There wasn’t anything unusual about the play that gave Garrett Montoya a concussion.
It was the sixth week of the 2011 season for Mesa Red Mountain‘s junior football team. Avondale Westview had a fourth-and-goal inside Red Mountain’s 5-yard line. Montoya, playing defensive tackle, shed a blocker and dove to stop Westview’s running back.
As he was in midair, the ball carrier went low. Montoya overshot and slammed into the ground headfirst.
It wasn’t a vicious hit. Montoya has had far more violent collisions in the 10 years he’s been playing football. As he rolled onto his back, he looked up and saw teammate Colton “Stormy” Morley.
Then, he blacked out. When he awoke, he was in an ambulance, immobilized on a stretcher and headed to Mountain Vista Medical Center in east Mesa.
Approximately 7,000 Arizona high-school athletes suffer concussions annually, according to Dr. Javier Cardenas, a neurologist at Barrow Neurological Institute at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center. Nationally, an estimated 100,000 concussions are reported each season by high-school football players, according to Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio.
Those numbers — and the growing awareness of the danger of football-related brain trauma — have sparked outrage and reform.
In June, Pop Warner announced new rules that limit contact to one-third of each practice and ban drills that involve full-speed, head-on blocking in which players line up more than 3 yards apart. For high-school athletes like Montoya, last year the Arizona Interscholastic Association introduced Brainbook, an online concussion-awareness course and cognitive test each high- school athlete must pass before being allowed to compete.
Meanwhile, more than 2,000 former NFL players have sued the league, alleging that it concealed the effects of long-term head trauma.
Montoya, 18, is aware of the statistics and the risk. But he’s not worried about suffering another concussion. When Red Mountain’s varsity team opens its season tonight against, of all teams, Westview, he’ll be on the field, playing center and defensive tackle.
“I feel fine,” he said. “I don’t think about it at all.”
Ten months have passed since he lost consciousness. For a teenager, that’s forever.
For a mother, it’s yesterday.
“It’s something you worry about,” Jodi Montoya said. “But I know football is in my boy’s blood. You can’t really say, ‘You’re not going to play because you’re going to get hurt again.’
“You just pray that they’re safe.”
Affixed to the back of every Schutt football helmet, the type used at Red Mountain, is a label:
“WARNING: Keep your head up. Do not butt, ram, spear, or strike an opponent with any part of this helmet or face guard. This is a violation of football rules and may cause you to suffer severe brain or neck injury, including paralysis or death and possible injury to your opponent. Contact in football may result in Concussion/Brain injury which no helmet can prevent. Symptoms include: loss of consciousness or memory, dizziness, headache, nausea, or confusion. If you have symptoms, immediately stop and report them to your coach, trainer, and parents. Do not return to a game or contact until all symptoms are gone and you receive medical clearance. Ignoring this warning may lead to another and more serious or fatal brain injury. NO HELMET SYSTEM CAN PROTECT YOU FROM SERIOUS BRAIN AND/OR NECK INJURIES INCLUDING PARALYSIS OR DEATH. TO AVOID THESE RISKS, DO NOT ENGAGE IN THE SPORT OF FOOTBALL.”
Garrett’s parents were in the stands at Red Mountain that Thursday night last year. They saw their son go for the tackle and fall to the ground. They didn’t think anything of it — until he didn’t move. Al Montoya believes his son was unconscious for 2 to 3 minutes.
“His mom was sitting next to me, and pretty soon, we didn’t see any movement in his limbs or head or anything,” Al said. “He was just dead weight on the grass.”
Jodi rode with her son in the ambulance. At the hospital, she and Al were told that Garrett had suffered a Grade II concussion — concussions range from Grade I, the least serious, to Grade III — but that he could go home that night.
The next few days were a blur. Garrett stayed home from school on Friday, Monday and Tuesday. He went to Red Mountain’s varsity game on Friday night but couldn’t stay because the bright lights and noise gave him an intense headache. “I just had to sit down and try not to hurt so much in the head,” he said.
Garrett had a constant pounding headache for three weeks. He couldn’t focus in the classroom, and Jodi said he would zone out during a conversation. “I guess I was just in my own little world,” Garrett said.
Every day, Garrett checked in with Red Mountain’s athletic trainer. If he felt well, he went outside to watch his teammates practice. But even that became problematic.
“When he was out in the sunlight, it was too intense,” Red Mountain coach Ron Wisniewski said. “When a month went by and nothing had changed, it was, ‘Oh, my goodness. This wasn’t just another concussion. This was something very substantial and very significant.’ “
Finally, about five weeks after he suffered the concussion, Garrett’s symptoms disappeared. He was cleared by his doctor to resume practicing. He didn’t play the rest of the season — “coach’s decision,” Garrett said — but there were no medical issues to prevent him from playing this year.
Still, his parents had to ask themselves: Is football worth it?
Al Montoya played football in junior college. He knows his son loves the sport and wants to play in college.
But at what point do parents have to protect a child from himself?
“Our Number 1 priority is him being happy and achieving his goals,” Al said. “We need to support him regardless of our own fears and insecurities.
“Yes, that danger is out there. You look at the size of high-school kids; they’re bigger and faster than ever before. There’s a lot more energy and power in every hit. It’s scary. But we put our trust in our son and the equipment and the teaching of the technique. At the end of the day, he’s very happy and he’s safe.”
But what if Garrett suffers a second concussion? A study of high-school and college football players conducted by the American Journal of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation found that athletes who suffered a concussion are almost six times as likely to suffer a second concussion within five years after the initial injury.
“Then, we’d really have to evaluate where we are because we can’t ignore what’s happening out there in concussion research,” Al said. “The more you get, the more prone you are to them. We’d really have to sit down as a family and evaluate what aspirations he might have.
“Maybe it would be time to stop.”
The Montoyas have done everything they can to protect their son. They purchased a helmet with extra padding. They insisted Garrett let them know if his head doesn’t feel right. They talked to their doctor, family members who are in the medical profession and Red Mountain’s trainers.
But there are only so many precautions. Football is a violent sport. And, sometimes, an athlete’s worst enemy is his own warrior mentality.
Garrett Montoya is presented with a scenario. Three days before Red Mountain is to play in the state championship game, he has a head-on collision in practice and suffers a headache.
Does he tell his coaches or parents?
Nervous laughter fills the Montoya living room. Nine seconds pass. Finally, Montoya smiles and says two words: