Deadly Concussion Risk Hits Home

Prep player’s death shines harsh light on head blows in many sports

Payson’s Jared Varner makes a hard tackle. Varner suffered a concussion late in the season, likely ending his football career. Such injuries and the death of a Hopi player have focused attention on a problem that has also bedeviled other sports.

Payson’s Jared Varner makes a hard tackle. Varner suffered a concussion late in the season, likely ending his football career. Such injuries and the death of a Hopi player have focused attention on a problem that has also bedeviled other sports. Photo by Keith Morris. |

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Jared Varner wasn’t sure where he was.

The Payson High senior was dazed as he staggered to his feet.

His mind was cloudy after the violent collision he’d just experienced.

Varner had just put a big hit on a Show Low ball carrier on the ensuing kickoff after Payson’s only touchdown in a 56-7 football loss at Show Low on Nov. 1.

“I hit the kid helmet to helmet,” Varner said. “His head jerked back. I just didn’t know where I was for a second. I just had this horrible headache and I was discombobulated. I was looking around and somebody pointed me toward the direction of my coaches. And I just walked over there.”

He passed the sideline tests and returned a few plays later. But his high school football career ended soon after he returned to the field.

“I came out and got tested and I passed,” Varner said. “They were easy questions. I was like, ‘Coach, I’m ready.’ I thought I was OK because sometimes you get light-headed and it goes away right away. So, I thought it was just one of those.

“So I went back out there and I think that’s what worsened it. I got a few more head collisions; just light ones, but it was hurting really bad. It just kept getting worse and worse. Then a few plays later I pulled myself out of the game because I didn’t know what was going on.

“I said, ‘Coach, I think I have a concussion.’ They did the test again. (PHS athletic director Don) Heizer looked in my eyes and told me to follow his finger with my eyes and I was all over the place. I had a concussion.”

He was held out of the Longhorns’ 39-6 loss in the first round of the Division IV state playoffs at Show Low the following week.

Varner’s story is nothing new. Head injuries in football are commonplace these days. Hardly a week goes by that another NFL, college or high school player isn’t sidelined with a concussion.

Or worse.

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A Keams Canyon Hopi High player died two days after being injured in a game in the first round of the Division V state playoffs two weeks ago.

Charles Youvella died of a traumatic brain injury, according to the Arizona Interscholastic Association in an Associated Press story posted at abcnews.go.com. Reports say his head hit the ground violently after he was tackled in the fourth quarter of his team’s 60-6 loss Nov. 9 at Phoenix Arizona Lutheran. Youvella reportedly played a couple more plays before collapsing. He was taken by ambulance to the hospital, where he died Nov. 11.

The senior wide receiver scored the Bruins’ only touchdown in the third quarter. Hopi had the best regular-season in school history, according to head coach Steve Saban, going 9-1.

Public awareness of concussions has grown in recent years with the attention the subject has received in the National Football League. In August, the NFL reached a $765 million settlement with more than 4,500 former players who sued the league over its handling of concussions.

The NCAA is facing multiple concussion-related lawsuits.

Studies have shown that complications are compounded by multiple concussions.

Concussions often result in headaches. Among the side effects of multiple concussions are memory loss and depression. Several former NFL players have committed suicide, with brain injuries believed to be a common link in at least some of those cases.

As a result of the growing awareness of the danger of concussions, many states, including Arizona, began requiring prospective student-athletes a couple of years ago to undergo concussion education to help them recognize the signs of a concussion.

Heizer administered the basic concussion tests on the sideline. He is a former Northern Arizona University assistant athletic trainer. He has been at PHS for 26 years and serves as the athletic trainer at as many away games as he can attend, as PHS doesn’t pay its trainers to travel with teams.

“He and the ball carrier came together in a pretty forceful manner,” Heizer said of the blow that originally sent Varner to the sideline. “We evaluated Jared. He passed all of the sideline tests. His balance was fine, his cognition was fine, all of those kinds of things.”

His parents took him to the doctor and a CT scan revealed a dark area on his brain that they thought might be bleeding. However, a second CT scan showed it wasn’t bleeding but a bruise.

“It was bruised pretty bad,” Varner said.

Varner wanted to be ready to go for the playoff game with the top-seeded Cougars but realized he simply couldn’t play.

“It hurt,” he said of missing the contest. “It would have been my last game. I wasn’t able to go on the bus, either. I didn’t have a ride. So I listened to it on the radio. Part of me wanted to just be out there.”

