Published in The Bellingham Herald on July 16, 2016

When Steve Sosnowski was a freshman in college, he suffered a concussion that put him out of practice for three days. A coach wanted to teach him to hit and decided Sosnowski, a defensive lineman, should line up 10 yards from a senior offensive lineman and then hit him as hard as he could.

In those days, when team concussion protocols didn’t exist, post-concussion advice was simple.

“When you stop being dizzy and throwing up, come back to practice,” Sosnowski said. “That’s how it was handled.”

But in today’s world of concussion concerns at all levels of football, things have changed.

That was part of the message Saturday at Meridian High School, when youth and high school football coaches from across Whatcom County attended an interactive player safety clinic hosted by USA Football’s Heads Up Football program.

Coaches were instructed by master trainer Sosnowski, a former high school football coach and current high school athletic director from Boise, Idaho. Sosnowski played college football, then signed a free-agent contract with the Kansas City Chiefs.

Sosnowski instructed coaches on proper helmet and shoulder-pad fitting, heat stroke and cardiac arrest protocols and concussion recognition and response. He also guided coaches through drills that reinforced proper tackling and blocking techniques in order to reduce helmet contact and possible concussions.

Sosnowski said the protocol for concussion response taught in Heads Up Football – a program endorsed by the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine and the NFL – is basic: When in doubt, sit them out.

“If you think there might have been a concussion, pull them and let them get evaluated,” he said. “Err on the side of safety.”

If a player does suffer a concussion, they may not return to active competition until they complete a five-step process of increasing physical activity without any concussion symptoms. Depending on the severity of the injury, the process may take days or even weeks, allowing players the proper time to heal.

“If you get a concussion on Friday night at a game, you’re not playing the next week,” Sosnowski said of Heads Up protocol.

Jay Dodd, head coach for Blaine High School’s football program and a certified player-safety coach for Heads Up, said concussion protocol in his school district extends to all sports, not just football.

Beginning last school year, the Washington Interscholastic Activities Associationrequires registered officials to ask coaches if an approved health care provider is on site to evaluate possible concussions. If an athlete is removed by an official for a possible concussion, a health care provider can clear them to return to play. If no health care provider is present, players cannot return.

Dodd said he thinks the student mentality of wanting to play in spite of injury is still there but greatly reduced.

“We’ve gotten better as (football) programs,” he said, “as far as making an environment in which kids can feel very comfortable and confident to come forward with any type of symptom they might have.”

A 2011 American Journal of Sports Medicine study revealed about 15 percent of all high school sports injuries to be concussions, with football having the highest rate of concussions per 100,000 athletes.

The most common concussion symptom is headache. Other symptoms include dizziness, difficulty concentrating, confusion, sensitivity to light, forgetfulness, changes in behavior or personality, vomiting or double vision. Concussions can occur with or without a loss of consciousness.

According to The New York Times, at least 50 football players in the U.S., aged high school or younger, have died or received serious head injuries since 1997.

To those who are leery of football, Sosnowski tells parents any athletic activity carries potential risk.

“Do you let your kid ride a bike? That’s inherently dangerous,” he said. “Do you let your kid ride a skateboard?”

Despite these facts, a study from the Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine found 11- to 15-year-old players with Heads Up coaching education and contact-limiting guidelines in practices had an 82 percent lower concussion rate.

Currently, 35 school districts in Washington are certified with Heads Up. Some states mandate every high school with a football program to be certified. Washington currently does not, but Sosnowski said that may soon change.

Nationwide, nearly 70 percent of all U.S. youth football leagues are registered with Heads Up, and Sosnowski said the hope is to get everyone who offers organized football in all 50 states to adopt the program, from youth leagues through high school.

“People are seeing the value of the safety aspect for the sport,” he said.