DENVER -- It's better to miss one game than the whole season.
That's the philosophy behind helping keep youth football players with concussions from jumping back onto the field and risking their health, both in the short and long term.
As part of USA Football's national initiative, "Put Pride Aside for Player Safety," the Broncos -- alongside HealthOne and its Rocky Mountain Youth Sports Medicine Institute -- hosted a youth football concussion symposium on Tuesday.
Nearly 100 youth and high school football coaches gathered at INVESCO Field at Mile High to listen to a presentation from Brooke Pengel, MD, medical director of the Youth Sports Medicine Institute and Karen McAvoy, PSYD, the director of the Center for Concussion, on how to diagnose and handle concussions.
Broncos Ring of Famer Billy Thompson spoke to the crowd of coaches as well, emphasizing the importance of the issue.
"First of all, let me say I just love football," Thompson said. "I can watch it, I can eat it -- I just love football. It's a great thing, but I want it to be a safe thing. That's why we're here today."
Concussions in football have been a hot-button topic recently, as the NFL recently instituted a return-to-play policy regarding concussions -- no player who has suffered a concussion may return to the game or practice field the same day, and must pass a range of tests before getting back on the field.
Several NFL players have suffered concussions in the first few weeks of the season, including Eagles quarterback Kevin Kolb, Panthers quarterback Matt Moore and Giants tight end Kevin Boss, all in Week 1.
But concussions aren't just limited to the pros, and in fact studies show that youth football players take longer to recover from head injuries, and more risks are involved. Pengel said that "second impact syndrome" is unique to children -- when one concussion comes right after another, it can be fatal.
At Grandview High School in 2004, a freshman football player named Jake Snakenberg sustained a concussion, but didn't fully realize the extent of his injury and did not report any symptoms. One week later, he took a typical hit in a game, collapsed on the field and never regained consciousness. He passed away from Second Impact Syndrome on Sept. 19, 2004.
So the gravity of the topic at hand was constantly stressed on Tuesday, as coaches were educated on how to identify potential concussions and keep their players safe.
"This is really going to affect not only their ability to be on the field, but their ability to function in life," Pengel said. "It's one thing to be playing sports, which is a privilege and fun, but if they can't even function to learn, that's difficult."
Each coach received a packet including key signs and symptoms that signify a concussion. On the coaches' end, look to see if a player appears dazed or confused, is unsure of the game, score or opponent, moves clumsily, cannot recall events prior to the collision or loses consciousness -- though a loss of consciousness doesn't always occur after a concussion.
As for the players, if they have a headache or feel "pressure" in their head, experience nausea, dizziness, double-vision, sensitivity to light or noise and just all-around don't "feel right," there's a likelihood they have a concussion.
After the diagnosis, the rest is easy -- take the player off the field, and don't let them return. In high school sports it's even more clear cut. The Colorado High School Athletic Association passed a bylaw in January, essentially saying that any player who suffers a head injury may not return to play before receiving a written note from a medical professional.
That becomes all the more important if a player has a history of concussions. After one concussion, a child is three-to-six times more likely to suffer another, and it takes far less force and takes more time to recover.
In the end, the only treatment is rest -- both physical and mental.
McAvoy went over The REAP Project, which stands for Reduce, Educate, Accommodate, Pace.
First, both physical and cognitive demands much be reduced. The player needs a break after the concussion. Next, get educated on if the student is recovering from a concussion and how he is recovering. Know the symptoms. Third, accommodate certain areas of concern, including fatigue, difficulty concentrating, slowed processing speed, difficulty with working memory, difficulty converting new learning into memory and any emotional symptoms that may pop up. Finally, pace the player's return to the field. Make sure every symptom has been resolved, and they are not worsened upon exertion.
The player's family, coaches, teachers and doctors should work together to help with the REAP system, making sure the child fully recovers before jumping back into his schoolwork and physical activity.
"We as adults need to help these young athletes manage their concussions," McAvoy said.
When the athlete is free of symptoms, start him out with light aerobic activity, then move on to sport-specific exercise, non-contact training drills, full-contact practice and then finally a full return to play.
"If symptoms arise at any of these points, you stop, you drop them back, you wait 24 hours, try again and assess their symptoms," McAvoy said.
"You're going to go back today and you're going to see these signs and symptoms, you're going to catch this," she told the coaches. "And then if there's something you can do to empower parents and schools with all that you're doing, that's what's going to change the culture. That will do a lot."