Brandon Streeter is lucky.
He is dealing with frequent headaches, battling depression, can never wakeboard or even go snowboarding or snow skiing and can’t even go to church without enduring pain caused by loud music.
He is lucky.
He isn’t dead, paralyzed or comatose. And with five serious head injuries in six years of football at Rose Hill, he could have suffered any of those fates – his neurologist confirmed that.
The University of Kansas School Of Medicine interviewed him about his injury. The school is featuring him in its fall issue regarding concussions.
His daily struggle started as a seventh-grader when he hit an opponent on a kickoff. It was a big hit. Streeter got dizzy and fell over, losing consciousness for a few seconds.
He recovered and returned to the field and never seemed to miss a beat.
The second event happened when he was a freshman. The third, which happened when he was a sophomore, included trauma that was so serious that Streeter tried to line up as a quarterback for the opposing team.
He sat out a game or two and missed some practice but his skills and competitive desires pushed him back on the field later that year. He had learned what trainers and coaches wanted to hear to keep him from missing time.
Rose Hill uncharacteristically lost its first two games in 2010. As a senior, Streeter was especially motivated in game three at Andale — as tough a place for visitors to win as any.
During the first half, he went to help with a tackle and made helmet-to-helmet contact with his own teammate.
He was knocked out.
But he was on the other side of the field so no one could have known that. He came to the sidelines, mastered the head injury quiz and was cleared.
Coach Greg Slade held Streeter out the rest of the first half so they could get a closer look at him during the intermission.
“We take head injuries pretty seriously,” Slade said.
Streeter bluffed his way through the exam and returned to play his best half of the season as the Rockets got their first win.
At the time, that was a big deal to a young man in his senior season of football.
Then, five weeks later, Streeter got dizzy after his head bounced off the artificial turf during a rain-soaked game.
A little later, he jumped to catch a pass over the middle. A Circle defensive back hit him hard from the side.
This time, he didn’t get up.
He was unconscious and obviously affected. Coach Slade told him he was finished for that game without any further questions or tests.
That’s when the cumulative effects of five known head injuries and dozens of less serious incidents over the years became obvious.
Streeter began suffering with almost constant headaches. The problem was finally bad enough for Streeter to admit to coaches and medical personnel what was going on.
“He finally made the right decision and told us what was happening,” Slade said.
His mother, Karen Streeter, said the effects were hard for her to deal with.
“The last one changed his personality completely,” she said. “He wouldn’t remember conversations. He became very quiet and reserved. It was awful.”
Brandon’s father, Tom, who was a fixture on the sidelines of all of Brandon’s games with camera always in hand, said they soon learned that many of his son’s problems probably occurred because he never fully recovered from the very first concussion six years ago.
“Brandon went from football to basketball to baseball to offseason workouts,” Tom said. “He never stopped and the best treatment for this injury is rest. He never took enough time off to recover.”
Depression became an issue when the activities that Brandon had thrived on since he was 5 years old were knocked out of his life.
But Brandon is lucky.
“After a year and a half, he has finally beaten the depression,” said Karen Streeter.
Both of his parents have experienced some guilt from hindsight. But concussions aren’t like ankle injuries or broken arms. They aren’t obvious and you can’t put a cast on it and wait for it to heal.
Brandon won’t let anyone else take the blame for his condition. He says it is his own fault because he wanted to keep playing so badly, he learned how to make that happen.
“I lied to the coaches, trainers and doctors,” Brandon said. “If I gave advice to other players, it would be to tell the doctors the truth and take the time you need to heal.”
Equipment changes may help
Brain injuries like concussions aren’t as easy to diagnose or treat as joint or bone injuries. They also carry greater risk.
The human brain isn’t designed to withstand the pounding football can give.
The skull keeps it from spilling out, but banging against the inside of the skull can cause serious injury to the brain.
Helmets protect the skull from fractures. But concussions occur within the cranium.
Shane Backhus, McPherson High School athletic director, has a mixed opinion about supposed improvements to football helmets to prevent concussions.
“I think that better equipment can help prevent, but at times also can contribute to a larger number of injuries,” Backhus said. “The prevention comes from having a better understanding of the human body, and with newer technology, being able to design equipment better suited to protect an athlete. I also believe at times an athlete will feel safer in today’s equipment, which may lead them to take bigger risks that may contribute to injuries.”
Concerns also have been raised about the role of the turf in causing brain injuries, such as Streeter’s. This has prompted some schools to look into alternatives.
McPherson High School has played football and soccer on artificial turf for the past decade. McPherson College also uses the field for those sports. The turf was replaced this summer, the result being a softer surface with more give. Backhus said the old surface was getting to the point of being dangerous.
“The new artificial surfaces are designed to be softer and more forgiving than natural surfaces,” he said.
There is a better way
If head injuries cannot be prevented by better turf and better equipment, perhaps steps can be taken for better detection.
Even for doctors, the diagnosis is tricky. Streeter said he knew what to say to get back on the field more quickly. There were no broken bones and only Brandon himself knew if he was truly experiencing headaches or similar issues associated with concussions.
But that is changing.
Circle High School is one of a handful of Kansas high schools using software programs to track severity of brain injuries.
CHS trainer Brad Jones, who works with Susan B. Allen Hospital, said the new software is integral to protecting athlete safety.
Jones said the online test measures verbal, visual, memory and psycho-motor speed. There is also a 5-minute response test that measures how quickly athletes respond to stimuli. All athletes are tested before their seasons begin to establish a baseline. If Jones suspects a brain injury, he can ask the athlete to retake the test. If there is a significant injury, the test results will show it.
“We had a student who suffered a head injury this year,” Jones said. “I went through the sideline test with them and they did fine. Later, they took the online test and it revealed that reaction times were seriously affected.”
Without the test, a doctor may have cleared the athlete to play again immediately. With the test, the athlete’s health was protected.
For $375, Circle received unlimited testing privileges on the website. Jones said he thinks that is a small price to pay to protect young athletes.
Jones said several years ago he had seen a student experience similar problems to those Streeter has endured.
“I blamed myself, but the kid’s parents wanted him back on the field and a doctor cleared them,” Jones said. “I don’t think that would have happened if I had access to this test back then.”
Tom Streeter said he supports the additional care being taken with head injuries in sports and he hopes they go even further.
“I think a concussion should force a long period of rest,” he said. “Maybe even into the next season. I wish we would have known to be more careful with Brandon.”
Brandon Streeter is lucky.