September 13, 2011

Studying the football brain

More news about: Rochester | Stevenson
John Whiting
Division III players, such as Rochester's John Whiting, take plenty of hits over the course of the season. Now they are being studied more closely.
University of Rochester athletics photo 

Jeff Bazarian isn't trying to change the game of football. He's simply trying to make it safer for those who play it.

It just so happens that, in order to accomplish that, it might one day require a radical change, particularly at the Division III, high school and youth levels.

Bazarian, an associate professor of Emergency Medicine, Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Community & Preventive Medicine at the University of Rochester, is conducting an NFL-supported, season-long study of how the brain is impacted by playing football.

Ten Rochester players have agreed to wear helmets with six sensors inside them to record every hit -- along with the amount of energy, force and direction -- to the players' heads in every practice and game this season. Chips inside the helmets, which are all the same Riddell Speed models, can store up to 200 hits at a time and are scanned after each day. The time-stamped information is collected by study coordinator Kirsten Ross and medical student Brandon Stein, uploaded right into a computer and stored on another server.

The players were given diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) scans, which essentially are more powerful MRI scans, of their brains before the start of the season, and will receive additional scans directly after the season, and again six months after the season to judge their recovery.

Bazarian, who has been at Rochester since 1994, conducted a similar study with high school players three years ago. Admittedly, he expected to find the most damage in players that suffered serious concussions or blows to the head. What he actually found surprised him -- players that played all season and were seemingly "healthy" showed nearly as much injury in the brain as the one player who was knocked out that season.

"We're looking for the hits to the head that don't result in changing of consciousness," Bazarian said of this year's study. "So getting knocked out, having amnesia, being dazed, having your bell rung, we're not talking about those hits. We're talking about all the other hits, which are much more common. So basically any time a helmet contacts something, it doesn't result in a player being dazed, confused or knocked out."

Eric Rozen, the head athletic trainer at Rochester, has worked closely with Bazarian over the years on various studies, particularly on whether or not there is a rise in protein levels associated with concussions.

Rozen said the secondary hits, or sub-concussive blows, can pose just as much a threat to players as major concussions, particularly when many players are absorbing anywhere from 1,000 to 3,000 blows to the head in a given season.

"People look for the defenseless wide receiver going across the middle and someone just sticking them, versus the lineman that is, again, taking blow after blow after blow," Rozen said. "... We looked long and hard at what we wanted to do. We're looking at the sub-concussive stuff. We're not looking at the big blow, we're not looking at the skill positions, we're looking at linemen and backers."

The 10 players involved in the season-long study include two offensive linemen, three defensive linemen and two linebackers, along with a tight end, fullback and running back, Rozen said. As part of the medical confidentiality of the study, the identities of the players are being kept private.

Bazarian was awarded one of the NFL's annual medical grants, which can be worth up $100,000 each fiscal year. Every year, the NFL calls for grant proposals in a variety of fields. Bazarian said there was mild interest in his his first proposal two years ago, which centered on the protein and blood tests. This time around, with the helmet sensors and DTI scans in place, there was more meat to the project.

"What we're excited about is that the NFL, who is the funder of this grant, did choose us because we're able to do the research," Rozen said. "And they're not necessarily interested that we aren't a Division I Football Bowl Series team, but that we're a Division III academic institution. But these guys are playing football just like anyone else."

The 10 players that agreed to be part of this study also agreed not to take part in any contact sports for the six months following Rochester's football season. That was done deliberately to see if any brain injuries shown at the end of the season heal themselves during the six-month period to follow.

"I think that the game can still be played with gusto," Bazarian explains. "I think we just may need to be reasonable about when people need to rest."

The most obvious question looms large: In a game where players, particularly linemen, backs and linebackers, are colliding with other players on every play, how can you prevent these repetitive blows to the head? The eventual answer might be one that changes the way the game is played, at least at the Division III level and lower.

"What we kind of want to know is, if we could take up all the hits that you have in a season and kind of mash them all together, and then look at each individual player and compare them, is there like a force threshold?" Bazarian said. "Like a certain amount of force or certain number of hits you need to get before you start to see brain injury on these scans. That's what we're hoping to find. A line in the sand.

"Can we in the future maybe say, 'If you go over so many hits, you're going to start to get some damage on the scan.' So you could envision maybe monitoring in real time players wearing these helmets, and you could say, 'Oh, player six is the approaching the limit. That was his, whatever, 22nd hit, we've got to pull him out of the game because we know from previous studies that if he gets 28 hits, he'll start to see brain injury.' That kind of thing."

