High-tech Helmets at West Meck
Here's something you probably don't want to hear if you're the parent of a football player using his head as a ramrod out there on the field: "The brain grows with time, so kids have more space where the brain can actually be rattled in," says Dr. Lori Grafton, a brain injury rehab specialist at Carolinas Medical Center. "So that's why kids tend to have more severe brain injuries than adults do." Grafton is part of a research team using technology to understand what's going on inside the helmets of high school football players. Nationwide, more than half of brain injuries in high school athletes happen on the football field. Grafton says CMS football teams average two to five concussions a season. But she says there's no telling how many other players suffer brain injuries that go undetected. "The main danger is if you don't recognize it and get back on the field you could get injured again and have more lasting symptoms," says Grafton. "I think we need to have an awareness of all the people that might be getting concussions. But especially on the people that might be experiencing bigger hits." West Meck Wide Receiver Jameek Daniels would probably fit that description. He gets hit a lot. "I'm known to go against a lot of linebackers, so I just hit everybody I can," says Daniels. He is one of 20 varsity players at West Meck equipped with special sensors in his helmet so that while he focuses on evading tackles, a team of doctors on the sidelines can see what's happening to his head. The sensors go all the way around the inside of the helmet so they can record impacts at any angle. Carolinas Medical Center Doctor Dave Price cradles a crimson helmet in the crook of his arm to reveal a horseshoe-shaped pad. "It looks like the rest of the pads, except it's got a series of plungers that record the force.," says Price. "It fits in there nice and neatly and the player really doesn't know it's there." The sensors measure every head impact and beam the data to an antenna at the sidelines, which feeds straight into a laptop, manned by CMC athletic trainer Spencer Elliott. At the moment, Elliott is inspecting the chart of one player who has sustained 16 impacts. The hardest was a hit to the back of the head with the force equivalent to a car wreck at 25 miles an hour. "It was probably from another player coming in for a tackle," says Elliott. Any head impact harder than a 30-mile-an-hour car wreck will set off a beeper so the team's trainers will know to keep an eye on that player - and possibly even take him out of the game. West Meck is only the second high school team in the country using the sensors, paid for by a $70,000 donation from Kohl's Department stores. Without the sensors, Elliott says coaches and trainers have to trust their gut. "It's up to us more so to observe with our eyes on if a player's acting normally," he says. That means most brain injuries don't get noticed until a player starts to show the dizzy, spaced-out symptoms of concussion. But doctors believe lesser impacts can compound into serious damage overtime. Until now, the only way to monitor those injuries has been to rely on a player to admit that he's not feeling right. And Elliott says that's not something athletes are trained to do. "Unfortunately it's breaking that stigmatism of 'getting your bell rung is part of the game.' And it's not part of the game. It's actually a brain injury." Whether or not that message sinks into the players' heads, the sensors in their helmets will make it impossible for them to hide behind the tough guy façade next time they take a really hard hit.