Junior wide receiver Patrick Marzolino can’t recall much of what transpired after getting hit in the head by a defender in a game against St. Norbert College this past fall season.
“I remember I tried to go back in, but the coaching staff was not having it and [head athletic trainer] Scott [Sunderland] told me to get on the bench and they immediately started going through the concussion protocol. I passed some of it but I didn’t pass enough of it, so they pulled me out of the game,” Marzolino said.
To junior linebacker Logan Hollis, this quick decision in the interest of Marzolino’s safety is just another indication of how seriously the Knox program addresses the issue of head trauma and concussions.
“Every time I’ve gotten up slow at all I’ve been looked at and pulled by the staff. They do not mess around if you get up slow or if you look a little woozy,” Hollis said.
As the Head Athletic Trainer for Knox Athletics, Sunderland deals with a wide array of injuries throughout the year. Concussions and possible head injuries, he argues, are the most serious of them all.
“If you want to hide from me that your elbow hurts, your elbow is going to hurt probably [for] longer and it may hurt years down the road,” Sunderland said. “But if you want to hide from me that your brain is hurt, that could have a quality of life impact, so this is a serious situation.”
With the increased focus and groundbreaking scientific findings on the connections between football and long-term brain injuries across the country, especially in the National Football League, Sunderland is constantly working with his team of trainers and the football coaching staff to ensure that the players are put in safe situations and trained well.
Research published in July of 2017 in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that of the 111 brains of deceased former NFL players, 110 had clear traces of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease caused by repeated head trauma. The same report found CTE in the brains of 48 of the 53 brains from former college football players and three of the 14 brains from former high school football players.
Since being discovered for the first time in the brain of a former NFL player in 2002 by Dr. Bennet Omalu, research into CTE and its links to football have become more common, with this research from last year standing as the most conclusive connection between the two. There is a long list of former players who killed themselves at young ages to end the torment of the deterioration of their brains, which were later found to be impacted by CTE. As the NFL struggles to control the fallout from these findings, many players at all levels have decided to walk away from the sport in order to avoid further damage to their brains.
According to head football coach Damon Tomeo, Knox has worked diligently to limit the times players get hit in the head, both during games and practice.
“I always feel that we have to play the game on Saturday and we have to be as physically and mentally ready to play on Saturday when the scoreboard is turned on and the other team shows up,” Tomeo said.
Junior offensive lineman Dom Parello appreciates the difference in practice regiments between his high school team and the Knox team.
“Here, we might do live tackling for about 15 minutes out of the entire practice we have. Our other full pad practice is just to wrap up, get to the ball and no one is going to the ground,” Parello said.
The coaching staff also emphasizes the use of proper and safe tackling technique, Parello explains.
“Coach Tomeo and the other defensive guys do a great job with teaching good form tackling to make sure the head stays out of it as much as possible. I’ve been taught for a long time, ‘don’t use your head in the block, keep your head up so you can see what’s coming,’” Parello said.
Sunderland appreciates the changes he has seen in his 27 years at Knox in terms of player safety.
“I think Coach Tomeo saw a lot of these changes coming. He reduces the amount of contact in practice, having more classroom time and less on the field time so athletes don’t get fatigued,” Sunderland said.
This emphasis on technique and limiting contact drills is a stark departure from the experiences of some Knox players at earlier stages in their football lives.
“I was a pretty big kid, so there were some scrawny little kids whose parents wanted them to try football, and I’d just run them over in drills. Coaches would never let that happen these days,” Hollis said.
Beyond the changes made on the field, the training staff has very strong standards in place to prioritize the health and safety of all athletes. This includes several tests that can be used when a player gets hit in the head, which tests that player for a concussion. At the beginning of every football player’s first and third years at Knox, they must take several tests to set a baseline score to use as a standard median score for later testing. If a player gets hit in the head and fails to score in the same range as their previous median, they are diagnosed with a concussion and watched closely over the next few days or weeks, depending on the severity. When Marzolino returned to school after getting hit in the head at St. Norbert, he was put through a full concussion test, which he failed.
“I didn’t go to class that week, so they cleared me for that. The only time I left my room that week was to go see Scott. I was out for the next game, also,” Marzolino said. “Scott would oversee it and [Assistant Athletic Trainer Michael Montes] would do all the tests.”
As a player who takes safety very seriously, Parello sees himself as somewhat of an enforcer on the football team, protecting his teammates and calling out opponents using dangerous technique.
“There are some guys who are really nice and then there’s guys who will use some creative words to get in my face, but most times they won’t do it again,” Parello said.
Looking toward the future of football, Hollis is confident player safety will only improve and continue to be an important issue.
“The next generation is getting that education from so early on, I think they will just have it ingrained in their minds,” Hollis said.
Marzolino agreed, saying that players his age will most likely be the last that learn such flawed techniques at a young age.
“Since we grew up and started playing football before this became such a big deal, we don’t really think about it that much,” Marzolino said. “If you want to fix football, you’re not going to fix it by just standing and letting these kids get hurt. Effective coaching techniques, that’s what’s being portrayed here at Knox and at institutions all over the country now, it has a simple goal to stop the children from getting CTE.”
Sunderland sees the solutions to making football safer in the way the game is taught and practiced.
“The answer is reducing the number of contact plays, which means reducing the number of contact practices and contact opportunities and that making sure that contact is in the right way, [such as] not using your head as a point of contact,” Sunderland said.
While there is clearly more progress to be made on the national level, the progress is evident to those who play and coach the game.
“There’s been an increase in education, an increase in technical skill in terms of how we teach tackling and I think equipment itself has improved dramatically,” Tomeo said.
Though there has been plenty of negative attention on the safety risks of playing football in recent years, Hollis sees this progress as a positive result.
“It’s not like this issue is getting worse, it’s just more aware. It’s not like this wasn’t a problem before, it just wasn’t a problem everyone realized,” Hollis said. “Now they realize it’s a problem so it’s actually getting better.”