"One thing that still hurts is that I always told my kids that if they suffered a concussion, I would keep them out the whole year," Matt's father says. "He passed all of his neurological tests. I guess he was misdiagnosed."

Matt suffered another setback when the surgical incision became infected, requiring another procedure to remove a piece of his skull. For the next 42 days, Matt was forced to wear a helmet and take a chemotherapy-like cocktail of antibiotics.

"I don't remember much at the hospital," says Matt, who was paralyzed on the right side of his body for more than a month. "I remember people holding me up while I tried to take my first step, but my body felt like there was nothing there, like a ghost."

David Goldstein spoke to Florida legislators about devastating effects from multiple concussions.
Photo by Michael McElroy
David Goldstein spoke to Florida legislators about devastating effects from multiple concussions.
Natasha Helmick once played a game half-blind after sustaining a concussion.
Photo by Mark Graham
Natasha Helmick once played a game half-blind after sustaining a concussion.

To the surprise of the physicians, Matt eventually recovered. Soon the high school graduate will attend De Anza College in Cupertino, California, to study for a career in physical therapy, a profession he never considered before his injury. His first choice was to become a paramedic, but he's been told that's impossible — his right eye remains half-blind.

Dr. Mark Ashley — cofounder, president, and CEO of the Centre for Neuro Skills, whose clinics in Bakersfield, California, and Irving, Texas, specialize in traumatic brain injury rehabilitation — is helping Ali Champness recover from a number of serious health issues spawned by the not-too-dramatic hits from a soccer ball in January.

Ali, on Ashley's advice, sat out the rest of the soccer season. Two months later, she joined the school's swim team. But three weeks in, Ali called her mom from a competitive meet in a panic. "Mom, you need to get me to a doctor," Kim Champness remembers her daughter saying.

At Ashley's center, an MRI and CAT scan revealed bleeding in Ali's brain. A cardiologist found that the initial concussion had deregulated Ali's autonomic nervous system. For months, whenever Ali jogged on the treadmill, her heartbeat soared high enough to trigger cardiac arrest or stroke. She still goes to rehab three hours a day.

One of Ashley's most severe cases, treated at his center's Texas facility in 2006, was a 13-year-old football player from the Seattle suburbs named Zackery Lystedt, called "Ray Ray" for his idol, rampaging linebacker Ray Lewis.

In the second quarter of a game, Zack fell after an unremarkable tackle and hit the back of his head, although the injury escaped the notice of his father in the stands. "I thought he had gotten the wind knocked out of him," Victor Lystedt recalls.

Zack played every down for the rest of the game, even forcing a fumble and sprinting to a 32-yard return. But when his dad met him after the game, Zack began stumbling and muttering, "My head hurts really bad."

He collapsed onto the field. His left eye suddenly "blew out" and turned an inky black, the result of blood swelling in his skull. Then he convulsed into dozens of strokes. Says Victor, who witnessed the spectacle, helpless and confused: "My boy was dying on a football field." His son would survive, but his serious health problems continue.

Concussive episodes in youths have led school districts en masse to adopt new procedures for dealing with blows to the head. The most popular is the ImPACT test. A simple computer program designed by a pair of Pittsburgh doctors in the early '90s, the exam finds an athlete's "baseline" — his mental aptitude and quickness of reflexes when he's not suffering concussive symptoms — which can be used later in a comparative test to see if a collision has caused a lag.

But the test has hit real-world snags. The first is its price: At packages costing roughly $600 per school for the first year, ImPACT is deemed too expensive for some districts. And even when they spring for the program, few schools can afford to pay a specialist to administer it. That duty tends to fall on coaches or trainers, who are often unqualified to conduct the test. As shown in a litigious case in the suburbs of New York City, the results can be tragic.

In 2008, Ryne Dougherty, a 16-year-old high school linebacker in Essex County, New Jersey, sat out three weeks following a concussion. But after taking an ImPACT test, he was cleared to play. During his first game back, he suffered a brain hemorrhage and slipped into a coma. Ryne died within a week.

But Ryne's ImPACT results were ominously low, the family has claimed in a lawsuit against the school district. Additionally, according to the test results, Ryne reported feeling "foggy," but he was still cleared to play.

"Fogginess is the lead predictor of lasting head trauma," says Beth Baldinger, the attorney representing Ryne's family in a suit against the district. "[The trainer] ignored the test results in front of her. This case screams ignorance."

Michele Chemidlin, the trainer who administered the test, ignored phone messages and an email requesting comment for this story. She claimed to Sports Illustrated that Ryne's test was interrupted by a "disruptive" teammate, which made the results "invalid." But Baldinger claims the trainer retracted that story in a recent deposition.

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