High School Athletes Keep Dying From Concussions — So Why Do We Keep Letting Them Play?
Twenty-year-old Jenna Pelly lives a pretty normal life. She's a junior psychology major from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania who has tons of friends, loves international travel and enjoys sneaking home for an occasional weekend of home-cooked meals and chill time with her mom and dad.
It's been a long road to feeling this normal, though; when Jenna was just 11 years old, her 18-year-old brother Eric collapsed at the dinner table and died.
The family didn't find out until later that his death was the result of several concussions he'd received playing rugby in the weeks leading up to that night.
What happened to Eric Pelly is deeply tragic, and in the nine years since his death, stories like his have grown disturbingly common. At least seven high school football players have died nationwide in 2015 alone, and in recent months, a number of U.S. high schools have dropped their football teams altogether due to concerns over rising numbers of catastrophic injuries (meaning those that are deadly or cause severe brain damage) related to concussions received during practices and games.
In one of the most recent cases to make headlines, 17-year-old Andres Smith walked off the field after a blow to the head during a football game in Illinois but later collapsed, and died in the hospital the following day.
The question of whether contact sports are really safe for the brain is now being fiercely debated by everyone from the NFL to Hollywood, but teenage brains are especially vulnerable.
Jenna Pelly, age 11, with her mom Joan, her dad Mark, and her two older brothers Eric (left) and Reed (right)
Concussions And Young Brains
Eric died from Second Impact Syndrome, a condition that occurs when a second concussion takes place before a first concussion has fully healed, and which seems to mostly affect people under the age of 25. Athletes in contact sports like rugby and football are especially at risk, in part because people don't realize that 90 percent or more of diagnosed concussions do not result in a loss of consciousness. Many concussions go undiagnosed altogether.
Jenna told MTV News that her brother was a youth group leader, a popular honor student and an all-star athlete. He excelled at all sports but loved hockey and rugby the most, and was so good at the latter that he'd been invited to play on a local semi-pro rugby team despite the fact that he was still a senior in high school.
A few weeks before he died, Eric received a hard blow to the head during one of his rugby games. He kept quiet about his subsequent headaches because he didn't want to have to sit out the next game. When he received a second concussion in another game not long afterwards, he collapsed on the field and was hospitalized, but was soon after sent home and told he would be fine. A few days later, despite the fact that he seemed to be perfectly healthy, Eric's brain swelled so rapidly that it killed him almost instantly.
Scans of Eric's brain revealed early signs of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) -- a degenerative brain disease associated with repetitive brain trauma that's typically found in much older athletes, like retired boxers and NFL players, and can ultimately lead to memory loss, aggression, depression and progressive dementia.
Jenna and Eric Pelly
Dr. Robert C. Cantu, a leading expert on concussions and author of the 2012 book "Concussions And Our Kids," has strongly recommended that kids not play contact sports like tackle football or hockey with full-body checks until they're at least 14 years old, and that high school and college players avoid blows to the head whenever possible.
"The young brain is particularly vulnerable to trauma," Dr. Cantu told MTV News. "More so than the adult brain. Obviously, at no age is it not vulnerable to a degree, but it's vulnerable to a higher degree the younger you are."
He went on to explain that in young brains, myelin, the protective coating that surrounds nerves, isn't yet fully developed -- leaving young brain tissue much more vulnerable to disruption. This also makes concussion recovery time slower in young people than it is in adults. And because the brain is still in the process of maturing and developing, sometimes young brains that are injured are simply unable to make a full recovery and complete healthy development.
Dr. Cantu also suggested that second-impact syndrome might primarily affect athletes under the age of 25 for two reasons: First, because there are so many more high school-aged students playing contact sports than there are adults; and second, because professional NFL players have negotiated to lessen the number of hits to the head they receive on a regular basis, while many younger players are still subjected to repeated minor head trauma. This can cause damage over the long term -- even if no concussions are actually received.
It's also important to note that while helmets can protect the outside of the skull from damage, concussions are caused by the brain hitting the inside of the skull -- as such, helmets actually do very little to protect players from any of the short or long-term risks associated with repetitive brain trauma.
It's a difficult truth the NFL has been denying for years.
"The NFL only allows full-contact practice 14 times during 18 weeks of the season," Dr. Cantu explained. "They don't allow any of it in the off-season. And it's rather insane that the NFL has far less head trauma in practice than high schools and colleges and in our youth, who are hitting two to three times a week and playing a game on top of it."
The culprit, Dr. Cantu said, is tackling. "Roughly two thirds of catastrophic head and spine injuries happen in the act of tackling or being tackled. We want people playing football, but if you take that one play out of football, it becomes safer by a factor of two thirds."
He added that limiting tackling in practices is possible: "You can substitute flag football for tackle football, and the act of tackling can be taught using mannequins and dummies -- so you can still be acquiring the skills, but you’re not putting your brain at risk."
A Message To Young Athletes
Both Dr. Cantu and Jenna Pelly made it clear that they're not trying to tell young athletes to stop playing the sports they love; they're just trying to raise awareness about the potentially deadly dangers of preventable brain injuries.
"We’re not telling young athletes not to play sports," Jenna told MTV News. "We are asking them to view their sport as a part of their lives, rather than as their identity ... The game isn’t important enough for you to risk your life."
Dr. Cantu agrees. "We want people playing football," he said. "We just want to eliminate unnecessary and repeated head trauma."
Jenna added that it's important for young athletes to know the signs and symptoms of a concussion so they can look out for their friends and teammates.
"You don't owe it to a team or to an organization to push through an injury," she said. "If there's one thing my brother's friends and teammates could go back and change, it's that they wish they could stop him from playing -- they wish they said to him, 'Don't play, sit out.' They loved him, and they still miss him every day because he played in that last game."
She continued, "Eric actually wrote a poem shortly before he died with a last line about how he’d have given everything he has to the game every time he leaves the field. And that turned out to be eerily true. That's a great thing to say until you actually die of a head injury. So please, don't do that. Don't give it everything you have."
Healing From Family Trauma
"After my brother passed away, I tried to just be strong for my parents because it was really important to me that they wouldn’t really see me upset," Jenna said. "But over time I learned to just work through it and process it ... I learned from my mom that I can use my brother’s story to help other people."
Jenna's mother, Joan, has established a foundation for concussion awareness, and works to help raise awareness around concussion safety. This includes speaking out about the issue in the media, as well as with high school and college athletes. She also organizes yearly sports-centered fundraising events for concussion awareness and research.
"Seeing my mom speak about it and seeing that her strength came from actually being emotional about it, and from telling Eric's story, really gave me a new sense of what it meant to be strong," Jenna said.
Following her mother's lead, Jenna now shares Eric's story whenever she has the chance, and speaks out about concussion safety in an attempt to keep what happened from Eric to happening to any other young athletes. She also hopes to one day become a psychologist so that she can help kids and teens learn to overcome traumatic events in their own lives.
"Sharing Eric's story is definitely difficult," she said. "If this hadn’t happened, I would be experiencing so many things with my brother now, so it's always a reminder of what I don't have. But it's also a always reminder of how fortunate I am to be able to tell his story and use it for something positive."