Former Chicago Bear linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer has no trouble recalling the blow he took in a 2010 preseason game, the one that effectively ended his eight-year NFL career.
Surprisingly, the hit he suffered wasn’t the kind of massive collision that fans of the sport so often glorify.
“The one that ended my career was actually probably the most glancing blow of all of them. It was a preseason game, I kind of spun off of one block and there was just somebody there, but it wasn’t a big hit,” Hillenmeyer said.
Concerned parents, student-athletes, coaches and trainers all gathered in the Hinsdale Central High School Auditorium Tuesday night to listen to a panel of Chicago sports medicine experts offer advice for preventing a wide range of common sports injuries.
One topic and one speaker clearly captivated the audience above all else.
The topic? Concussions.
The speaker? Hillenmeyer.
Concussions, particularly those related to football, have been in the news constantly in the wake of a study released in September in the journal Neurology that found former pro football players are three times more likely to develop neurodegenerative disease than the general population.
Hillenmeyer had five “diagnosed concussions” during his time with the Bears, a distinction he is quick to make in his discussion of the problems plaguing concussion diagnosis, especially at the youth and high school football level.
“Especially for something like concussions, they can be very tricky to diagnose, for reasons not the least of which are that a lot of times, if a player has a concussion, they are in an impaired state to even describe what’s wrong with them. You just sort of feel out of it, you feel dazed, it’s a very subtle injury except in the scenario of someone walking over to the wrong sideline.”
Perhaps the most poignant part of Hillenmeyer’s presentation was his account of a 2009 meeting of the NFL’s Mild Traumatic Brain Injury committee and the disconcerting lack of knowledge about concussions that was evident, even among some of the world’s top experts on the subject.
“I was scared because out of these 10 or 12 doctors, nobody agreed. They all had different opinions of what a concussion is, a different opinion about how long you should stay out when you have one. For a player who wants to hear something from a doctor and know that that’s true, that that’s right, that if I do this I’m going to be OK, that was pretty alarming.”
Hillenmeyer did acknowledge that concussion awareness has increased drastically in the last few years, citing the 2011 passage of Illinois House Bill 200, which put in place a series of protocols for handling head injuries in youth sports that all Illinois High School Association members must follow.
However, the former Bear said the burden is ultimately on the players to take concussion safety in their own hands.
“If you’re a kid, if you’re an athlete, just be honest. I think so much is as simple as that. Especially in the world of football and hockey, these supposed macho sports, there’s this play-hurt, tough-it-out, suck-it-up attitude. I’ve sucked it up through a lot of injuries; I’ve played with three cracked ribs and done a lot of crazy things in my football career. Concussions almost have to go in a whole separate bucket because it’s just not something you can play around with.”
One parent in the audience, Phil Barrett Jr. of Westmont, whose son is a freshman football player at Hinsdale, said that in spite of what he learned at Tuesday’s seminar, he had no reservations about letting his son continue to play football.
“It happens. It happens all the time, freak stuff … but I don’t have any bad feelings about it,” Barrett said. “He’ll tell me if something is wrong, and the trainer at Hinsdale Central will tell me if something is wrong right away.”
Dr. Jeffrey M. Mjaanes, a pediatric sports medicine orthopedic physician at Midwest Orthopedics at Rush, said that while he wouldn’t tell a parent not to let their child play football, he would echo Hillenmeyer’s stern warning on personal responsibility.
“I wouldn’t tell them not to play football. I’d do their sports physical and clear them to play football,” said panelist Mjaanes. “But one point that I do drive home now to all young athletes in any sport really -- but football, soccer, basketball and hockey players especially -- is that concussions are real and they do happen, and I just try to make them understand that these injuries are not ones that you want to play through.”