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Schools, parents, players weigh decisions to play against concussion concerns

Grand Forks Central senior Dom Otto, a starting lineman for the Knights, suffered two concussions during his sophomore season but has continued to play football. photo by Eric Hylden/ Forum News Service

GRAND FORKS—Dom Otto wasn't sure how he suffered his first concussion. There was no specific hit on the football field that stood out. It was only because his head continued to hurt that he went to see a trainer and the concussion was diagnosed.

The second concussion was a no-doubter, however. "I went head-to-head with a teammate in practice,'' Otto said. "My head hurt right away. I remember everything that happened on that one.''

Those both occurred during Otto's sophomore football season at Grand Forks Central High School. He's now a senior and starting on the line for the Knights' football team.

After much deliberation, Otto and his mother, Stacey Flesche, decided he could continue playing despite the concussions.

"Mom loves football,'' Otto said. "She wanted me to play. But she was scared, not wanting anything to happen that would affect me for the rest of my life. And I love football too much to quit. So we went to a doctor and went over things. Mom was adamant that we did things right.''

Concussions and their long-range effects have been a growing major discussion in all sports, particularly in football. But, at least locally, concussion concerns don't seem to have impacted participation numbers in football.

At Central High School, for instance, participation numbers are up about 15 athletes from last season. At East Grand Forks Senior High, roster numbers are down 10 from last season, but figure to increase significantly next season with a large group of more than 20 freshmen playing. Polk County West in northwest Minnesota has consistently been in the 35-player range the past three seasons.

Only Grand Forks Red River has seen a significant decline in its football numbers, as its roster size has dropped by approximately 15 athletes from a year ago.

"It (fear of concussions) might have something to do with a few kids not coming out,'' Red River coach Vyrn Muir said. "But I think there are several factors.''

Muir said changes in school boundaries and athletes' decisions to specialize in another sport may be factors. "I can't put a finger on one reason why,'' he said.

Not all return

Central football coach Bill Lorenz estimates that, over the past 4-5 seasons, approximately six players who suffered a concussion didn't return.

Wyatt Rynestad is one who didn't come back.

As a junior last season, his head was jarred while being tackled in a game. "I couldn't remember what happened,'' Rynestad said. "I was dazed. My arms were numb.''

He was cleared to play and, a week later, was hit again. "I got the same tingly feeling. That's when I decided to not play,'' Rynestad said.

Rynestad said his parents discouraged him from playing again. Ultimately, however, it was his decision.

"I'd heard all the stuff about concussions. I didn't want to ruin my future,'' Rynestad said. "I loved football. I thought about going back this year. But I stopped myself. It was tough. I do miss playing. But it was a good decision.''

Rynestad would appear to be in the minority. Lorenz said the majority of football players who suffer concussions return to play.

"To me it's more of a surprise when they don't come back,'' Lorenz said. "With the procedures and protocols we have in place, there are steps to make sure the athletes don't come back too quickly if they're concussed. Kids have to be symptom free before they can return. The precautions are there for the kids' safety. That's the bottom line.''

Changing ways

The precautions around concussions have changed in a short time.

Muir recalls being concussed while playing in a high school game in 1990. "I remember us being ahead 14-0 in the game. I don't remember the rest of it (after being hit),'' Muir said. "My buddies told me afterward that I was asking what happened after every play. I had headaches for several days, but I played the next week.

"There's more awareness of the situation now.''

Equipment changes also have made it safer.

"When I played 10 years ago, the helmets I wore were so much different,'' East Grand Forks Senior High coach Ryan Kasowski said. "We have a helmet specialist come in and fit each player's helmet properly. The padding, the stability of the helmets—you can tell companies are doing their best to make it safe for the players.''

Not just football

Concussions probably are most associated with football because of the physical nature of the sport. But it isn't just football.

At East Grand Forks Senior High, Kora Jordheim just returned to play for the soccer team after she missed several games due to a concussion. She was going for a header when the junior collided with an opponent.

"I didn't remember how it happened,'' Jordheim said. "I had to watch it on tape to find out. All I remember was seeing my teammates after it happened; their eyes were so big.''

Jordheim said she wasn't sure if she would be cleared to play again this year. But neither did she think her soccer career was over.

Former Grand Forks Central athletic trainer Jon Sandy recorded all the concussions he dealt with at Central over the past five seasons. The injury isn't just football related.

Each of the 15 sports had at least one concussion case in that span. Eight sports had eight or more concussions reported (he didn't have complete data on gymnastics and girls hockey) in those five school years.

"At Central, when you look at the number of kids participating in football compared to other sports, the percentage of concussions is statistically fairly similar as far as the number of athletes being concussed in other sports,'' Sandy said.

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