On Sept. 12, 2014, Wyatt Ellis’ life changed forever. Playing defensive end for the Basha High Bears against Cesar Chavez, Ellis broke through a double team and dove to tackle a running back.
The corner of Ellis’ football helmet cracked when it made contact with the breast plate of the ball carrier, which also cracked as a result of the hit. Ellis took two steps after the play, and then collapsed.
He woke up 22 hours later with tubes in his mouth in the trauma center at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix.
“I didn’t know who I was, I didn’t know my parents and I had an awful migraine,” Ellis said. “I went home that evening and I started to gather who I was.”
He received a call from the office of Dr. Javier Cárdenas, director of the Barrow Concussion and Brain Injury Center at Barrow Neurological Institute.
Ellis saw Cárdenas a few days later for tests, which revealed that he had two brain hemorrhages.
“It took a lot out of me hearing that news, knowing my career was over,” Ellis said. “I was committed to playing at Arizona State, but I knew I couldn’t do that. It’s hard to have that stripped from you after one play.”
The severity of Ellis’ injury was uncommon, but there has been growing concern in recent years about the long-term effects of concussions among football players.
This is prevalent across the country and reflected in Arizona prep sports, as both parents and athletes have decided to walk away from a game they love.
“We feel this is driving a decline in sport participation, specifically in football,” Cárdenas said Aug. 17 during a news conference. “We find that more parents are restricting their kids from playing sports, such as football, and athletes, themselves, are declining to play.”
Cárdenas leads Barrow’s annual survey, which evaluates and quantifies the awareness and education that parents and student athletes have about concussions. The most-recent survey, announced during the news conference, showed that 59 percent of parents are allowing their children to play football, a 15 percent decrease from last year.
Only three in 10 parents say that schools and sports teams have done enough to help athletes prevent concussions.
In addition, the study showed that one in five Arizona athletes said they have suffered a sports-related concussion, 78 percent of whom are concerned about the long-term effects of the injury.
“We feel that some of the message is not always getting through,” Cárdenas said. “There are some athletes that report they are not getting education on concussions.”
To combat this, Cárdenas created the Barrow Brainbook in 2011, a web-based instructional tool that educates athletes on the prevention, recognition and response to concussions.
The book has more than 400,000 users and is required by the Arizona Interscholastic Association to be completed before athletes can play.
Additionally, athletes are required to take the ImPACT Baseline test before the season.
“It looks at their memory, reaction time and concentration, as well,” said Claudia Costin, athletic trainer at Mountain Pointe High. “It starts in the beginning of the season for us to get a sense for our athletes. It helps us to compare how they are after they sustain an injury.”
Mountain Pointe and Desert Vista high schools are guided by the Tempe Union High School District’s policy regarding concussions in athletes.
Trainers, coaches and officials have the ability to remove an athlete from play if they believe they have suffered a head injury. If players are slow to get up, have trouble balancing or show confusion, they are immediately pulled from action.
Once removed, a series of tests are conducted to measure the athlete’s vision, balance and overall thought process to determine whether they are able to return immediately.
If they show any signs of a concussion, they are immediately entered into a concussion protocol.
“It’s a minimum of about seven days with six stages,” said Steve Baca, athletic trainer at Desert Vista. “They have to be symptom free and then they can move into light aerobic and agility, sports-specific stuff. They then move into a light practice with no contact and full practice with limited contact. It’s an in-depth process.”
The growing concern of brain injuries has led to advancements in the technology in football helmets.
Vicis, a Seattle-based company, has developed technology that allows the outer shell of its football helmets to be separate from the padding inside. When a player makes contact, the outer shell flexes to reduce impact.
Similar technology has been introduced in other helmet makers such as Riddell with its Speed Flex.
With improved technology comes increased cost, making it difficult for high school programs to outfit players in those helmets. For that reason, additional policies have been mandated across the nation to protect both male and female athletes in all sports.
Arizona has enacted legislation to limit physical contact, whether on the football field or header practice in soccer. Another major factor is how athletes learn to play the game. Proper technique is emphasized.
Ellis admits he believed that leading with his head to make that play back in 2014 was his only option, at the time not thinking about the impact it could have on his life.
Speaking to news media at St. Joseph’s last Friday, Ellis was moved to tears thinking about his friends who continued their dream of playing football at the next level, admitting he still gets a “spark” when he sees them play.
Even so, he remains satisfied with how far he has come since his injury.
Initially, he suffered migraines and was overly sensitive to light.
“When it first happened, I had a ringing in my ears like a freight train,” he said. “The migraines have stopped, but occasionally I still have ringing in my ears.”
Otherwise, he said, he is mentally and physically fine now.
“It’s something I don’t take for granted. I am extremely happy,” he said.
Ellis plans to graduate from Arizona State with a degree in criminal justice in the next year, and has begun the process to work in local law enforcement. From there, he hopes to work for the federal government as an ATF agent.
“If I was here the day after my concussion I wouldn’t know what I am doing. I would have no idea,” Ellis said.
Even though Ellis knows first hand how a severe injury can change his life immediately, when asked if he would let his kids play football, he didn’t hesitate.
“I definitely see my future kids playing football, absolutely,” Ellis said. “Hopefully they won’t go through the same type of injuries I have but I will give them the proper coaching.
“It will at least help prevent something like this from happening.”