- Associated Press - Friday, November 6, 2015

LARAMIE, Wyo. (AP) - Two hits in a span of 24 hours changed Tristan Eickbush’s life.

The Laramie native and former Plainsmen football standout was excited to pursue his goal of maybe someday playing Division I football. It was his dream to run onto Jonah Field at War Memorial Stadium in the brown and gold for the University of Wyoming Cowboys.

Eickbush, a prep safety and receiver, was a freshman walk-on at the start of fall camp in late summer. He was grouped with the defensive backfield unit.

Eickbush lasted less than two weeks on the practice field due to a couple of jarring hits that accelerated a pre-existing condition he never contemplated.

What he used to shake off as football normalcy, the UW trainers and medical staff recognized on the spot as something far more serious - Eickbush was showing signs of a concussion.

It was one of 16 concussions reported by the UW football team since spring practice this year. They’ve affected players of all stature, including senior running back Shaun Wick, who missed the previous four games due to a concussion. Wick was named to the Doak Walker Award Watch list this summer. The award goes to the nation’s top running back.

Wick recently told WyoSports he has been struggling with memory and the ability to carry a conversation.

Eickbush decided to avoid similar problems.

From mild to severe

Eickbush’s fateful day began with a team breakfast, full team and position meetings. Then he suited up for a two-a-day practice. All the while he carried a slight pain in his head.

“What didn’t help was that I got hit pretty hard the day before and had a headache all day,” Eickbush said. “Being a freshman walk-on I was trying to earn my stripes, didn’t say anything and just thought I had a headache. It wasn’t enough for me not to practice the next day.”

Eickbush said he was probably suffering from what he described as a mild concussion.

The Sports Concussion Institute, a national organization created in 2005 by clinical neuropsychologist, professor and researcher Dr. Tony L. Strickland, defines a concussion as “a complex pathophysiological process that affects the brain, typically induced by a trauma that can be caused by a direct blow to the brain or a whiplash effect to the body.”

The matter was quickly made worse.

“I went head-to-head full speed with a guy during a tackling drill, which is all I remember from it. My head just started pounding,” Eickbush said. “I was still trying to practice after that hit, but a sensitivity to light kind of kicked in and I was blocking my eyes from the sun because it made my head hurt worse.

“One of the trainers picked up on it, came over and asked why I was blocking my eyes from the sun and if I was hit hard,” he said. “I had to tell them.”

The protocol

The institute also states, “the adult brain is a three-pound organ that basically floats inside the skull. It is surrounded by cerebral spinal fluid, which acts as a shock absorber for minor impacts. When the brain moves rapidly inside the skull, a concussion has technically occurred.”

Eickbush was immediately tested by UW trainers on the sideline. They checked balance, reflexes, coordination and eyesight. He was then escorted into the training facility for more extensive examination to determine a symptom score. It was the beginning stages of what is now commonly known as a concussion protocol.

“We look at things that trend nationally and allocated resources both financially and with our personnel to make sure we stay ahead of the curve,” Wyoming football coach Craig Bohl said. “Concussions are a hot button all across the country - and well deserved. We are doing everything we can to make sure our players are safe.”

UW recently invested in new technologies ranging from safer helmet shells to sensors inside that measure the force of impact.

“There’s no doubt we’ve invested there and we are getting really fast, accurate data that indicates the safety or if it is a ‘no-go’ for our players,” Bohl said.

UW’s concussion-symptom score sheet may be more extensive, but a typical example found online is a checklist of about 30 symptoms that range from physical discomfort, impairments and inconsistencies; sleep disorders; loss of memory or clear-thought processes; and changes in personalities or emotional behaviors.

Each symptom is scored from 0-6 with 0 indicating no symptoms, 1-mild, 3-moderate and 6-severe. Each item is graded with that scale over a period of several specific dates.

“My score was pretty high and they sent me home,” Eickbush said. “They didn’t let me drive and my sister came to pick me up.”

Thinking back

Concussions were the furthest from Eickbush’s mind when he decided to enter the collegiate ranks.

He never experienced major symptoms after hard hits.

The Sports Concussion Institute estimates 47 percent of athletes do not report feeling any symptoms after a concussive blow.