It's a radical idea, but in a time when the stories like the ones of former NFL players Dave Duerson and Mike Webster, and young college players like Penn's Owen Thomas and Frostburg State's Derek Sheely have become far too common, head injuries need to be taken seriously.

Rochester coach Scott Greene, who played four seasons in the NFL as a back with the Indianapolis Colts and Carolina Panthers, has felt the effects of concussions first-hand.

"I definitely had concussions when I played," said Greene, now is his fifth season as Rochester's coach. "I remember in college [at Michigan State] I had to come off the field because I was hit against Indiana. I remember the play itself, but there was probably five or six minutes or so where I didn't know what was going on. ...

"It's a violent game. It is what it is. If you look at anything, I think maybe they'll change the technology, but how this is going to affect the game later on, I think there's a lot of us that are waiting to see what'll happen from this. I don't think this is going to change NFL football, I don't think this is going to change Division I football, but it might change youth football and it might change high school football. Hopefully it doesn't get to that case where football's not being played anymore. That would be a shame."

Greene said one of the 10 players in the study registered 89 hits to his helmet in the Yellowjackets' season opener against Case Western Reserve on Saturday. Greene, like Bazarian and Rozen, said he's interested to see the final results of the study.

Bazarian said he's hoping to reapply for funding from the NFL in the future to build a multiyear study. There will likely be at least a one year gap though, as the NFL has already begun accepting applications for next year's grants.

"There's concern about some type of level of injury to the brain," Rozen said. "Is there long-term injury to the brain with blow after blow after blow? Is there a way that we can better protect these guys from this stuff?"

It might be years before we can definitively answer those questions, but studies like the one at Rochester are moving the game of football closer to answers.

Kean notches historic upset
How do you beat a team that hasn't lost to anyone besides UW-Whitewater or Mount Union since 2008? While there's no guaranteed formula, blocking a pair of punts and forcing two turnovers -- one to kill the opposition's final drive of the game -- is a good start to any blueprint. That's how Kean shocked No. 3 Wesley (now No. 15), defeating the Wolverines 31-28 Saturday. While Mount Union and Whitewater grab all the national attention, Wesley has more than solidified itself in the "Best of the Rest" category, if we can call it that. Since the start of the 2005 season, Wesley has gone 71-10 and reached the NCAA semifinals four times. That's as impressive a resume as you'll find in the country.

But none of that mattered Saturday. Kean's special teams blocked a pair of punts, both of which led directly to touchdowns. Matt Clerk and Kirk Brooks combined on the first block, which came midway through the second quarter. On the very next play, Tom D'Ambrisi connected with Lester Smith on a 24-yard touchdown strike to give Kean a 10-6 lead. The Wolverines went three-and-out on their next possession, but again had their fourth-down punt blocked, this time by Nick Graff. Graff recovered the loose ball and rumbled six yards for a touchdown, which helped put Kean up 17-6. The upset alert was officially activated.

Of course, Wesley wasn't about to just roll over. The Wolverines responded with a touchdown and two-point conversion just before halftime to cut the lead to 17-14. In the second half, the two teams traded a pair of touchdowns, but it was Kean's final offensive drive and ensuing defensive stand that clinched the win. D'Ambrisi, with his team trailing 28-24, calmly led the Cougars on a nine-play, 60-yard drive over 1:17 to give Kean a 31-28 lead with 1:18 remaining.

A decent return on the ensuing kickoff was followed by a 19-yard pass completion from Shane McSweeny to Jared Morris. The officials tacked on another 15 yards for a facemask penalty, giving Wesley the ball at the Kean 30-yard line. But the Cougars thwarted the Wolverines' rally comeback attempt on the next play when Clerk forced a Matt Barile fumble. Kean's Jerelle Peay recovered, the Cougars ran out the clock and celebrated the upset.

A first of many for an infant program
There were going to be plenty of "firsts" for Stevenson's football team this season. After all, it is the first varsity season in school history. So the first kickoff, first handoff, first pass, first touchdown -- all of these can be marked down as milestones and future trivia questions. But the first win? That was the big one. When would it happen? Would it even happen this season? As it turns out, coach Ed Hottle and his players didn't keep fans waiting. The Mustangs tallied an unlikely -- some would say improbable -- 46-43 double overtime win over Christopher Newport, an NCAA tournament team a year ago.

