Concussions becoming an epidemic in college football, OSU’s Woods has dealt with concussions first-hand
Storm Woods was protecting his quarterback.
Utah’s Justin Thomas darted into the backfield, heading toward Oregon State quarterback Sean Mannion.
Woods lunged for the block, but he wasn’t quick enough.
His head collided with Thomas’ right knee. He fell, seemingly lifeless, onto the grass.
“Everything slows down all of a sudden,” said OSU head coach Mike Riley. “You can feel it in the stadium, you can feel it in the team and you can feel the pain that the parents are probably feeling as they’re watching this.”
Minutes ticked by.
The ambulance arrived. No one moved until Woods held up a finger to the crowd.
He suffered a concussion in the Sept. 14 game against the Utes.
It was his second in five months, and third in his football career.
“I live for now,” Woods said a few days after the Utah game. “I live day by day. If it affects me in the future, which I pray to God it doesn’t, it is what it is. I’m doing what I love.”
At least 11 football players at Oregon State University have experienced a concussion since the beginning of the 2011 season.
More than 12,500 concussions were reported to the NCAA from 2009-2011, according to a calculation from NCAA concussion statistics.
“Football is a collision sport, so some amount of trauma is going to be inevitable,” said Doug Aukerman, OSU’s senior associate athletic director of sports medicine. “The recognition of head injuries and concussions is much more prevalent.”
A concussion typically results from forceful blows to the head or body that result in rapid movement of the head.
“It’s like a wave tapping through your brain that takes place right after the impact,” said Dr. Tarvez Tucker, a neurologist at Oregon Health and Science University.
Tucker worked as a neurologist for the Cincinnati Bengals from 2010-12. She was part of a team that examined players with head injuries and diagnosed when the player was ready to return to the field.
Balance, vision, nausea, headaches and memory loss are signature side effects, Tucker said.
“The problem is that football is a dangerous sport and that’s one of the things that makes it attractive to viewers and players,” Tucker said. “I’m not sure how much less violent it can be made and still have a place in the American sports arena.”
Getting your ‘bell rung’
Riley played for legendary Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant 40 years ago, when no one talked much about head injuries.
“Everybody just used to refer to it as just, ‘You got your bell rung,’” Riley said. “They usually would either check to see if you could count the fingers that were out in front of you or give you some smelling salts. If you could do any of that and respond OK, then they’d send you back in the game.”
Riley has watched that happy-go-lucky attitude devolve.
“We probably started hearing more and more about it in the last 10 years, and probably even more recently than that, when it’s really become a talking point,” Riley said.
Aukerman said it is evident that athletes are more likely to report symptoms now than ever before.
Team trainers and doctors are being cautious too.
“As we become more educated on the topic, some of our treatment has changed,” Aukerman said. “Several years ago, if somebody had … a mild blow to the head or a mild concussion, we would potentially let them go back to play the same day.”
A hazy awakening
Storm Woods was lying in a hospital bed in Salt Lake City when he realized what had happened.
Ten to 15 minutes after the hit, his memory started coming back. He even remembered the play that landed him in the hospital.
“It’s not a fun thing,” Woods said. “You’re not aware of what’s going on.”
Woods was sidelined for three days because he still had symptoms. When the headaches went away, he started working his way back.
The Beavers use the Sport Concussion Assessment Tool (SCAT 2) test to evaluate the players who experience a head injury.
Players rate symptoms as none, mild, moderate or severe. Players rate anything from headaches and dizziness to sadness and anxiety.
“One of the difficult things is you’re relying on the student-athlete to give you an honest answer to some of these questions — some of them are subjective,” Aukerman said.
Each player has a baseline for testing which is set at the beginning of the season. The player has to match or exceed their baseline to get back on the field.
Woods also had to do psychological testing, which mostly tested his memory. He also gradually worked on the physical aspect of his return.
It started out as six 50-yard sprints with 15-second breaks. Then individual ball-handling drills. Then 7-on-7 drills. Then full-team drills.
“I was itching to get back on the field a lot, but at the same time I know how concussions can affect you,” Woods said. “I didn’t want to rush back. I knew this team was going to be good with or without me.”
The worst-case scenario
David Keller never played a game for the Beavers.
The redshirt freshman offensive lineman was forced to retire in late August when he suffered his seventh concussion.
Keller was born with what he describes as “a ball of fluid in his brain stem.” His doctor told him the risk of playing football was too high.
“Walking away from football was one of the hardest decisions I have ever had to make,” Keller said via Facebook. “I’ve grown up training to make it to a Division-I football program and it got taken away so quickly.”
Keller remembers getting hit after his helmet flew off in a high school game. He said he was knocked out for two minutes.
“When I got some of my concussions, I felt like I was looking two ways,” Keller said. “It was almost like I was cross-eyed.”
He said Ariko Iso, OSU’s head football trainer, wouldn’t let him practice or play until all the symptoms subsided and he felt ready.
Keller said the quickest he has come back from a concussion was two weeks, and the longest was seven.
A Storm’s coming
It took Woods 10 days to return to practice, but three weeks until he played in a game.
He’s averaged less than 10 carries per game since returning on Oct. 12.
Woods did score two touchdowns, something he hadn’t experienced since the season-opener.
Woods said he felt faster and fresher than ever when he came back. The only thing he has changed is his blocking.
He doesn’t lead with his head now, a lesson he learned with experience.
Woods is playing the game he loves, and he’s aware of the potential consequences. The Utah game showed him that one second can change everything.
“That’s the game of football,” Woods said. “On any play, an ACL could be torn, a concussion could happen. It’s brutal.”
Warner Strausbaugh, editor-in-chief
On Twitter @WStrausbaugh