“Honestly, concussions weren’t an issue because they were spread out enough during his life from non-sports related (accidents) to football,” his father Jason Eickbush said. “They were so spread out it never even dawned on us that he may have had so many. It wasn’t a concern because it hadn’t been.”

When Eickbush reflects on his youth and prep football careers he estimates he might have had three to four minor concussions out of about seven overall in his life counting other youthful accidents growing up.

“From what I saw in high school, they always followed all the protocols,” Jason Eickbush said. “He was never knocked out and it never seemed serious.”

Eickbush acknowledges he would have done things differently knowing now what he didn’t know then.

“I just shook hits off and didn’t think much about it, and I did that a lot playing football,” he said. “I regret that I was more worried about staying on the field.

“I hid them, which I wouldn’t recommend doing.

“If I worked through proper concussion protocols and got my head back completely, I might not have been in this position.”

Lingering problems

Eickbush visited the UW training room once or twice a day for several weeks without steady improvement. He had CT scans - series of X-rays from different angles - taken at Ivinson Memorial Hospital and at Fort Collins Neurology in Colorado.

The medical staffs determined his brain was not permanently damaged. Classes started a week later.

“School was difficult at the start,” Eickbush said. “It was hard to concentrate and understand things. It took hours and hours to do my homework because of my lack of concentration. Studying hard gave me headaches and I woke up with migraines.”

The UW trainers and chiropractors continued working with Eickbush. But improvement of his symptom scores was slight and taking longer than the 10 days many players are cleared after. It was time for him to make a decision to play or not.

“The doctors didn’t say that I absolutely should stop playing, but they did say I was done for this season,” Eickbush said. “I thought if I was done for the season, I should probably be done overall if it was that big of deal this season.

“Yeah, I might not be able to play anymore. But they can repair a knee injury - they can’t repair a head injury.”

Future risk?

Two recent high profile cases such as the suicide of former San Diego Chargers linebacker Junior Seau and the surprising early retirement of San Francisco 49ers rookie linebacker Chris Borland has kept the issue in the spotlight.

The Boston University Center for the Study of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE Center) is part of the BU Alzheimer’s Disease Center.

The CTE Center’s website states it was established in 1996 as one of 29 centers in the country funded by the National Institutes of Health to advance research on Alzheimer’s disease and related conditions.

It conducts high-impact, innovative research on chronic traumatic encephalopathy and other long-term consequences of repetitive brain trauma. The CTE Center works closely with the NFL and the NFLPA for research. The CTE Center released a study in 2012 where 68 of 85 deceased people who had a history of repeated mild head traumas - nearly all of whom played sports - had evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

CTE is a degenerative and incurable disease and symptoms can include memory loss, depression and dementia in later years. Currently CTE can only be diagnosed after death by a post-mortem neuropathological analysis.

Some of the center’s research involved examining brain tissue of deceased NFL players, of which 59 of 62 were positive for CTE. Studies done by the CTE Center and other research organizations led college football programs to take a more proactive approach.

“UW wants what’s best for all players,” Eickbush said. “Anytime a player even thinks he has a concussion, they are held out of practice. UW may have a high number of concussions reported this year. I feel part of that is because they are being really safe about it with all the studies going around as not something to mess around with.”

Jason Eickbush added, “I thought, cool. They’re taking care of my kid and not just the starters.”

Back to normal

Eickbush is feeling like himself again, taking a full load of classes toward majors in business and finance. Along with attending school, he works at his father’s restaurants at J’s Prairie Rose Café and J’s Steakhouse. He recently accepted a job at a Verizon Wireless store.

“He is healthy, attending classes and all the symptoms are gone because they caught this early,” Jason Eickbush said. “It was the long time frame he had to heal is what made the doctors advise him he shouldn’t play anymore.

“Watching your kids go through sports is great, and I was looking forward to seeing him play in college. But I still get to watch him grow as a young man in his life. It’s just a different thing to watch.”

And Eickbush has moved on after making the biggest decision of his life.

“Looking down the road, family is most important to me,” Eickbush said. “When I grow up, I want to have a family, play with my kids, be a good father and work at a good job.

“I was questioning if my concussions were affecting my classes and making it hard for me to learn. I’m trying to earn a degree so I can get into a good career and support a family.”


Information from: Laramie Boomerang, https://www.laramieboomerang.com

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