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Big Ten in forefront on issue


Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald remembers the feeling.

It was his sophomore season at Northwestern, and the Wildcats were playing at Penn State. Fitzgerald was hit in the earhole of his helmet during a kickoff return.

''The lights went out,'' Fitzgerald said. ''I was doing the Weeble wobble back to the sideline, and I was done for the day.''

Fitzgerald said he has suffered many concussions, the worst of which was when he fell off a slide at a playground and landed on his head as a child.

''I've had my bell rung, and I've had a concussion,'' Fitzgerald said. ''There were times you just got rocked and were like, 'Whoa.' And there are other times where there's a momentary, 'What just happened- ' And that, to me, is how I saw myself being concussed.''

The NCAA developed a concussion-management plan in April for all three of its divisions. Student-athletes can't return to practice or competition if they have suffered a concussion that day or are suffering from symptoms of one.

In May, the Big Ten became the first college conference in the country to have a concussion-management plan put together by its sports medicine committee. If a student-athlete has a concussion, he or she isn't allowed to return to the field that day. The student-athlete must be evaluated by the school's medical staff, then must be cleared to play based on the school's concussion-management plan.

Member schools can add to the plan, making it more appropriate to their sports programs. The Big Ten requires student-athletes to sign a waiver in which they accept responsibility for accurately reporting their injuries. Student-athletes also are required to receive education about the long-term effects of concussions and head injuries.

''[The concussion plan] is where it ought to be,'' Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said. ''People are erring on the side of safety and health. We're more alert [than] we were a year or two ago.''

At NU, when a student-athlete has a concussion or any symptoms related to one, he or she must sit out from athletic activity immediately. The player has to go through concussion tests -- usually involving hand-eye coordination and aerobic activity -- and be symptom-free for 24 hours to be cleared to practice and play.

''Once someone is diagnosed, they get a handout [about concussions], and we contact either their roommate or family member to follow them closely,'' said NU team doctor Carrie Jaworski, who helped write the Big Ten plan. ''We used to treat everyone with concussions the same way, but now it is based on a patient-to-patient basis. [Recovery] does depend on the person, but on average it takes about a week.''

Jaworski said the Big Ten also addressed academic help for concussed student-athletes in the plan. She said academic advisers will be briefed on student-athletes who have had concussions so more time can be given for test-taking and homework.

Illinois coach Ron Zook said his program always has been aware of players exhibiting signs of a concussion. One thing the Illini have changed to reflect concussion awareness is their helmets. They have made them so they don't pop off as easily during contact.

''There's always been an awareness there,'' Zook said. ''It hasn't changed a whole lot from what we've done in the past. We've been concerned about it from the very beginning. Any time somebody gets dinged, the doctors are there and are going to evaluate them.''

Illinois' concussion plan is similar to NU's. Concussed student-athletes aren't allowed to practice or play until they pass concussion tests and a physician determines they are symptom-free.

Fitzgerald said there has to be trust among players, coaches and medical staff to make sure someone who is recovering from a concussion doesn't play too soon.

''Could [lying about feeling better] be a problem- Absolutely,'' Fitzgerald said. ''But I trust our guys, and I know they're going to do what's right for themselves.''

Contributing: Herb Gould

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