Back to School: High school player's lawsuit is football's latest concussion crisis

SAN DIEGO -- At age 13, Monte Vista High School student Rashaun Council was on his way to great things. He was an honor student and a two-sport player in track and football.
 
But all of that potential was taken away after he was hit during a freshman football game against Mount Miguel High School on Oct. 17, 2013. Rashaun needed immediate treatment for a concussion and a subdural hematoma, or bleeding of the brain. He never fully recovered and spent the next several months at Rady Children’s Hospital.
 
Youth Football: Impact
 
Such traumatic brain injuries (TBI) at his age may be an extreme example of what can wrong on the football field, but brain damage at the youth level of contact sports may not be as uncommon as once thought. Earlier this year, ESPN's Outside the Lines did a feature on a Boston University study, which looked at the cognitive impairment of former NFL players who played tackle football as children:
Researchers tested 42 retired players between the ages of 40 and 69 and found that those who started playing football prior to age 12 performed "significantly worse" on three measures: estimated verbal IQ; executive function, which includes reasoning and planning; and memory impairment.  "They were worse on all the tests we looked at," said Dr. Robert Stern, lead author and a professor of neurology and neurosurgery. 
Rashaun is speaking with 10News in the hopes that his story can be a warning that prevents other injuries on the field, as kids head back to school: "Just protect yourself. If something is going wrong let somebody know, don't hesitate,” Rashaun said. “Because it can get worse."

"When in doubt, take him out"

Rashaun's memory of that day was wiped clean. He says he can't remember a single play from the game.

According to the family’s attorney, Brian Gonzalez, Rashaun complained he didn't feel well during the game. Gonzalez said teammates heard Rashaun’s concerns. Gonzalez says the teenager ended up back on the field anyway. After the game, according to Gonzalez, Rashaun began vomiting, then collapsed.

To understand the risks associated with any delay in caring for possible TBI, 10News contacted Dr. Allen Richburg, with the San Diego Sports Medicine and Family Center. He's not affiliated with Rashaun's case, but specializes in sports injuries.

"Brain injury is a whole different ball-game," Richburg explained. "The developing brain is going to be the most important brain to protect. An adage is: when in doubt, take him out for evaluation."

In other cases, the players are the ones who don’t speak up. The problem is so prevalent, the Centers for Disease Control created a YouTube campaign, illustrating the damage a concussion can inflict on your brain, and starting a "Keeping Quiet Can Keep You Out of the Game" series of stories from student-athletes who didn't report their head injuries.

Sometimes, the problem is that the student-player doesn't realize the long-term effects of concussions, because their school program never took the time to educate players about the risks. That claim is at the heart of a class-action lawsuit brought against the Illinois High School Association by a former high school player late last year.  Daniel Bukal, who had many concussions during his playing days, is suing over TBI protocols and management:

The suit alleges that the IHSA has failed young athletes because it "does not mandate specific guidelines or rules on managing student-athlete concussions and head injuries," and "fails to mandate the removal of athletes who have appeared to suffer in practice (as opposed to games)."

Lawyer: Teen Didn't Get the Help He Needed
 
At a time when most teens start to learn how to drive, Rashaun is learning again how to walk.
 
“Is speech at all more difficult?”
 
“Sometimes, but it's getting better slowly,” Council said. “When I talk, I sometimes forget what I'm talking about.”

Rashaun's lawyer, Brian Gonzalez, tells 10News his coaches were trained to recognize the signs of a concussion, but failed to help this promising athlete. He says it was “critical” for coaching staff to take care of it immediately.
 
“One of the things that was a problem was that for the frosh level football games, there’s no medical personnel that’s provided for the game,” Gonzalez said. He alleges that medical staff was reserved for junior varsity and varsity games at the high school.
 
Team 10 reached out to the Grossmont Union High School District for a response to those allegations. Officials said they could not comment on pending litigation. 
 
However, the school district spokesperson released this statement when asked about the policy regarding medical staff at football games:
“Our policy is to have a physician at all Varsity football games. Trainers will be at all home games and may be at visiting games for all three levels of football,” said Catherine Martin via email.
Martin said that policy was in place in 2013, during the year Rashaun was playing football, but she could not elaborate on the lawsuit.
 
Team 10 contacted the California Interscholastic Federation - the organization that oversees high school sports for the entire state.
 
According to both the state and San Diego offices, there is no CIF rule when it comes to providing medical staff during regular season games. A CIF spokesman told Team 10 that each school district decides those rules. A spokesman did say that an ambulance, as well as a doctor or trainer, is required during varsity football playoff games.
 
Rashaun's Outlook

Rashaun currently receives physical therapy seven days a week and requires full-time care. His mother quit her job in order to care for him.

Despite the challenges he now faces, the teenager is looking forward to his future. He says he wants to be a biomechanical engineer when he grows up.

Gonzalez calls the teenager’s recovery thus far “miraculous.”

“To me, the most important cases are ones that you can feel you have something you need to fight for, and Rashaun is somebody that I will always do everything I can to fight for,” Gonzalez said.

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