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Players, coaches and families put heads together to minimize potential for brain injuries

A spate of recent serious football-related injuries and fatalities, as well a $765 million payout by the NFL to over 4,500 retired players has heightened awareness around the dangers of concussion.

In western New York, coaches, players and their families are developing strategies to minimize risk.

In the suburban town of Cheektowaga, Maryvale High School’sVarsity football team is practicing for their next game. Seventeen-year old senior Mike Cammarano is inside linebacker for the team. A few weeks ago he was involved in a helmet-to-helmet hit that led to him being taken off the field by paramedics.

“I was laying there and instantly it was sort of hard to figure out where I was and then I realized something was wrong, so I just stayed down and waited until help came,” said Cammarano.

The western New York community is more alert than ever to sports injuries after a 16-year-old running back on the Westfield-Brocton football team, Damon Janes died after helmet-to-helmet contact. You can see the letter’s “DJ” on the back of most western New York’s varsity team’s helmets commemorating him.

Maryvale’s Varsity Football Coach Jeffrey Buccieri says reducing injuries is also a matter of constantly reinforcing the rules.

“We do open gyms actually starting in May and on that day we teach them how to block correctly, [with]  the head up and also to tackle correctly too with their head up as-well, rolling their hips, tackling low to high, we go over the fundamentals,” said Buccieri.

Lockport High School Varsity football Coach Greg Bronson agrees, and says the Damon Janes tragedy makes it even more important to encourage players to get checked by a trainer if something doesn’t feel right.

“Our trainer here does exceptionally well. She has a very good handle for the difference between someone who has significant injury and someone who needs to be held out or needs to be limited in what they do, and somebody who is experiencing normal aches and pains of playing a contact sport,” said Bronson.

Coach Bronson is no stranger to player injury. His 17-year-old son, Daniel, is a quarter back for Lockport. During his football career Daniel Bronson suffered a concussion and this season, an injured collar bone.

“Even if you think you’re okay, you have to have somebody whose knowledge is superior to you clear you, because they know what’s better for you than you do. You may feel fine, but I can’t see my brain. If I go back out there I could cause myself future damage,” said Bronson.

Daniel Bronson isn’t sure if he’ll return to play football for his final season, but he hopes to be cleared to play basketball come winter.

Players need to recognize signs

Medical Director of the University at Buffalo Concussion Management Clinic John Leddy says it’s important for players to be able to recognize the signs and symptoms of concussion.

“What happens after concussion is your brain is vulnerable to repeat injury, just like a knee would be, and the thinking is that if you get another injury to the brain during that vulnerable period that the second injury becomes much worse and in some people it looks like it may lead to something called irreversible brain swelling or edema,” said Leddy.

Leddy says it’s unclear how many concussions can tip the scales, as it differs for everyone.

“It’s important not only to identify a concussion, but also tell somebody look do I think you had a concussion and in fact you’re okay and you shouldn’t be scared to go back and play,” said Leddy.

Today, trainers are educated better than ever on how to recognize that difference said Leddy. He thinks new technologies could help reduce injuries in football and other contact sports, in the future.

“There’s some research being done on using devices in helmets called accelerometers which measures the direction and level of forces applied. The thinking there is that in the future what you might do is monitor how many hits or how strong the hits are in these players during practices and games and you may be able to develop a profile and say I think you’ve had enough here,” said Leddy.

Heads up

Coach Jeffrey Buccieri says until those technologies are available, he’ll continue to tell his players to keep their heads up when tackling an opponent.

“Your health comes first. And we tell the guys our number one priority is to make sure you guys are safe,” said Buccieri.

Football mom Caryn Kellaher says she still gets nervous watching her son play a contact sport, but it’s important to let him play.

“There are kids they can get hurt crossing the street, they can get hurt in football, they can get hurt in the vehicle with you if it’s going to happen it’s going to happen, but let the kid be a kid,” she said.

Mike Cammarano completed a return-to-play procedure and is recovering from his concussion. His advice to other players is don’t be afraid to get back in the game once you’ve healed.

“I just love to play, I have to play, it’s what I want to do. So, I do whatever I have to, to get back,” said Cammarano.

Editor's Note: On Tuesday Oct. 8, PBS Frontline reveals the hidden story of the NFL and brain injuries during their documentary "League of Denial". And on Wednesday Oct. 9 you can join the National Public Television health program Second Opinionfor a Twitter chat on the same topic at Secondopinion-tv.org/twitter from 3 p.m. eastern.

WBFO/Western New York reporter for the Innovation Trail.