Senior College Football Columnist

Head injuries take center stage Saturday, but what can be changed?


Devon Walker (No. 18) of Tulane was administered CPR on the field after this collision. (AP)  
Devon Walker (No. 18) of Tulane was administered CPR on the field after this collision. (AP)  

On Saturday, at least four players at the highest level of college football left the field with serious head injuries.

Did you notice? Two days later, do you care?

Wyoming quarterback Brett Smith was knocked unconscious by what appeared to be a late hit out of bounds by Toledo defenders. Arkansas defensive back Tevin Mitchel was "boarded", a medical term that describes a victim being strapped to hard plastic stretcher, after a head-to-head collision. Teammate Tyler Wilson left the field after a head injury. He is listed day-to-day.

The injury to Tulane's Devon Walker continues to make national headlines. Walker was hospitalized after suffering a cervical spine fracture -- a broken neck -- against Tulsa. He is in stable condition after surgery on Sunday.

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By any measure the startling number of serious head injuries in FBS alone made it Black Saturday. That should have ended the whole stupid argument recently over this season's new helmet rule. In the name of safety, players are required to leave the game for a play if they lose their helmets.

Are you kidding? Walker is lying in a hospital not knowing if he'll walk again and we're debating one, small, player-safety measure? That's an indication that Black Saturday passed largely unnoticed, leading to an obvious question: How many of these head shots are we willing to put up with in the name of the grand old game?

How many more Black Saturdays?

"It's getting more and more close to a motor vehicle accident," said veteran college athletic trainer Robb Williams who has experience with the NFL, Major League Baseball and Olympics. "It's not quite like that, it's become more and more like bull riding. It's not if [a serious head injury] is going to occur, it's when."

In the name of quality football, then, we're apparently willing to put up with a lot more carnage. While advances in treatment, medicine and awareness have reduced the overall number of cervical cord injuries in recent years, it has been less than two years since Rutgers' Eric LeGrand was paralyzed. Last year, Louisville's Anthony Conner broke his neck and recovered.

On Saturday alone, though, Wyoming's Smith was knocked unconscious. Wilson's availability is unknown for Arkansas' SEC opener against No. 1 Alabama. Let's hope that Walker doesn't become another paralysis statistic.

"I don't know why, but you go through a year and there's an ACL year and a high-ankle sprain year, there's a hamstring year," said Greg Stewart, Tulane's director of sports medicine. "You just see a lot of it, you don't know why. This may be that year [for head injuries]."

For an answer on how much we're willing to endure on this front, take a look at Walker's native New Orleans. It is no different than dozens of cities.

"In inner city New Orleans where we take care of these kids, [football's] an escape for them," said Stewart, who has treated Tulane athletes for 26 years. "Football is very important. Athletics is very important. As potentially unsafe as it is, it's still safer than a lot of the alternatives."

Former LSU All-American Tyrann Mathieu crossed a busy road and walked through a drug-infested neighborhood to get to his practice field every day at St. Augustine High School in the city's Orleans Parish. It's hard to believe he was thinking about helmet quality.

Alabama trainer Jeff Allen sat in his office Monday contemplating the recent rash of head injuries.

"There's a fine line in terms of football between reacting and overreacting," Allen said. "Our response is to react to the most current research but on the other hand, don't overreact.

"There's so many people saying football is a dangerous sport. You shouldn't play football. I think that is a dangerous thing to say."

Thankfully, Allen has never had to deal with a serious head injury in his 17-year career. Concussions have become the buzz word in his world. The brain is not meant to be shaken violently within a confined space. More than one health professional has wondered out loud: We can put a man on the moon but technology hasn't found a way yet to build a safe helmet. There are safer helmets, but Saturday reminded us that technology has a hard time keeping up with evolution.

In this age, bigger/faster/stronger athletes beat technology to the finish line every time.

Bill Simpson intends to change that. The 72-year old auto racing equipment innovator had the idea a few years ago to create that safer helmet. Simpson became friends with former Indianapolis Colts offensive coordinator Tom Moore, who lent professional advice. Simpson got interested when he saw Colts receiver Austin Collie get two debilitating concussions.

