SPRING CREEK — For a minute, Garrett Powell thought he was never going to be able to see again.
Bright light filled up his right eye and the vision in both eyes was blurry.
Garrett, a junior at Spring Creek High School, plays soccer for the varsity soccer team.
It was the first weekend of the season when his vision went askew.
To this date he’s not sure if it was the ball or the player’s foot that hit him in the side of the head.
He was playing against Fernley High School, when Garrett went for a ball between himself and another player, and as his coach described it “force upon force upon force” met at the side of Garrett’s head, causing a slight concussion.
“You think the worst. On one hand, you now say he doesn’t get to play and you worry like every injury that it’s a severe injury, but you’re also heartbroken because he doesn’t get to play and the glory is gone,” said Garrett’s mother, Jennifer.
Like any Spring Creek athlete suffering a concussion, Garrett had to take an impact test, a cognitive test that determines an athlete’s ability to return to play after a concussion.
All of the athletes have to take the test before playing in a sport and once they receive a concussion have to pass it within 90 percent of what they scored the first time.
They are only allowed to take the test once all of their symptoms have completely disappeared. In Garrett’s case that took about 4-5 days.
Paving the way
The same week Garrett suffered his concussion several Spring Creek parents and the coach saw something new to the league.
The entire Fallon soccer team, playing in the season-opening tournament at Spring Creek, wore black headbands.
It was a whole new look to the team, a mandatory requirement for the boys team imposed by their head coach Nate Waite.
Ever since joining Division I-A, the Fallon boys soccer team has been a major player in the league, but last year they had more problems than just winning and losing games.
Waite said for about a month the team had to sit out 1-2 players every game because of concussions. He estimated players missed anywhere from 10-15 games in 2011.
This year, Waite knew he had to try something to help his players stay on the field.
“I said to myself, this is something we can’t have. We have to change something,” Waite said.
So, at the start of this season Waite required his players to wear headbands, devices marketed to reduce impact in soccer.
“I was just honest with the parents. ‘I don’t know if these are a miracle cure or what, but I do know I want to do everything I can,’” he said.
Since then, Waite said, at the risk of jinxing himself, that his players haven’t missed a single game this year because of concussions.
After Waite explained what the headbands were all about to Spring Creek coach Leaf Knotts and several Spring Creek parents in the opening weekend and experiencing what happened to Garrett, Knotts purchased the equipment through the school program for the Varsity and JV teams. He also took donations from any parent wanting to give one.
Soccer headbands, like the ones now worn by the Spring Creek boys, are made by a company called Full90. They are about two inches tall and a quarter-inch thick with foam around the front, sides and back. The foam padding is broken up into sections, designed to spread out the impact.
The company’s website says the headband reduces the probability of concussions by 50 percent. It costs about $40 each.
However, as popular as the head gear is becoming, many experts say the evidence doesn’t support the company’s claims.
Dr. Robert Cantu is a neurosurgeon with the Boston University School of Medicine and author of the book “Concussions and Our Kids.” He’s spoken out about the lack of supporting research for the headguards.
“There’s no solid signs that say they’re effective,” he told the Free Press from Boston. “Although, they probably reduce scalp lacerations or scalp hematomas.”
“If someone wears it and thinks they’re largely immune from concussions, that’s probably more dangerous.”
Cantu said the majority of concussions come from heads colliding with other heads and other body parts. Many times this comes when players are putting their heads in precarious situations, trying to head the ball.
Cantu recommends that no one under the age of 14 heads the ball.
“The name of the game in the rest of the world is football, not head ball, and you can still get the aerobic benefits of running around and keeping the ball on the ground,” he said.
Cantu also said strengthening the neck is the most important thing in soccer, especially amongst girls, and it can help reduce concussions.
Concussions in soccer
For the past several years, concussions have been a dominant topic amongst sports circles. That wasn’t always the case.
“I can remember back when I played (soccer) and no one ever talked about concussions,” Knotts said. “You hardly ever heard about it in high school, but once I started coaching 5-7 years ago you heard more and more about it.”
Much of the discussion on concussions has been on football, but soccer is right up there in incidents.
According to a study by the American Journal of Sports Medicine, after football, girls soccer had the most cases of concussions.
Soccer can be just as physical of a sport, but without all the protective gear as football.
“You have head-to-head. There’s always falling to the ground and hitting your head on something, elbows up and so on,” Knotts said.
If a player does receive a concussion, then the impact test is designed to keep them from resuming the sport before the first concussion has fully healed.
While he sat out with a concussion, Garrett — Spring Creek’s second-leading scorer — was regulated to shagging balls in practice. Once he cleared the impact test he had to take it easy in practice, but said by the second day everything he could do everything.
Although she admitted it’s a frustrating process waiting for the symptoms to go away and the results of the impact test to come back in, Jennifer is thankful for the mandatory testing.
“If they get hit a second time or shortly after (a concussion) it could be even worse,” she said. “My concern would be any long-term effects that go unnoticed and that would be more serious.”
As long as the recovery is complete, Cantu said there’s no harm in resuming the sport after a concussion.
“If a child is completely recovered and there are no residual effects, it’s perfectly safe to resume those activities,” he said.
A little cushion
When the Spring Creek soccer team was introduced to the headbands, Garrett, like much of the rest of the team, was a little wary.
He didn’t know how they’d be able to head the ball effectively in competition and has seen them fly off and players have to hunt for them later.
Since then, he’s gotten used to it.
“I think only two of us really didn’t want them, but the rest of us said it would probably be a good idea,” he said. “At first, I wasn’t too keen on the idea ... but it doesn’t really affect you.”
Like Cantu, Garrett doesn’t have any illusions about the chances of the headband stopping a big impact.
“If I get kicked in the side of the head I don’t think it would stop it, but it might cushion it a little bit more,” he said.
In the last game of the season for Spring Creek, even with a headband, one of their players suffered a head-to-head hit and left with a concussion.
Knotts and Jennifer also recognize that the headbands may not do as much as the company claims, but for them a little bit of something is better than nothing.
“Anything that can absorb a little bit of impact is better than nothing,” Jennifer said. “If it’s a precaution, it’s a precaution. It’s better than nothing.”
Knotts said next year the headbands, unless the student already owns one, will be a part of the equipment each player has to buy.