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KCTV5 Investigates: High school football's growing concussion crisis

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The serious brain injury suffered one week ago by Tipton, MO, high school junior Chad Stover and the death of Spring Hill, KS, student Nathan Stiles three years ago are raising questions about the level of protection available for the most vulnerable athletes in a sport that many in both states follow like a religion.

As a senior at Spring Hill High, 17-year-old Nathan Stiles was a two-way starter in football and a team captain.

Sports had always played a major role in his young life - from learning to hit and throw baseballs as a toddler to running middle school track and playing high school hoops.

On Oct. 28, 2010, during the last game of his high school football career, Stiles ran 65 yards to score a touchdown. In a matter of minutes, triumph turned to tragedy.

According to Stiles' mom, Connie Stiles, "I said something's wrong, I know him so well. He's walking funny."

Moments after scoring, Nathan Stiles grasped his helmet and began screaming that his head hurt. His collapse near the team bench sent parents Connie and Ron Stiles rushing to his side.

"He just raised his hand briefly, and that was it," Connie Stiles recalled.

"You're praying he'd come to," Ron Stiles said.

"It didn't happen," Connie Stiles added.

Nathan Stiles was airlifted to the University of Kansas Medical Center. Just four days shy of his 18th birthday, the young athlete passed away.

"His body took the ride with Life Flight, but I don't think Nathan was there. I think we really lost him on the football field," Ron Stiles said.

An autopsy revealed a brain hemorrhage, which doctors' say was caused by a concussion suffered at a game nearly one month earlier.

Further examination revealed Nathan Stiles had something called chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE; a degenerative brain disease that's been found almost exclusively in boxers and retired professional football players.

"He's been the youngest one, I believe still, that they discovered that (CTE) in," Connie Stiles said.

Nathan Stiles' death has sparked a debate about the steps being taken to protect the more than 61,000 high school students playing football in Kansas and Missouri, of which an estimated 11 percent will suffer a concussion each season.

And according to Doug Abrams, law professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia and an expert on concussions in youth sports, last year's nationwide number of 300,000 high school concussions is low.

"It's certainly under reported, Many kids do not report concussive symptoms because they are afraid their parents will pull them out of the sport, or the coach will bench them, or they'll lose their place in the starting lineup, or their teammates will think less of them, so that 300,000 number is a conservative number and it's entirely too high. We have to do better," Abrams said. "Kids deserve better from their games than brain injuries. That's not what they're playing for."

While the National Football League and the National Collegiate Athletic Association have adopted new rules to make the game less violent, Abrams says high schools need to go further.

"The rules for the kids have to be a little bit different that the rules for adults," Abrams said.

For example, Abrams advocates the elimination of a position known as the three-point-stance, which allows a defensive lineman to launch himself at the offense. And he wants to see a ban of full contact practices during the football season.

While these drastic changes to the game are unlikely, Kansas and Missouri have made some strides to cut back on tackling during the preseason.

In Kansas, high school players aren't allowed to put on their full pads and start hitting until the fourth practice. Missouri teams must wait until the sixth practice.

As associate executive director of the Missouri State High School Activities Association, Harvey Richards explained, "We're slowly working the students back into full activity instead of them just jumping out there right away; going to two-a-days, hitting each other and everything else, We have a five-day window where you're limited to the hours of practice: three. You're limited to the amount of equipment you can wear. It takes six days before you can even put on full pads." Richards said.

Regardless of the rules, concussions can never be entirely eliminated from the game of football. But because the brains of high school players are still developing, Abrams says the risk of serious injury for these kids is much greater.

"It's not just a question of getting your bell rung and shaking it off and going back in," Abrams said. "You're talking about long-term and short-term disability, and sometimes death,"

Abrams points out high school football programs are less likely to include a crucial member of the team; an athletic trainer on the sideline providing the kind of basic medical care that's become standard in the NFL and NCAA.

Dr. Randall Goldstein, a neurologist who works with the Center for Sports Medicine at the University of Kansas Medical Center, also sees the need for more athletic trainers, the knowledge these experts have in diagnosing and treating a concussion far exceeds that of the average coach or parent.

"It's not as easy to tell all the time as a broken bone," Goldstein said. "Everyone's brain is different. Everyone's brain heals at a different time."

According to the 2011 Interscholastic Youth Sports Brain Injury Prevention Report, 60 percent of the Missouri schools surveyed do not have a certified athletic trainer. Of those who do have a trainer, only six percent have the personnel present during practice where the majority of concussions occur.

Understanding that trainers are in short supply and too expensive for many districts to hire, MSHSAA has asked that each high school program make an emergency action plan (EAP) to deal with serious injuries.

"They have to have something in place," Richards said. "And one of those protocols has to be for head injury. So if a head injury occurs, ‘What do you do?' And they have to have that in place."

But the state report reveals that of the Missouri districts surveyed in 2011, 41 percent operate without a policy for handling head injuries and getting players safely back on the field.

"We have to stop looking at youth sports and thinking these kids are just miniature professionals," Abrams said. "Because they are not, they are kids."

Missouri is working to better educate coaches and parents on the dangers of concussions with an annual brain injury report survey. It's the only one of its kind in the country. Currently, Kansas does not track any concussion information.

Three years after Nathan's death, Ron and Connie Stiles are still coping with the loss of a beloved son. No matter how many rules change in the game football, Connie Stiles is not convinced her boy could have been saved.

"In life, accidents happen. You can make all the rules you want. Accidents are still going to happen," she said.

"Does it get easier at any point?" asked KCTV5 investigative reporter Stacey Cameron.

"No. No," Connie Stiles replied. "It's kind of like somebody that loses a leg; they still feel the pain. You always feel the pain."

To honor their son's strong belief in God, Ron and Connie Stiles have established a foundation in their son's name. The Nathan Project raises money to buy Bibles to give to those in need. So far, more than 8,000 Bibles have been handed out, with more than 2,400 delivered to correctional facilities in Kansas.

Copyright 2013 KCTV (Meredith Corp.) All rights reserved.

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