BY Art Thiel 05:53PM 10/11/2010

Good weekend for football players

A tough kid from Maple Valley helps move NFL forward on concussions

Roger Goodell, Zack Lystedt

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell meets Zack Lystedt Saturday with Dr. Richard Ellenbogen of Harborview Medical Centeras Dr

RENTON — The Seahawks had one of their better weekends in a while.

Had nothing to do with a game.

Maybe that’s why it worked so well.

On a bye-week Saturday when first downs were neither awarded nor surrendered, the Seahawks scored big points when the franchise brought together a broad community of people to talk about, and even brag about, a turning of the corner on a national sports-culture shame.

More than a century after President Teddy Roosevelt temporarily shut down college football because too many players were getting killed, we in Washington state are in agreement that any youth athlete who gets his or her head clobbered is no longer a sissy for asking out of practice or a game.

In fact, not only are we in this state agreed on a subject (a profound deed in itself), it’s more than a rule. It’s state law.

The Zackery Lystedt law.

The nation’s most stringent requirements regarding sports-induced concussions was signed by Gov. Chris Gregoire in spring 2009.

The update: Seven other states have followed with similar legislation. In the first three weeks of the prep football season in this state, not a single case of subdural bleed has been reported.

Small sample size, yes. Not a small feat.

Had such a law been in place in 2006, Lystedt Saturday probably wouldn’t have needed a couple of minutes, aided by his father, to walk the five feet from his wheelchair to the podium at the Seahawks auditorium in the VMAC practice facility.

Considering that he couldn’t speak for nine months after his football concussion, and couldn’t walk for 13 months, Saturday’s tentative stroll was an accomplishment superior to any athletic deed that will ever go down on the VMAC greensward.

Speaking slowly, he said, “Thank you for the Lystedt law.” He grinned. Everyone else cried.

Four years ago, Lystedt was a talented 13-year-old playing both ways for Tahoma Junior High in Maple Valley. Just before halftime, he made a saving tackle, but the back of his helmeted head smashed hard to the ground. The law bearing his name now requires of coaches, schools and districts, as well as private sports organizations using public fields, that any athlete suspected of sustaining a concussion must be removed from the practice or game and not returned until approved by a licensed health care provider.

Back then, he returned to the field after halftime and played the rest of the game, including a final tackle that forced a fumble to preserve his team’s win. A minute after, he collapsed in his father’s arms.

“Dad,” he said, “I can’t see.”

His vision has returned. What he saw in the auditorium Saturday was Gregoire, a four-star Army general, a director of the Center for Disease Control and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, along with a retinue from the league’s front office.

There were also a host of health-care pros from Seattle’s Harborview Medical Center, where Lystedt’s life was saved. The Harborview crew was led by Dr. Richard Ellenbogen, chief of neurological surgery at Harborview as well as a professor and chair of neurological surgery at the University of Washington.

More pertinent to the event, Ellenbogen is co-chair of the NFL’s Head, Neck and Spine Medical Committee.

Ellenbogen’s appointment earlier this year by Goodell to the new committee signaled a major shift in the league’s player health policy. Assailed by critics of former commissioner Paul Tagliabue for a cavalier approach to concussions and other health issues for current and former players, the NFL realized it was upon the threshold of a disaster as a growing body of medical research fingered football and its benign neglect of head injuries as an enabler of a serious youth-sports problem.

Critics won a battle by demanding, and getting, the resignations of the NFL’s previous chief medical directors, who were derided as house men. But skeptics will remain until there are years of proof that the NFL takes seriously the consequences of concussions.

That is part of Ellenbogen’s charge.

So far, so good.

“I’ve heard nothing (from Goodell or his minions) regarding how I should do this job,” he said after the Keeping Youth Sports Safe Roundtable ended. “They knew I wouldn’t have taken it” if that were the case.

Part of the Saturday event included the unveiling of a poster now in every NFL locker room that explains in plain English the causes, symptoms and consequences of concussions, and encourages athletes to report. The hope is to get the poster into every locker room in America.

The growing, albeit belated, awareness of the consequences of concussions is gaining traction beyond sports. In his position as the Army’s vice chief of staff, Gen. Peter Chiarelli is attempting to do with field commanders, medics and soldiers what the NFL is attempting to do with coaches, trainers and players: Eliminate the stigma attached to traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder.

A local who grew up in Magnolia and graduated from Seattle University, Chiarelli delivered a strong analogy to “the warrior culture” of the NFL and military, with its macho resistance by soldiers to seeking attention after enduring repeated concussion-inducing explosions.

“The problem comes with the second or third blast before the first is allowed to heal,” he told the audience. “We are sending the message that rest and rehabilitation are critical.”

TBI and PTSD threaten to be “the Agent Orange of this generation,” he said, referring to the chemical defoliant that ruined the lives of many vets of the Vietnam War. “I don’t want to wait 20 to 30 years to find out the consequences to our people.”

Departed Seahawks CEO Tod Leiweke took up the Lystedt cause. Along with team physician Stanley Herring and staffer Kevin Griffin, the Seahawks helped with the political push and organized the roundtable, which was recorded for national distribution to individuals, agencies or medical centers needing a how-to on creating similar legislation. The panel included a politician, a lobbyist, a private-sports leader, an insurance expert, a lawyer, a national brain-injury expert and an NFL executive.

Their collaboration and the platform provided by the NFL – whether out of guilt or altruism, it matters little – and supported by Ellenbogen and the premier staff and resources at Harborview, made for a response to tragedy nearly as compelling as the courage shown by Lystedt and his family.

The Seahawks may not lead the NFL in anything, but it’s good to know Seattle is way out in front in something important.


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