"It's tremendous," Hottle said Monday. "And to do it against a team that's established and that was in the tournament last year, that's tremendous."

The seeds for this win were planted months ago, in the 30-degree thaw of spring practices in Maryland, Hottle said. But the hard work back then paid off Saturday, when the inexperienced Mustangs found themselves trailing five separate times in the time, only to erase the deficit each time. Freshman kicker Garrett Pareau booted a 37-yard field goal as time expired in regulation to send the game to overtime. In the second extra session, quarterback C.J. Hopson, a transfer from Bucknell who piled up 375 total yards, connected with receiver Jeromie Miller, who caught his second touchdown despite strong coverage.

"The first thing I told them [was] I was proud of them," Hottle said. "... Throughout the game there was a number of opportunities where we could have gone in the tank in a little bit."

Hottle said the win doesn't change his team's approach moving forward -- the goal remains to win every game. The truth is, Stevenson must continue to move forward in small steps, with a focus on fundamentals. If the coaches stress improvement each week -- no matter how incremental it appears to outside viewers -- this first season will set the foundation for years to come.

"We talked about young teams having big wins and not being able to come back the next week, and not being able to play with the same intensity and same emotion," Hottle said. "We talk openly and honestly about that. I've kind of put it on them and challenged them a little bit to come out and have a great week of practice."

Hey, remember us?
You all didn't forget about Alfred ... did you? The Saxons kicked off their season with a resounding 48-21 thumping of RPI this past Saturday. Alfred's offense, led by senior quarterback Tom Secky, clicked on all cylinders, piling up 561 total yards. Secky (17-of-25, 328 yards, three touchdowns) completed passes to nine different receivers, but none were more dangerous than Josh Phillips, who caught seven passes for 201 yards, including touchdowns of 53 and 70 yards.

When Alfred wasn't gouging RPI through the air, it was wearing down the Engineers' defense with the ground game. Austin Dwyer (17 carries, 107 yards) fueled an Alfred rushing attack that piled up 224 yards at a 5.3 per-carry clip. And let's not forget the engine that makes this Alfred offense run like a well-oiled machine -- the offensive line. The Saxons' line, anchored on the right side by senior center Tim DeMersman, senior right guard Harold Spetla and senior right tackle Vito Sinisgalli, allowed no sacks and paved running lanes all day.

I haven't even mentioned that Alfred's defense held RPI to fewer than 2 yards per carry in a stout overall effort. The Saxons, once again, appear to have a team capable of making a nice playoff run.

Two teams on divergent paths
Saturday's nailbiter between Utica and Union wasn't just an evenly played matchup between regional foes. It possibly provided us with a stark comparison of a team on the rise and a team on the decline. Utica won the game 28-27, taking the lead for good with just over three minutes remaining on an Andrew Benkwitt pass to Matt Dunn. So, Utica sits at 2-0 and Union is now 0-2.

What, if anything, can we make of this? Utica might not win the Empire 8 this season, but the Pioneers will be a tough win for anyone that beats them. Benkwitt is the real deal at quarterback. His 570 yards, 77.6 completion percentage and six touchdowns all lead the Empire 8. But besides the gaudy numbers, he has led Utica to a 2-0 start, with wins over Liberty League teams St. Lawrence and Union.

Detractors might argue that we've seen this before (i.e. last year's 5-1 start). I'd argue that beating St. Lawrence and Union is more impressive than dismantling Becker and Castleton State, as the Pioneers did last season. Union, on the other hand, has now lost eight consecutive games dating back to last season, and hasn't won since a 25-17 decision against WPI last Oct. 2. Such a stretch of futility under head coach John Audino would have long been thought impossible.

However grim the situation appears on paper, it's this writer's opinion that the Dutchmen, by and large, have just been unlucky. Of the eight consecutive losses, four have come by a touchdown or less, including three- and one-point losses this season. While it is true that the great teams find ways to win close games, it is also possible for a team to endure an extended streak of bad luck. I think that's what we're seeing here. A win over Ithaca this Saturday would lend credence to my belief.

Close calls for playoff hopefuls
St. John Fisher and Delaware Valley both got scares Saturday. More importantly, the Cardinals and Aggies also got wins. St. John Fisher, a perennial top-25 and playoff-caliber team, had its hands full with Buffalo State, needing a fourth-quarter touchdown to secure a 12-7 win. Yes, it was the first game of the season, but St. John Fisher was uncharacteristically sloppy -- two missed field goals, two interceptions and three fumbles (none lost though).

