WCG Reports: Hunter Hillenmeyer, PACE, and Concussion Awareness

Yesterday, I had the chance to meet with Hunter Hillenmeyer, who is working with Dick's Sporting Goods, imPACT, and local doctors to help promote concussion awareness. Their awareness campaign, PACE, is setting out on an ambitious goal: testing 1 million student-athletes using the same technology employed by the NFL so if they do receive a concussion, doctors are better able diagnose and treat their injury. Follow me below the fold to learn more about this important program, how you can help, and a glossy picture of Hunter Hillenmeyer.

Before I met with Hunter, I had a chance to talk to a representative of the PACE - Protecting Athletes through Concussion Education - program. As he explained, the goal of PACE is simple: place the ImPACT system in schools around the country. What is ImPACT? The same system used by the NFL and other professional sports leagues, ImPACT is computer testing program that records how your brain functions under normal circumstances. A coach would bring in their entire team for the testing before the season even starts, the idea being that if a player receives a head injury, he or she could be tested again using ImPACT to determine the extent of the injury and to know when a player has returned to normal and is ready to return. Dick's is kindly donating up to $1,000,000 dollars to offer this program for free to schools around the country - consult their website for details on how to sign up your school or sports program.

I also had a chance to meet with Dr. Elizabeth Pieroth, who is the neuropsychologist for the Bulls, Bears, Blackhawks, White Sox, Fire and Northwestern. Despite having such a full docket of teams, she said that for every professional athlete she sees, she will treat at least one hundred kids. She said that while doctors are able to provide effective treatment without having an ImPACT baseline score, the test results are invaluable to her work, as while she can make a good guess as to where they were before, no two brains are exactly the same. She also noted that this testing is important for more than just football players, as "the way people clunk their heads never ceases to amaze me": every sport from wrestling to cheerleading puts its players at some risk of head injury and could benefit from this program. While the diagnostic is important to protecting the safety of professional and student-athletes, it is doubly important for the latter, as few schools are aware of how concussions can affect a student's performance. With ImPACT test results pre- and post-injury in hand, a doctor can recommend when a student is able to return to their studies,. As Dr. Pieroth noted, many students will say they were in their classes "in body but not in mind" when they come back from a concussion and should be allowed to make up work after their full recovery instead of getting right back to class.

ImPACT is more than a diagnostic, as the test also provides athletes with information about the symptoms of a concussion so they can self-diagnose in the future. According to research, up to 70% of student-athletes are never aware they had a concussion, and as Dr. Pieroth noted, when students are shown the symptom checklist, she can see the light go on as they realize that was what had happened to them last week or last year. By providing students with this information, they are able diagnose both themselves and their teammates, something which never would have happened in the past. Along with this, she has seen a major change in the culture in general, as both players and parents are more eager to understand concussions and how to recover from them instead of telling a kid to "suck it up" or "get back in the game." She illustrates this with the following story: "Remember Tommy Waddle? I remember him with smelling salts on the sideline and [then] going back in, and we thought he was a hero! Now, we'd be horrified. We've come a long way in knowing what is appropriate care."

I finished up by asking them what the one thing they would want every athlete, parent, coach, and principal to know about concussions. The message they both had? Be aware, but don't be afraid. While concussions can be serious, medicine has come a long way in understanding how to diagnose and treat them: don't race out and pull your kids out of sports. Dr. Pieroth said that while years ago there was little awareness around the issue, "the pendulum has swung into crazy-land." Even if a student does get a concussion, with the right treatment, they won't experience any long-term effects on their abilities as students or athletes. They are a problem to be taken seriously, to be sure, but they are not so serious that kids shouldn't play sports any more.

And that's just a preview before the main event, my interview with Hunter Hillenmeyer. He started out by reintroducing the program to me, emphasizing that ImPACT testing the same test used by the NFL and that it is "remarkable" that it is being made available to middle and high school students nationwide. After so much noise had been made last year about the rule changes in the NFL - rules that sidelined both Jay Cutler and Aaron Rodgers for a game last season - he said it was "a step in the right direction." He said, however, that "the biggest thing that needs to happen is a culture change... most people, when they get a concussion, they don't want to tell anyone. The only reason that someone gets found out is if its so obvious. There's a fundamental problem when the players themselves are trying to avoid having themselves discovered... If you get labeled as ‘concussion-prone,' then you're not going to stick around the league very long. The financial and health incentives conflict with each other." He added that even at younger levels, players don't want to be labeled as "soft," which is "a fundamentally wrong way to teach kids about the game." Simply put, he said that we need to take the "taboo off of a concussion" and "report it like any other injury."

Along the same line, I asked him about NFL players' perspectives on concussions. He thought back to comments made by Steeler Hines Ward when Ben Roethlisberger was sidelined with a concussion. As he said, "I understand with Hines wanting to be a competitive guy and see his quarterback out there... but his comments to me reflect the problem. That may even reflect the majority opinion, that he could have been out there if he wanted to. Just because you're physically able to get yourself back up on your feet and stand in a football stance doesn't mean you're ready to play. A concussion doesn't heal in 15 minutes, or even 24 hours." This, in fact, is the whole goal of ImPACT testing: to be able know when a concussion has actually healed. Hunter emphasized the importance of this, saying that it prevents cases when "a coach wants his star running back back on the field, however misguided... It shouldn't be about ‘win at any cost,' it should be able keeping people safe."

As far as other ways football can protect the safety of its players, he said the biggest thing is for teams to change the way they practice. Over half of all concussions happen in practice. As he said, "I understand you have to learn to hit, tackle, and block, if anything, to [be able to] keep yourself safe during games. There are fundamentals of the sport you have to learn... but, the mentality that we have to put on pads and bang each other every day, that needs to be a thing of the past at all levels. Pounding guys into the dirt, putting them through two-a-day practices, that's illegal at most levels and should be illegal at all levels. That's not productive for anybody... if you change the way we practice, you already cut the problem in half."

Hunter's one piece of advice? Educate yourself. If everyone - principals, players, and parents - understands concussions better, sports of every stripe will be safer. Again, full information on the PACE program, how to bring ImPACT to your school or program, and general information about concussion awareness can be found at the PACE website.

What's in store for Hunter Hillenmeyer these days? He "took the fifth" when I asked him and is "gainfully unemployed" for the time being. He looked to still be in football shape, though, so you never know...

I stuck around long enough to see the start of the actual event. Here were some of the moments you missed:

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I loved that the helmet being held on the right is signed by only two Bears players: Hunter and Dick Butkus. I wouldn't be surprised if Hunter has a signed Butkus helmet of his own!

Here is Hunter trying out the ImPACT software demo they had going with some student-athletes:

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I was tempted to take a practice run at one of the ImPACT tests myself, but I was afraid that the brain function results might come back negative! I did, however, bring back a bit of swag for you readers. A WCG first, and maybe a sports blogosphere first - a player autograph made out to a blog:

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As always, thanks for reading, and until next time, keep your heads in the game.

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