A brutal collision left Marty White dazed and disoriented after he clutched a football to his chest and accelerated through a seam in the defense under the bright lights on a random Friday night in late 1982.
White, then a high school junior in Buffalo, N.Y., slowly picked himself up off the field and unwittingly shuffled to the opposing sideline with his mind in a fog. His team’s coaching staff retrieved him, returned him to the correct side of the field and two plays later he was inserted back into the action.
White played the remainder of the game, he was later told, though even then he couldn’t recollect much of it. On the bus ride home, he curiously looked down and noticed the dirt and grass stains that camouflaged his jersey.
“I looked down at my uniform and asked my friend, ‘How did we get so dirty on the way to the game?’ ” recalls White, now the head football coach at Indio High School. “I didn’t realize that we had already played.”
White later played college football at Penn and estimates he suffered four or five noticeable concussions during his playing career. In some cases he blacked out. Other times, he slurred his speech and experienced memory loss immediately following the violent encounter that caused the trauma.
Now as a coach, during a time when concussion research and awareness is surging throughout the country, White sees the contrast in how such trauma is managed from when he played the violent game.
“When we played and you got your bell rung, it was, “Are you OK? How many fingers am I holding up? OK, go back in,” White said.
“Night and day.”
As White has witnessed, concussion management and discussion are slowly changing in the Coachella Valley, despite being secluded in a corner of a state that lags behind a nationwide emphasis in new concussion-related education and protocol.
California is one of the few states that does not require high schools to have a full-time certified athletic trainer on campus to monitor concussions and other forms of trauma. As a result, just 19 percent of the roughly 1,500 schools in the state have a certified individual monitoring concussions and ensuring proper procedure is carried out.
“A state that is very behind in their understanding and awareness of especially concussion management, but I’d say sports medicine in general,” said Patty Curtiss, a certified trainer and concussion consultant who works with Eisenhower Medical Center and College of the Desert.
Six of the 14 valley high schools (43 percent) have a certified trainer on campus, alluding to the progress that is being made. Still, the number leaves much to be desired at a time when rapid concussion education has moved to the forefront of sports-related athletic training.
“The No. 1 thing that schools and school districts in California can do to help reduce risk and minimize injuries is having a certified athletic trainer at their schools with their student-athletes and their athletic teams,” said Roger Blake, the executive director of the California Interscholastic Federation.
“On concussions, it’s the return to play protocol, and that certified athletic trainer is the one who can really make a difference on that high school campus.”
In some instances, having a certified trainer on campus is the difference between a concussion that is misdiagnosed and mistreated versus one that leads to full rehabilitation.
Baseline testing has been used for years by professional teams and colleges, yet has only recently been a fundamental part of concussion prevention and rehabilitation at the high school and youth level.
The testing, performed by a trainer or physician, provides a baseline assessment for an athlete, and further testing after head trauma can help properly diagnose the severity.
One time a year, Andre De Leon, a physician at Eisenhower Medical Center, and other physicians organize a free lecture and seminars to educate parents about concussions and how they can be detected and addressed.
“Bones heal and you can get kind of normal function back, but once the brain gets damaged — I mean, they can heal to a certain level, but it can’t completely heal,” De Leon said. “We need our brains, it’s our executive functions. If that gets damaged, having a good leg doesn’t really help us out.”