He was cleared for light activity for the first week or so of basketball practice, but enters tonight’s scrimmage at Flagstaff with no restrictions.

Varner is considering playing football in college. However, he said the concussion may push him to basketball if he has the opportunity to continue his career in that sport.

“I talked to the Arizona Christian basketball coach,” Varner said. “They’re getting a football coach. So, I’m pretty sure I’m going to Arizona Christian. I don’t know what sport I’m going to play, yet. I’m leaning toward basketball right now because that concussion changed a lot of my ideas on sports.”

In an effort to provide their student-athletes the safest equipment available, Heizer said PHS uses Riddell helmets.

“At Payson High School, we have gone to using all Riddell helmets,” Heizer said. “Riddell is basically the gold standard for football helmets. We believe the additional protection that it affords our athletes far exceeds the expense of the Riddells. Right now, they’re paid for through the football club. The school doesn’t pay for anything for any of our athletic programs in the way of equipment or anything like that. It’s all money raised.

“We purchase helmets on a yearly basis. The useful life of the warranty on a football helmet is 10 years. So what we do is we attempt to purchase eight to 10 helmets every year. They’re somewhere in the range of about $150 a helmet. The other thing is we send them in every year for inspection and reconditioning, if necessary, to the Riddell factory. That costs us somewhere in the neighborhood of about $2,500 a year just to send the helmets in and have them inspected and recertified.”

The company makes helmets certified for high school, college and pro football.

“Obviously, the type of impact (is different at each level),” Heizer said. “(Different equipment for) bigger, faster, stronger people (is) necessary.”

Heizer said football has changed over the years.

“The game of football through rules and through changes in technique has changed dramatically in recognizing that football is a high impact sport,” he said. “But there are ways to attempt to minimize it.”

Other sports

Jared’s father, Rim Country Middle School Principal Rob Varner, said football gets the most attention, as far as concussions are concerned, but pointed out that there are a lot of concussions in soccer, as well.

“I’ve seen kids get concussions on a basketball court,” he said. “They get their legs taken out and their heads hit the floor. And there are probably more concussions in soccer. I think girls soccer is first for the most concussions.”

Show Low High varsity football head coach Randy Ricedorff said girls soccer definitely has its share of concussions.

“I have an interscholastic class that I teach and I have boys and girls in the weight room,” Ricedorff said. “And we’ve had multiple girls sit out because of concussions this year in soccer. So, it’s not just the game of football.”

Ricedorff, whose top-seeded Cougars were set to face Blue Ridge in the Division IV state football semifinals Monday night, said the awareness level is higher now because of the focus on the NFL.

“I think, with what’s happened in the NFL, people across the board in all sports are more aware,” he said. “I think in the past people probably had concussions and didn’t even know they had concussions because the awareness wasn’t as high. Every kid has to take a concussion course before the beginning of the year. So, more and more kids are aware of the symptoms of concussions. And, because of that, I think we have more issues.

“But I’m here to tell you, I bet you there were twice as many issues in the past and they just didn’t know it. It was a headache and we just chalked it up as a good hit and a headache.”

Payson’s varsity soccer team dealt with the issue this season when starting goalkeeper Jacob Avakian went out to stop a breakaway in the season-opening game against Show Low. He broke up the play, diving to the ground to secure the ball. However, he was kicked in the head on the play. He suffered a head injury which kept him out all season. Sophomore Gerardo Moceri took over for him and played the rest of the season in goal.

And he was wearing headgear.

“I wear a goalie helmet for protection in case I get kicked in the head or anything,” he said. “I’ve never had a problem with my head; I just wanted to wear it in case. I know a couple of professional keepers that wear them. But a lot of high school keepers don’t. They should. Maybe in the future it’ll become a rule for keepers because it’s kind of dangerous.”

Heizer agrees that people shouldn’t focus only on football when trying to minimize head injuries in sports.

“We had what I would consider an abnormal number of concussions this year in soccer,” he said. “And we’ve talked about when is the time going to come that helmets are required in other sports?

“In basketball, a kid goes up in the air, somebody comes underneath him, he comes down, he lands on his head and shoulders. Concussions are something that are reality for just about anything that we do in life where we can come from a position of being upright to on the ground, whether it’s riding BMX bikes, or wrestling or ...

“Some areas are higher risk than others, admittedly. But if we went through life just worrying about what could happen, a lot of us would end up never getting out of bed in the morning.”

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