16-year-old linebacker Dylan Thomas playing for his Georgia high school, known as “DT” to his friends, collapsed on the field during a game. After being helped to the sidelines, he complained that he had lost feeling in his left leg. As a team doctor questioned him, Thomas became incoherent and then passed out. They rushed him to the hospital, and after 40 hours of surgery, Thomas died of cardiac arrest, which the coroner has now determined to be due to traumatic brain injury.
While nobody saw Thomas take a catastrophic hit to the head during the game, even after reviewing the tapes, reviewers and medical experts are sure of their diagnosis of traumatic brain injury. This ambiguity of the event that led to the fatal injury is arguably more distressing since it implies that traumatic brain injury can be caused by the normal helmet-smashing activity of regular gameplay. Adding to the concern about the dangers of football and other contact sports to the health of players, especially young ones, is the fact that no negligence was found to take place in this incident — evidently, the death resulted even when all required standards of safety were met or exceeded and all precautions were taken.
The recent death of Thomas is one in a line of traumatic brain injuries sustained during high school, college and professional football games. The result isn’t always death, but it’s always traumatic. Sometimes a concussion, or a series of them, leads to players becoming unfit for competition and, in the case of students, unable to attend class and perform well academically.
In the youngest kids, a recent study has shown that the long-term effects of head injuries to them can affect brain development and cause behavioral problems. The researchers suggest that parents keep their kids out of tackle football until at least age 14, favoring flag football until that time. They support their suggestion on findings that hockey actually became more popular for youths after they banned body-checking (slamming) of younger players.
The concerns raised by head injuries mean that parents of kids who compete in contact sports need to be on the lookout for the warning signs of traumatic brain injury. Traumatic head injury can cause widespread effects throughout the brain and body, and as shown, complications can eventually lead to death.
As in the Thomas case, traumatic brain injury can cause distortions in sensory function. Thomas lost sensation in his left leg, but this problem can manifest anywhere and include all five senses of hearing, vision, touch, taste, and smell. Sometimes the sufferer may become oversensitive.
Motor function impairment is another common symptom. Having difficulty walking, talking or moving the arms and legs could be a sign of head injury.
Finally, parents need to consider the psychological effect of traumatic brain injury. Cognitive and behavioral symptoms can result from traumatic brain injury, including incoherence, lapses in memory and emotional imbalance.