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Flutie acknowledges playing through concussions, hopes kids won't

Posted by Tom Coakley  August 31, 2011 06:09 PM

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Courtesy of AP Images and Bizuayehu Tesfaye

Doug Flutie was at Dick's Sporting Goods in Natick Wednesday to urge greater care in the treatment of concussions suffered by student athletes.

There was a time when football legend Doug Flutie didn’t take concussions seriously.

"As a professional, I had at least three different concussions where I know I had memory loss," Flutie said Wednesday at a concussion-awareness event in his hometown of Natick.

"There was one in particular I remember when I was with San Diego and we were playing Kansas City. I got hit hard, and I played the next game, but I wasn’t the same quarterback for the rest of the year. I had eight interceptions in the next three games. You think your reaction time is still good, but it’s not, it’s different."

Flutie said that towards end of his career, the NFL had testing in place to evaluate recovery from concussions, but he avoided it. He admitted he likely would have failed those tests.

"I intentionally blew off the testing so I could get back on the field," Flutie said. "I was really playing with fire."

Flutie also said he probably had numerous concussions playing youth football, and at Boston College, where he is remembered for his game-winning Hail Mary pass in a 1984 game against the University of Miami.

Flutie appeared at Dick’s Sporting Goods Wednesday to promote PACE, a new program funded by the chain that will make ImPACT software available to schools nationwide, a new technology which permits baseline brain-function readings of student athletes. If a concussion is suspected later, post-injury tests can be administered and compared to the original results, allowing doctors and coaches to know when it is safe to return an athlete to play.

"This prevents overzealous parents and coaches from pushing kids back on the field,” Flutie said. “Now we have a barometer to get them back online safely."

Flutie's comments came as new, tougher concussion regulations take effect in Massachusetts.

Written under a law that was passed last year, the new regulations require public middle and high schools and other members of the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association to train student athletes, parents and coaches on how to recognize and treat concussions. Officials must document concussions and students must get medical clearance before returning to the field.

Flutie signed autographs for a long line of well-wishers who came bearing Sports Illustrated magazines, boxes of Flutie Flakes cereal, mini-Patriots helmets and Boston College garb.

Dr. Neal McGrath, a neuropsychologist who administers the software-based concussion tests, said it’s “huge” for professional athletes like Flutie to speak out about concussions.

"In sports, there is no substitute for the model set by kids’ favorite pro athletes," McGrath said. "Kids take the cues from their idols, and if the cue is 'ignore it,' they’ll do it. If the cue is, get the appropriate rest now to avoid missing extended time later, well, we hope they’ll do that."

McGrath described a "national groundswell" of awareness about concussions, which has seen professional sports leagues like the NFL change their rules to prevent head injuries. One problem, he said, is that athletes continue to grow bigger and stronger each decade, making contact sports increasingly violent.

Flutie acknowledged that fans may not understand those rule changes, or why professional athletes are held out with concussions.

"There’s complaints, because you got guys like Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, your franchise guys--people say, 'He feels healthy, what do you mean he can’t play? I just saw him in the store the other day walking around, he looks fine.' It’s tough to balance with fans."

McGrath said that while the link between repeated concussions and the risk of dementia later in life is "growing frighteningly clear," resistance to benching concussed athletes is diminishing.

"There’s always some resistance, but we’re seeing less and less of it. Athletes are trained to play through adversity. But there’s a difference between persisting through other injuries and respecting concussions. Kids don’t always understand all the risks in life, and this is one we’re trying to make them more aware of."

He said that athletes can recover from having more than one concussion as long as each one is given the time to heal properly.

"I see high school and college students in my practice who never took the time to get well. They have symptoms for months and years. You worry their cognitive functions won’t return to normal."

McGrath said his son had a concussion as a high school athlete, and the coach wisely benched him.

"I was grateful because the coach said, 'Listen, you’re a good player, but I have a feeling you’re gonna need your brain for something else someday.' He’s working in D.C. now, and boy, does he need his brain."

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