Football is a profession where durability is the most prized attribute a player can possess. Therefore, being labelled concussion-prone is a career death sentence. So wouldn't it be naive to suggest that anyone -- trainer, doctor, coach or otherwise -- has an absolute handle on any single individual's head trauma history?
When there are so few absolute truths, certainties and conclusive findings about the consequences of multiple concussions and their long-term effects, can anything definitive be said about them that isn't as vague and muddled as the condition itself?
I can't imagine what this week must have been like for Blue Bombers quarterback Buck Pierce. It's not every day you wake up and get to read and listen to people publicly speculating over your personal medical concerns and whether you should even be allowed to continue on with your chosen profession.
Since the helmet-to-chin shot delivered by Toronto's Brandon Isaac last Saturday, Buck has been contacted by retired Hall of Fame player Matt Dunigan -- who still suffers from post-concussive syndrome -- and was encouraged to hang them up. Members of the media have suggested the decision to continue playing be taken out of his hands, the team's athletic therapist went to bat for him on the radio (something that rarely happens), and head injury experts have been interviewed to no end about all the potential danger he is facing. Not your typical work week for your local neighbourhood quarterback.
I managed to secure an interview with the head trainer and athletic therapist of the Blue Bombers, Alain Couture, and one of the first things I asked him was how many concussions my own medical file said I had suffered in my career. The point I was trying to make with him was that his medical records would not reveal an accurate figure compared to what I had actually experienced. All it would reveal was the number I had disclosed, not the number of times I had experienced concussion symptoms. Well, I was right that it was off, but wrong in the fact that it actually reported more concussions than I even remembered getting. I thought I had been concussed in 2001 and that I didn't disclose the one in 2008. I have no recollection whatsoever of the one it is recorded I had in 2006. I suppose that's the thing about head injuries -- it's the nature of the beast that you don't even remember when and how they happened.
Regardless of my own failure to demonstrate to Alain Couture my opinion that medical records are a woefully inaccurate reflection of head trauma occurrences with athletes, both Alain and team doctor Neil Craton agreed with me that for the most part, the diagnosis of concussions, and the length of recovery time, is dependent on the athlete's willingness to be forthcoming and honest. As we have seen several times in the Free Press this week, through the admissions and testimonials of active Bomber players, the culture of professional athletes divulging vulnerabilities to medical staffs is both inconsistent and erratic.
I speculated on last week's post-game show that Buck had probably suffered concussions approaching the double-digits in his career. Tim Burke, the head coach, remarked that the number was way less than seven, and Couture stated in his radio interview that nobody would know the real number unless they had access to Buck's medical records from B.C. and Winnipeg. I think it is fair to say at this point, the only person that knows for sure how many times Buck has got his bell rung is Buck Pierce himself.
I came up with my number based on my own experiences. A symptom of a mild concussion, as mentioned by a medical encyclopedia, is seeing stars or blackness after a collision. If that is the case, there is no season I have played where some degree of concussion has escaped me. The problem with drawing these conclusions, though, is that the symptoms aren't mutually exclusive to concussions.
That being said, I like to think I have a pretty good feel for what getting knocked senseless is like -- and looks like -- and regardless of what is reported or released in the media, there are some hits, like the one I saw Buck take in Hamilton in 2011, that are in my mind, undeniable in their nature and consequence. The most interesting thing I've learned in researching this column, from speaking with Craton, is the fact that, "Concussed patients under-report their symptoms. This further complicates the assessment of this condition." Seemingly, the more your bell is rung, the less you tend to complain and report it, which is why the approach of the Bomber medical staff is, "When in doubt, sit them out."
Even with the most competent medical staff -- like the team has with Couture and the platoon of doctors that he works with -- and even with all the advances in protocols for handling concussions, the treatment and diagnosis of head injuries remain dependent upon the willingness of the athlete to disclose it.
In a profession where perceived weakness and susceptibility are badges you never want to wear, I would expect the real figures out there are exponentially greater than we even imagine.
Doug Brown, once a hard-hitting defensive lineman and frequently a hard-hitting columnist, appears Tuesdays and game days in the Free Press.