Even after quarterback Ryan Kramer hit Ryan Francis on a 30-yard touchdown with just over two minutes remaining in the fourth quarter to put Fisher up, the Cardinals still had to hold off one last charge from a scrappy Bengals squad. Buffalo State started its final drive at the 50-yard line thanks to a mediocre kickoff and a solid return by Mike Doherty. Six plays later, the Bengals found themselves facing a fourth-and-goal at the Fisher 12-yard line. St. John Fisher's Zach Dolan came up with the interception in the end zone to seal the deal.

Delaware Valley trailed 19-7 in the second quarter of their PAC-MAC Challenge game against Washington & Jefferson, but battled back to take a 20-19 lead in the third quarter. From that point, the Aggies' defense harassed Presidents quarterback Matt Bliss, sacking him five times and forcing an interception on Washington & Jefferson's last offensive drive.

Quick hits
Rochester linebacker Brendan Pidgeon had six tackles and two key fourth-quarter interceptions in the Yellowjackets' season-opening win against Case Western Reserve. ... Springfield's triple-option offense appeared in midseason form in the Pride's 48-24 win over Frostburg State on Saturday. Quarterback Josh Carter rushed for 189 yards and three touchdowns, and added a pair of long touchdowns passes in his only two attempts. Springfield linebacker Scott Christy was a tackling machine, tallying 22 total tackles to go along with two pass breakups. ... Montclair State back Chris D'Andrea burned Salve Regina for 239 yards and two touchdowns in the Red Hawks' season-opening win Saturday. D'Andrea broke off long touchdown runs of 44 and 75 yards. Montclair State kicker Jake DelVento drilled a pair of field goals, including a 46-yarder in the first quarter. ... Lycoming quarterback Zach Klinger (19-of-34, 294 yards, three touchdowns) and receiver Warren Oliver (eight receptions, 215 yards, three touchdowns) torched the Westminster (Pa.) defense in the Warriors' 41-3 rout. ... Another week, another 100-yard game for Lebanon Valley back Ben Guiles, who totaled 103 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries in the Dutchmen's 27-7 win over Grove City. Quarterback Colt Zarilla was sharp as well, completing 16 of his 24 passes for 206 yards and three touchdowns. ... St. Lawrence seniors Marcus Washington (36 carries, 222 yards, one touchdown) and Ethan Sutton (10 receptions, 115 yards, three touchdowns) punished Norwich in the Saints' 29-14 win. Sutton also shined on special teams, dropping three punts inside the Cadets' 20-yard line. ... Merchant Marine wide receiver Chase Dunn caught three touchdown passes Saturday, including the game-winner with just eight seconds remaining to lift Mariners past rival Coast Guard, 35-28, in a rivalry game marked as much by the pomp and circumstance around the 10th anniversary of 9/11 as it was by the rivalry itself.

Looking ahead
No. 18 Kean (1-0) will look to follow up its upset of then-No. 3 Wesley with another win over a ranked team when it faces No. 11 Cortland State (1-0) at 1 p.m. Saturday. Cortland had a bye last week following its season-opening 28-12 win against Buffalo State. The winner of this matchup will get an early leg up in the NJAC race, while at the same adding a win over a top-20 team to its resume.

The annual meeting between St. John Fisher (1-0) and Rochester (1-0) in the Courage Bowl (7 p.m., Saturday) has become a can't-miss event for the entire Rochester community over the past seven years. The Cardinals have won all six previous meetings, but the outcome takes a backseat to the real purpose of the game -- to benefit Camp Good Days campers that have been diagnosed with cancer. Like last season, the game will be played in downtown Rochester at Sahlen's Stadium, which has a capacity of over 13,000.

Is it possible for two perennial playoff contenders to be facing must-wins in Week 3? Well, when Union (0-2) hosts Ithaca (1-1) at 1 p.m. Saturday, that will be just the case. The Dutchmen are coming off a second late-game disappointment, while the Bombers were handled defensively by Salisbury. Whichever team wins should right the ship, if even just for one week.

Contact me
I'm always happy to hear from you, whether its questions, feedback or story ideas. Please reach out to me at andrew.lovell@d3sports.com. You can also follow me on Twitter (@andrew_lovell), and be sure to get involved in the discussions on the Around the East thread on the message board.

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