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If you go
What: Chris Nowinski will speak at a concussion-prevention event open to parents, coaches and athletes of all ages.
When: 6 to 8 p.m. March 11
Where: Indiana Tech, Schaefer Center, 1600 E. Washington Blvd.
Cost: Free
More information: Contact jneil301@gmail.com or adpcummings@indianatech.edu.
Cathie Rowand | The Journal Gazette
Andre' Douglas Pond Cummings, shown, and James Keszei have worked to bring concussion activist Chris Nowinski to speak in Fort Wayne.

Football enthusiasts join discussion on sports injuries

One grew up playing high school football in the shadow of Notre Dame's golden dome.

The other was raised in Los Angeles, among Polynesians, gangsters and surfers alike, eventually becoming an agent to several NFL players.

Both men love football.

Neither wants to see it – or any sport – vanish.

But in a era when terms including concussion, head injury and chronic traumatic encephalopathy are alarming buzzwords for the public and a public relations nightmare for professional sports, James Keszei and andré douglas pond cummings want parents involved at the youth and high school sports levels to take the safest measures possible when it comes to kids.

"We don't want these sports to go away, but we have to take heed and measure the injuries," Keszei said.

The two men – Keszei works in law enforcement, cummings is the associate dean for academic affairs and a law professor at the Indiana Tech Law School – have been advocates in addressing head trauma in sports for several years.

Both have now teamed up to help bring one of the most famous advocates in the nation to Fort Wayne next month.

Chris Nowinski, a former Harvard University football player and professional wrestler who had to retire due to concussions in 2003, will be the main speaker at a free concussion-prevention event March 11 at Indiana Tech.

The event, geared toward parents, coaches and student athletes, comes at a time when stories are constantly popping up about the deteriorating mental health of former NFL players.

It comes in the wake of a video showing a teenager suffering some type of head injury early into an Illinois state high school wrestling match, only to be allowed by officials and coaches to continue to the point where he could no longer stand up.

It comes at a time when it seems everyone is releasing studies about concussions, some with conflicting results about how often or seldom those types of injuries occur at the youth sports level.

And it's a time when there is so much information about the dangers of concussions out there that it's hard to fathom that people aren't getting the message.

But some still aren't, Nowinski, Keszei and cummings say.

'Warrior mentality'

Growing up in Los Angeles, andré "dré" cummings was exposed to a litany of cultures. Many of his friends during his teenage years happened to be Polynesian.

While still in law school in the mid-1990s, a Polynesian friend of his who had played center on the Ty Detmer-led Brigham Young University teams turned pro.

He also asked cummings to represent him as his agent.

This led to cummings representing several players over the years.

Many happened to be Polynesian because that community is tight-knit, cummings said, and went with him because of how he treated his other clients.

"For a period of my life, every Saturday was a college game, every Sunday a pro game," cummings said.

He never represented NFL linebacker Junior Seau, but because the star was of Polynesian descent, cummings worked and socialized with him on many occasions, he said.

Described by many after his death as happy-go-lucky or a friend to nearly everyone he met, Seau's 2012 suicide came as a shock to those who knew him.

But stories began to surface that showed a man with a dark side. Cheerful one moment, depressed and confused the next.

"He was larger than life, and he turned into this dark, brooding and suicidal person," cummings said. "It was lots of things that were not Junior Seau."

After his suicide, Seau's brain was found to have signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a degenerative disease that's been found in a multitude of deceased NFL players.

The disease's symptoms include aggressiveness, depression and memory loss.

Before concussions in football were making widespread news, the disease was found commonly in boxers. It can be caused from not only repeated concussions, but also from repeated hits to the head that result in injuries less serious than concussions.

According to a 2012 Boston University Medical Center study in which researchers looked at 68 cases in which people suffered from the disease, six had played only high school football during their lives.

For most of his career as a sports agent, cummings says he advocated greatly for players' health and treatment.

He admitted, however, that until the growing concerns of concussions came about, he never really thought about head injuries.

And part of the problem with concussions, cummings said, is the "warrior mentality" of some sports, especially football. The players don't want to sit out. They hide concussions – as well as other injuries.

When they're playing in the pros, their jobs might be on the line.

"Every single athlete I represented, they would've gone back out on the field," said cummings, who noted none of his clients were superstars or stars, but players who were sometimes fighting for a roster spot.

