Michigan State, he was literally knocked out on a play. On the bench, a trainer gave him smelling salts that woke him up and he was sent back into the game. But he has no recollection of the play itself.

Football has always been a physical, violent game and in the past, many coaches expected players to be tough and play through injuries.

Tackle with head up

Both area coaches said the emphasis used to be on spinal injuries and avoiding paralysis. In earlier years, players were taught to tackle by putting their helmets into the numbers on another player’s uniform and helmets that were first used for protection were used by some players as a weapon to “spear” an opposing player.

“We’ve always taught our players to play with your chest, eyes and head up when tackling,” Erickson said. “You can’t hit what you can’t see. Having your head down causes problems, but we were more worried about spinal injuries early on, because no one talked about concussions.”

And Niemi said tackling tactics have changed radically over the years.

“We use shoulders to tackle and there is never any spearing or leading with the head,” Niemi said. “Running backs don’t take on tacklers head on. Younger kids are more adaptable and able to change, so you have to start teaching them right in Pop Warner football.”

The change in the way tackling was taught may been to help lessen spinal injuries, but it has also been helpful in preventing concussions.

“It’s eyes open and heads up from day one,” Erickson said. “That’s the best way to help prevent concussions.”

Both Erickson and Niemi said concussion injuries came to the forefront when the media began to publicize stories around 2009 of former NFL football players experiencing memory and other health problems after their playing careers were over. Many ex-players thought their problems stemmed from concussions they had suffered while playing.

Doctors and the media also brought up a term called CTE and former players such as Tony Dorsett, Jim McMahon, Dorsey Levens, Joe DeLamiellure and Brett Favre were reported to have CTE symptoms.

Then former Chicago Bears defensive back Dave Duerson and all-pro linebacker Junior Seau committed suicide after dealing with the effects of CTE for many years. Mike Webster, an all-pro NFL center from Rhinelander, was diagnosed with CTE post mortem.

The blockbuster came when 4,500 former NFL players (or their estates) were listed as plaintiffs in lawsuits against the NFL for concussion-related injuries received while playing.

Education important

Athletic organizations such as the Michigan High School Athletic Association and the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association and coaches knew they had to respond to this threat to the game. Many felt education was the key to the concussion/CTE problem.

Niemi said all the Ironwood football coaches have attended workshops or clinics designed to give them more information about concussions and ways to prevent them.

The coaches then present the information to their players and their parents and review it.

Concussion awareness materials and a concussion fact sheet are passed out, discussed and signed.

Erickson said that at every rules meeting (which are mandatory for coaches), concussion-related information is given out and sometimes medical personnel such as doctors come in to talk to the coaches about concussions.

Both coaches said they can obtain a great deal of materials on concussion prevention online.

Awareness critical

Besides stressing keeping the head up and eyes open, Erickson said coaches must know their players well. Is a player just tired or prone to heat dehydration or showing concussion-like symptoms?

He also stresses to his players that teammates have to look out for each other, especially on the field. As an example, if a play is called in the huddle and a player looks confused or doesn’t seem to understand it, the other players have to alert the coach or call timeout and get him off the field to get checked.

“Concussions have become a big time focus of our coaching staff,” Erickson said.

Both coaches said if a player shows concussion-like symptoms, he is not allowed back in the game. Erickson pointed out that getting a second concussion is much worse and dangerous than the first.

Both Niemi and Erickson said it’s a very good idea for schools to have trainers and possibly medical personnel on the sidelines at games.

“Almost every school has a trainer there,” Erickson said. “I don’t want to make a mistake with a kid’s safety.”

Niemi said if a player takes a hit to the head, the coaches will look for concussion-like symptoms and then go through a checklist with him. The coaches will closely watch his eyes, check the feelings in his hands and ask him questions.

A player who has had a concussion needs doctor’s clearance before he can play again.

Jim Proebstle said football helmet manufacturers have a responsibility to continue research on how to make safer helmets. Niemi said there have been new helmets made which had water packs inside the helmet and another with an outer shell over the top of the helmet.

However, both coaches agreed they don’t see a helmet coming out any time soon that completely prevents concussions.

Contact limited in practice

Niemi said the MHSAA has come out with provisions that tell Michigan teams that after the first regular season game, they can conduct no more than two collision practices in any week. A collision practice is defined as a “live, game speed player vs. player contact in pads.”

The ruling also applies to junior high schools and middle schools and the MHSAA has been upfront in saying they are very serious about reducing concussions.

“Everybody is concerned about player safety first and you just take advantage of the days you can hit,” Niemi said.

Erickson said that in Hurley they have always had no more than two contact practices weekly.