THERE WERE two
moments of pin-drop silence last Saturday afternoon at Ridgewood (N.J.) High's
football field. The first was just before the game between the undefeated
Maroons and the Montclair Mounties. Several hundred heads bowed in memory of
Ryne Dougherty, a junior Montclair linebacker who died last week after he
suffered a brain hemorrhage while making a tackle in a JV game, less than a
month after suffering a concussion in practice.
The second came
with the game tied at 14 and 1:42 left in the third quarter. Montclair's senior
quarterback Luke Iovine had scrambled toward the right sideline as a wave of
Ridgewood defenders washed over him, one of them putting a helmet right on his.
Iovine lay motionless on the grass, a faint streak of maroon paint splashed
across his white helmet. After several minutes the dazed QB was helped to the
bench, where Anthony Delfico, an orthopedic surgeon who was serving as
Ridgewood's team doctor for the game, gave him a thrice-over.
remember who had the ball on that play?" Delfico asked.
remember what the play was?"
for a moment and then shook his head, no.
Montclair trainers that Iovine had a concussion. Iovine's father, also named
Luke, a lawyer who was a standout QB for Montclair in the 1980s, made his way
down from the stands to make sure that the man examining his son was not being
overly cautious because of Dougherty's recent death. "He got hit in the
head, he's dizzy, he has a headache and retrograde amnesia," Delfico told
the father. "That's the definition of a concussion." Meanwhile, Luke
was in tears, insisting he be put back in the game, which Montclair won in
overtime. "I can go back in," he repeated. "I don't understand why
I can't go in." On the way to Valley Hospital, Luke, 17, begged his father
to turn the car around.
underscores the biggest obstacle in football's ongoing battle with concussions:
unreliable victims who are part of a macho culture in which playing down
injuries is a hallowed tradition. Concussions "don't show up in brain
imaging," says Kenneth Podell, director of neuropsychology and the Sports
Concussion Safety Program at the Henry Ford Health System in Detroit. "A
lot of times it's based on self-reporting of symptoms, and it's believed about
15 to 20 percent of athletes fake having no symptoms to get back in the
their recently rattled teeth is not just a problem with overeager kids. Last
year, the NFL faced criticism after reports of several former players who had
brain damage before their 40th birthdays. Those men often took little or no
recovery time following a concussion, and a second concussion before the first
is healed can cause serious damage. However, the outlook for current pros (on
average, there is one concussion every two games) is brighter than it was for
their pioneering forebears. Every NFL team now gives players a neurocognitive
test—a battery of memory and concentration exercises—before the season. If the
player takes a hit, he can be benched until his scores return to the
But as long as
self-reporting is part of the evaluation, players can, and will, talk their way
back into action. What's truly scary about Dougherty's death—the second
fatality caused by a brain injury in New Jersey high school football this
season—is that doctors took significant preventive steps in the days before it
happened. Dougherty suffered a concussion on Sept. 18. He was given a
neurocognitive test and a CT scan and passed both, but he hid the fact that he
was having headaches from doctors and told them he was ready to rejoin the
team. He was cleared on Oct. 6. "He wanted to play football so bad,"
says his mother, Marinalva Schnarr. "That's why he [told doctors] he felt
fine." He died on Oct. 15, two days after being rushed from the field with
a bleeding brain.