Concussion issue hits family's heart
After all her son has been through, Tammy Plevretes thought the NCAA was getting serious about curtailing head injuries. Then she heard about a lawsuit filed last week.
It made her wonder how soon another player will end up like her Preston Plevretes.
“Here we are, trying so hard to get awareness out there. Look at my son’s life,” Tammy said.
Not literally. But the vivacious teenager they sent off to La Salle disappeared forever on a punt return in 2005. Preston, a linebacker, almost died after suffering a concussion in a game against Duquesne (the hit is at 3:35 of the video).
His story was supposedly a major wakeup call to college athletics. The Plevretes family sued La Salle for negligence. Within weeks of accepting a $7.5 million settlement, an NCAA committee recommended national guidelines for treating concussed athletes.
That was in 2009. Four years later, the NCAA is still asleep.
“I’m so disappointed and sad,” Tammy said by phone from Pennsylvania. “The NCAA did the right thing when Preston was hurt, and made those changes. But then it didn’t follow through.”
That’s the contention in the class-action lawsuit filed last week. Two former Tennessee players and one from North Carolina State claim their schools failed to prevent, diagnose and properly treat their brain injuries. A similar case is in mediation in Illinois.
They represent a gathering hurricane of litigation that could dwarf what the NFL faced. The 4,500 pros who sued had a union supposedly looking out for them. College players had their schools and their governing body.
That would be the NCAA, which will parachute investigators onto campus if a football star is suspected of getting a free tattoo. But if a kid gets sent back into a game after his brain is rattled, nobody seems to notice.
The Plevretes family
What’s worse, documents and studies make you wonder whether the NCAA really cares about “this concussion stuff,” as one NCAA staffer called it. He’ll understand if Tammy Plevretes takes offense.
“Preston is the face of what could happen if you don’t take care of a concussion,” she said.
He suffered one in practice but was cleared to play two weeks later despite continuing headaches and dizziness. In a deposition, La Salle trainer Bill Gerzabek was asked about his evaluation of Plevretes.
“(Were there) no orientation or memory questions?”
“No,” Gerzabek said.
“No recall questions?”
“No,” he said.
“You did nothing to evaluate his mental status?”
Based on guidelines, he didn’t have to. Plevretes traveled to the subsequent game in Pittsburgh and was blindsided by a clean block. He was rushed to a hospital two blocks away, where surgeons removed one-third of his skull to relieve the pressure.
Plevretes' lawyers said he suffered second impact syndrome. Basically, the first concussion set the brain up for a devastating second blow. Plevretes spent three months in a medically-induced coma, and seven months in the hospital.
He was eventually able to walk and his speech was slowly returning. But he started suffering seizures in 2009 and doctors had to disconnect his right frontal lobe from the rest of his brain.
Now he can barely speak and needs around-the-clock assistance.
Insurance no longer pays for his physical therapy, since Preston wasn’t showing enough progress. He’s gone to Germany twice and Mexico twice for stem-cell treatments not available in the U.S. None of them seemed to do much good.
The Plevretes family
Plevretes refuses to use a wheelchair or cane, which makes it tough for his 5-foot-4 inch mother. But she cherishes the little victories. Last year, his parents asked him what he missed most about his old life.
“Driving,” he said.
It gave him a sense of freedom. The family decided to move from Marlboro, N.J., to a 10-acre spread in Pocono, Pa. They bought him a little four-wheeled utility vehicle.
“It was amazing,” Tammy said. “He can’t walk very well, but when he gets behind the wheel he’s driving.”
He tools around the trails with his father in the passenger seat. He exercises in a pool and has speech therapy three times a week. He still loves football and watches every game he can.
When his parents feel overwhelmed, they think back to what they saw in the hospital that October night in 2005. Preston was on a ventilator and shrouded in tubes. Doctors said he’d probably never get out of a medical facility.
“To see him today,” Tammy said, “there’s no question he’s come very far for that kind of injury.”
If there was a reason for it all, she figured it was to educate people. Tammy testified in a Congressional hearing on the NFL and its concussion issues. She pushed a bill in the New Jersey legislature that required high schools to have concussion management plans.
Between 2009 and 2012, 43 states passed laws on concussions for youth sports. As for the NCAA, documents show that its director of health and safety was asked in 2010 if the youth sports regulations were tougher than the NCAA’s.
“Well since we don’t currently require anything,” David Klossner said, “all steps are higher than ours.”
That from an institution that was started in 1905, ironically enough, in response to player deaths and injuries. In 2010, an NCAA survey showed 50 percent of responding schools didn’t require concussed players to see a physician. Half the schools said they would return an athlete into a game after he or she suffered a concussion.
Internal emails show some NCAA officials weren’t too concerned about the situation. One exchange was between Ty Halpin, the associate director of playing rules administration, and Nicole Bracken, the NCAA’s associate director of research.
“Dave (Klossner) is hot and heavy on this concussion stuff,” Halpin wrote. “I think I’ve finally convinced him to calm down.”
“He reminds me of a cartoon character,” Bracken wrote.
Players might have reminded her of Wile E. Coyote. He always recovered after an anvil falls on his head.
At least the NCAA Compliance Manual now has minimal regulations on concussion education and when athletes are allowed to return to play. It is left up to the schools to abide by the guidelines. No school has been penalized for failure to enforce them.
The Chronicle of Higher Education just released a study of head trainers at major colleges. Almost half said they felt pressure from head coaches to return concussed players to action before they were medically ready.
Speaking of cartoon characters, one trainer said one athletic director he knows thinks concussions are a “bunch of hype spurred on by the media.”
The study didn’t say how many trainers succumbed to the pressure to get players back to action. But there’s no shortage of circumstantial evidence. Like when USC receiver Robert Woods was knocked woozy against Utah last year.
He willed himself up and staggered a few steps before falling face down on the turf. Trainers helped Woods to the sideline, where he reportedly was asked three questions.
What is today’s date?
Who is the president?
What’s 100 minus 7, minus 7, minus 7?
If the NCAA was in charge of the first question, it might as well be 1967 when it comes to concussions. That’s why Tammy Plevretes said her family might join the class-action lawsuit filed last week.
“I wouldn’t do it for money. I would only do it if it made things better,” she said. “They’ve got to see Preston’s story.”
If that doesn’t get people serious about this concussion stuff, nothing will.