The new helmet -- which advocates claim cuts down on headaches -- is going into production this fall. It has been worn by a handful of pros, including All-Pros Jeff Saturday and Troy Polamalu. Other NFL players have tried it and said no thanks.

"All it takes is one hit and a guy's career is over with," Simpson said. "That's the path we've taken in motor sports. A guy has a crash at 225 mph, gets out of the car and brushes himself off. Then the helmet did its job. Same with two kids running into each other."

For us as fans, for them as players, the risk seems to be worth it every time. College football has never been bigger. The concern over head injuries would be bigger, too, if it didn't happen to faceless kids at smaller programs. That shouldn't diminish Devon Walker's story. The cell and molecular biology major walked on for two years. That's approximately $58,000 out of pocket each year chasing a football dream. (That Tulane degree is not to be ignored.) Getting that scholarship in 2011 helped Walker chase that dream.

Then, while tackling a Tulsa ballcarrier Saturday, he fell awkwardly.

Rod Walters shudders when asked if such injuries are the price that has to be paid to watch and play football these days.

"Without a doubt," said the hall of fame University of South Carolina trainer who currently runs a sports medicine consulting firm. "I think there are great forces being generated today as athletes are bigger, faster, and stronger. I don't think it is wise to think we can prevent all injuries."

LeGrand became a national inspiration in 2010 when he rehabbed and recovered enough to regain some movement. Before that it was Penn State's Adam Taliaferro who made an inspirational recovery from paralysis in 2000.

What fate awaits Walker and will it change anything?

The National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research in North Carolina has been tracking data for 48 years. It says it has been directly responsible for reduction of football deaths (from 36 in 1968 to none in 1990). The cervical cord injuries spiked in the late 1960s at 30 in a year to single digits since 1991.

Since such records started being kept in 1984, only 11 college players have not recovered fully from a brain injury. None since 2005. In the last 35 years there have been only 36 college players with incomplete recovery from cervical cord injuries. No more than three in any one year.

At the other end of Black Saturday is Alabama center Barrett Jones. The All-American and Outland Trophy winner says he has not had so much as a concussion in his career.

"I just don't feel like two or three people necessarily means that everyone who gets concussions commits suicide," he said. "People commit suicide anyway. I'm not saying we shouldn't be sad those guys died but I do feel like, maybe, I don't want to use the word 'overreaction' ..."

All schools now are required to have a concussion management plan to evaluate injured players. It took the NCAA until 1976 to formerly recommend that tacklers not lead with their head. The majority of spine injuries happen to defensive players, the overwhelming majority to defensive backs. Ole Miss' Chucky Mullins (injured in 1990), Washington's Curtis Williams (2000), Louisville's Anthony Conner (2011) and Walker were defensive backs.

Mullins and Williams died due to complications from paralysis. Conner suffered a broken neck but recovered.

"I definitely don't want it to happen to me, but it's not something I think about on a regular basis," Jones said. "You don't want to think about it and play tentatively."

A new NFL season has kicked off against the backdrop of a giant legal battle regarding concussions. The issue hasn't hit the courts as a class-action issue on the college level. But it will. A former Bowling Green player recently sued the school (for $25,000) for alleged improper medical treatment for head injuries.

That little-publicized piece of litigation could be a foreshadowing for college officials -- an NFL-style class action suit by that unpaid, amateur labor force.

"It concerns me today to see all the discussion and challenges to put the problem or blame on equipment," Walters said. "Football helmets prevent cranial fractures -- not concussions. That is not the purpose of helmets. I cringe when I see someone say they are wearing a 'concussion-proof' helmet. There is no such animal."

How damaged, then, are some of these players when they are passed on to the pros where the pace is even bigger, faster and stronger?

"The issue really starts at the youth level -- pee wee, middle school, high school," Allen said. "No longer can we just say, 'He just got his bell rung.'"

College officials are arguably more sensitive to penalizing shots to the head than their NFL counterparts. In addition to the helmet rule this year, kickoffs have been adjusted to eliminate returns, the point of the game where large numbers of serious injuries occur. But when former Rutgers coach Greg Schiano suggested after the LeGrand injury that kickoffs be eliminated, his idea was greeted with a giggle nationwide.

Eliminate kickoffs? You might as well take Lee Corso off the air.

Some things just make sense.

Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.

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