Saving skulls on the soccer field | AspenTimes.com

Saving skulls on the soccer field

Jon Maletz

The risks of head injury in soccer are coming to light, in the Roaring Fork Valley and nationwide. Here, Aspen High's Bo Gallagher, left, goes up against Colorado Academy's Johnny Pav during an Oct. 19 playoff game. (Mark Fox/Aspen Times Weekly)

The Tuesday, Oct. 18 soccer game between Aspen and Basalt is about to kick off.Fans begin to line the concrete steps on one side of the field. The red lights of local cable television cameras are on and blinking; a grill is being fired up behind the gymnasium.A group of Longhorns players casually toss around a rubber football while others dig through bags for their familiar yellow and white jerseys. As eyes scan the Basalt bench, one thing immediately stands out. Among the colorful winter hats and hooded sweatshirts is Tyler Stevens.Stevens’ full head of bright red hair commands attention, but his unusual navy headband, manufactured by San Diego-based Full90, is found on no other player.It weighs less than 2 ounces, costs less than $30 and is made of shock-absorbing foam, Lycra and polypropylene. From 20, even 10 yards away, it looks modest, almost invisible under a head of thick hair. But for Full90 founder Jeff Skeen – whose product is intended to help athletes play a full 90-minute game – and local youth soccer board members, this small piece of protection is an answer to one of soccer’s largest safety concerns.”Some kids don’t like the feel of it,” Stevens said Tuesday. “Like a small T-shirt that is too tight, some think it just doesn’t feel right. I’ve always been wearing a helmet, so it’s kind of natural for me.”

Stevens has suffered five concussions – all the result of snowboarding accidents. Doctors feared he might be prone to future concussions, because his brain has not fully healed.One day while flipping through a soccer magazine, Stevens’ mother came upon a Full90 advertisement. For a small piece of equipment, it makes big claims.Tests show that Full90 is capable of reducing the force of impact from a head-to-head, head-to-ground or head-to-goal by more than 50 percent, said Skeen.Stevens’ mother ordered one of the padded headbands, and Stevens has worn it since the start of spring practice.”I thought it was kind of lame at first,” Stevens admitted. “There wasn’t any consequence if I chose not to wear it. I would just get hurt.”

Concussion statisticsLast year alone, The National Electric Injury Surveillance System (NEISS), a company that counts and categorizes emergency room visits, recorded 88,000 soccer concussions. A study conducted by Dr. J. Scott Delaney at McGill University in Montreal found that 60 percent of college soccer players reported symptoms of a concussion (headache, nausea, dizziness, amnesia, light-sensitivity) at least once during the season. Even more surprising, concussion rates in soccer players were comparable to those in football. And athletes who suffered a concussion were four to six times more likely to suffer a second.Despite the statistics – and a recent issue of the British Journal of Sports Medicine that unequivocally concludes headgear reduces the probability of injury – the product has been slow to catch on. While an estimated 19 million Americans participate in soccer, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturing Association, Skeen says he has sold about 100,000 padded headbands since his company launched in 2002. Stevens is routinely the only player wearing headgear on just about every field he plays.”At first, I was worried about being the only one,” Stevens said. “But I didn’t get crap from the other players. If more people start to wear it, I think it will become more natural.”Close call in CarbondaleIn light of a near-tragedy Sept. 15 in Carbondale, when Aspen’s Henry Cote collided head-on with Colorado Rocky Mountain School’s Chris Sellers, the issue has gained momentum in the valley. Cote’s heart and breathing reportedly stopped for 15 seconds. Both were treated for concussions. Basalt youth soccer board member Bob Stewart took notice. Stewart, an ardent Full90 supporter, is proposing that the product be instituted for Under-8 and Under-10 players as early as next season.While the Colorado State Youth Soccer Association continues to skirt the issue, maintaining the decision to wear headgear should rest solely with players and parents, Stewart said it is his duty to provide children with the opportunity to play soccer in a safe environment.”If we can get the younger players used to wearing it early on, then they will simply continue in the future,” Stewart said. “I have brought up the issue of children’s safety and headgear in the past and people just were not even aware that there was a problem or a solution.”As the issue gains notoriety, Skeen said he expects Full90 to show up on fields across the country. The Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) issued a September 2003 statement including Full90 in its Laws of the Game, making the product legal on any playing field in the country. Following the announcement, 21 players donned Full90 in the World Cup in Los Angeles and it even appeared in the Summer Olympics.Youth soccer programs from California to New York State have instituted headgear as a normal part of the uniform, although the United States Soccer Federation continues to stipulate that the gear cannot be mandated.Skeen, who calls himself “the MADD [Mother Against Drunk Driving] equivalent of a soccer parent against concussions,” hopes that a Nov. 11 vote by the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) will set a standard to ensure that all soccer headgear offers a minimum level of protection. “I think once there is an ASTM standard, schools will be the first to mandate headgear since they have a higher duty of care, and more liability,” Skeen said. “This vote could change everything.”

Going the way of skiing?Skeen is primed for a soccer headgear boom, similar to that in skiing and snowboarding. He hopes it won’t take a tragedy to trigger the explosion.Following the high-profile deaths of Michael Kennedy on Aspen Mountain and Sonny Bono at Heavenly Ski Resort near Lake Tahoe, helmet sales for the slopes have climbed steadily and dramatically.Helmet counts from eight ski resorts over a five-year period from 1998-2003 found that helmet use in skiers increased from 8.1 percent to 28.2 percent, according to the American Public Health Association. For snowboarders, the rise was more dramatic – from 23.8 percent in 1998-1999, to 45.6 percent in 2002-2003.Skeen, a former ski helmet designer for Boeri, Bell and Giro, says he isn’t interested in the money earned by his fledgling company. He has even hinted he will donate all of the profits to charity. Skeen says his primary purpose is to ensure parents and athletes don’t suffer because of misinformation or ignorance about the dangers of soccer.Basalt High’s Stevens is well aware of the hazards. Just this year, he said he has experienced two close calls during head-on collisions with an opponent. Stevens said it was his Full90 headgear that saved him from a possible sixth concussion. He expects other athletes to follow suit.”I know where my limits are,” Stevens said. “I can’t put this on and think I’m invincible. I think I’m more confident, but also more aware. I don’t go head-first as much. The headband is a reminder of what can happen.”Jon Maletz’s e-mail address is jmaletz@aspentimes.com