"They were on the edge."

Also, he said, many coaches will refuse to look at concussions as serious, but only as part of the game.

cummings' last player retired in 2006. His agent days came to an end there, he said.

Since then, he's continued to be a player advocate, criticizing how the NFL treats the league's retired players – especially now with issues related to concussions.

He does not believe the more than $765 million the league paid in a class-action lawsuit to 4,500 players suffering ill effects of concussions is enough, he said. And he doesn't think the league does enough to prepare players for after their careers.

Look for signs

"I do love the game," Keszei said. "It has huge benefits."

But in the same breath, he said: "We need to ask ourselves, are we doing everything we can to keep these kids safe?"

Keszei played high school football in South Bend at a time when no one talked about concussions. He says he may have suffered one or two and stayed on the field.

Then he had kids who, like their father, took to football as young boys.

Two years ago, Keszei told The Journal Gazette he sometimes felt sick thinking about telling his boys to take some aspirin or ibuprofen when they complained of headaches.

It was a 2006 video that showed a young football player's head bouncing off the field during a tackle – followed by several ensuing hits throughout the game that left the child seriously injured – that changed Keszei's views.

By the time he came to Fort Wayne in 2010, he was preaching for youth sports coaches to be more cognizant of concussions at such a young level.

That's why he's worked to bring Nowinski to Fort Wayne.

"We really want to raise the level of awareness," Keszei said.

Keszei helped push for the Police Athletic League – a youth football league – to adopt rules to prevent kids from continuing to play after a concussion.

He's given presentations with a local neurologist and continues to urge coaches and parents to educate themselves about the dangers of concussions.

"When my kids were playing, I didn't know," he said.

Keszei helped coach a seventh-grade team this past year when hitting in practice was limited.

That was to protect the kids, who mainly focused on other fundamentals during practice, he said.

The team ended up winning the league.

Since many coaches are volunteers at the youth level, Keszei said it's imperative they educate themselves as much as possible.

And it's imperative the parents are educated and watch what's going on on the field, he said, to pick up on any signs that there might be something wrong.

Today, Keszei's boys are in their early teens and still playing football.

The oldest is putting in extra hours before and after school, honing his quarterbacking skills.

Keszei doesn't know what his son's future holds – he'd love for him to become an engineer – but he's already thought of the first question he'd ask should a college coach end up at his door asking about his son.

"What's your concussion protocol?"

Speak up

A former All-Ivy defensive tackle at Harvard, Chris Nowinski's professional wrestling career was cut short by a concussion in 2003.

Before he retired, though, he continued to perform and work out for five weeks with concussion symptoms.

A neurosurgeon showed him research suggesting brain trauma and concussions were misunderstood in the sports world, which sparked him into action.

Since then, he's done speaking engagements, appeared on television and organized news conferences to coincide with the Super Bowl – all to get the word out about concussions.

He's also the co-founder and executive director of the Sports Legacy Institute, a nonprofit organization dedicated to solving the sports concussion crisis through education, policy and research, according to Nowinski's website.

"The message is being heard in some places, and it feels like it's never been heard in some places," Nowinski said.

He notes that in Chicago public schools, coaches now need to take a two-hour training course from his organization. That's 3,500 coaches who are learning what to look for and how to handle concussions.

Still, he says, in some places, the coaches or players know nothing, next to nothing or continue to ignore the seriousness of head trauma.

"It has a lot to do with the local effort of advocates," Nowinski said. "It's amazing how easy it is to avoid this information if you want to."

Part of changing the culture, though, is to get the other athletes at the youth and high school levels to speak up when they notice a teammate is hurt or in trouble.

He wants teammates to ask a player if they're all right, and he wants adults to get kids to try to better realize the seriousness of concussions.

"It comes down to adults training these kids," Nowinski said. "Most kids haven't seen someone or have lived long enough to see someone suffer from (CTE)."

Last month, Nowinski's organization unveiled the technology that could be put into the helmets of football, hockey and lacrosse players that could track how many hits at a certain G-force athletes took.

Dubbed "Hit Count," it works much like a pitch count does in baseball – it counts how many hits to the head an athlete takes.

Still, despite the headway and the message being spread, Nowinski says there's a lot of road to travel, a lot of the way still to go – especially when it comes to youth sports.

"We're not protecting the kids as we should," he said.

jeffwiehe@jg.net

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