Lystedt lays down law on concussions

Published May. 20, 2012 1:00 a.m. ET

Football has taken his ability to live a normal life.

Zack Lystedt keeps giving back anyway.

Lystedt suffered a debilitating brain injury as a 13-year-old player in 2006 because his concussion wasn’t properly detected or treated. He underwent two emergency surgeries after collapsing during a middle-school game. He was hospitalized the next three months and has spent years in physical therapy that continues to this day.

His speech is now impaired. He can walk only with a cane and for limited distances. Playing football again was never a possibility.

Lystedt, though, is determined to help other teenage athletes avoid the same fate.

The endeavor that Lystedt, his parents and supporters are tackling is far more significant than any stops he could have ever made on the gridiron. He is the impetus for the Lystedt Law, a piece of legislation designed to address the concussion epidemic in both male and female youth sports.

Under the law, all athletes, parents and coaches must annually receive mandatory education about the perils of concussions and signs that a player could be affected. Any athlete who is suspected of having suffered one must be immediately removed from the game or practice and is barred from returning until receiving medical clearance from a licensed health-care professional.


Three years ago this month, Lystedt’s home state of Washington became the first to approve this legislation for athletes under the age of 18. Thirty-four more have since followed suit.

Dr. Stan Herring, a Lystedt Law advocate and member of the NFL’s head, neck and spine committee, said the safeguards instituted and attention drawn to concussions has helped “transform public awareness and the treatment of concussions by giving them the respect they deserve.”

That means preventing more tragedies like what happened with Zack Lystedt.

“The difference (in awareness) is huge,” Lystedt told last week in a telephone interview. “When I was 13 years old, there’s no way I could have known what an impact I’d have on the world.”

Lystedt was like lots of other teenagers from all walks of life back then. He loved football, particularly his hometown Seattle Seahawks and Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis.

That hasn’t changed, but Lystedt’s life did drastically in October 2006.

He became one of the roughly 400,000 student-athletes who, according to statistics compiled by Ohio State University and Nationwide Children’s Hospital, suffered a concussion that year. Hitting his head on the ground had left Lystedt woozy. After sitting out for a short period of time, Lystedt re-entered the game and took another blow to the helmet. That triggered bleeding in Lystedt’s brain.

For the first few days, doctors told Lystedt’s parents that their son might not survive. Even when he did, Victor and Mercedes Lystedt didn’t know how much brain damage Zack had suffered. Zack was unable to speak for the first nine months after his injury.

“I never really wanted to know what tomorrow was going to bring because I was frightened of it,” Victor Lystedt said. “Is Zack going to wake up knowing who his dad and mom are? Is our son ever going to be able to do anything again?

“Here he is almost 14 (years old). I remember when I was 14 I got to run the streets and do everything. My son was not going to be able to do that now. I was blown away. It was terrible.”

The Lystedts found an outlet to channel that grief. Richard Adler, the attorney who represented the Lystedts in their lawsuit against the school district (an undisclosed settlement was reached in 2009), was so shaken by the circumstances surrounding Zack’s injury that he began crafting what became the Lystedt Law’s foundation.

Support followed by members of the medical profession, the Seahawks and the NFL itself. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who is trying to address concussion problems in his own league, wrote letters to state governors urging passage.

Goodell has met with the Lystedts and personally pledged that his advocacy will continue until the entire nation has passed the bill. The NCAA also is assisting the NFL with its lobbying efforts in the final 13 states that haven’t given approval for a variety of political and non-political reasons.

“One of the things we’ve learned is that kids need way more recovery time after a concussion than adults,” Victor Lystedt said. “Adults don’t die from this. They have different brains than kids.

“Once people know the potential consequences, it becomes an easy decision. Most every parent and coach is going to make the right decision because it can become a catastrophic event thereafter. That awareness became our job after Zack got injured.”

Zack is now becoming a direct part of that advocacy. He has recovered to the point that he delivered his own presentation about concussion awareness at a Seahawks-sponsored youth football clinic as well as a gathering of doctors and physical therapists. He will speak again later this month at Tahoma High School in Covington, Wash. to present the first-annual Zackery Lystedt Award that will be given to a student who overcomes adversity.

“It’s getting easier to talk about my recovery as I get better,” he said.

Having graduated from the school last year, Lystedt is taking a college class and continuing his physical therapy. A big step came last week when Lystedt was able to bend his right leg in the swimming pool so that the quadriceps was supporting his effort to walk.

When he couldn’t immediately reach his father to share the good news, Lystedt texted another one of his biggest supporters: Ray Lewis himself. The two struck up a friendship last year when Lewis visited with him the day before the Ravens played at Seattle.

“Ray is kind of turning into a mentor,” Lystedt said proudly. “He motivates me in ways he can only motivate me. Like how a coach motivates you, that’s how Ray motivates me.”

Lystedt then laughed.

“I’m not saying my dad’s not a good coach or anything but Ray just has words of encouragement and success. It’s a lot of good words.”

Added Victor Lystedt: “Ray also has got it so that if Zack can keep on working hard, that means Ray has to work hard. He’s flipped it on Zack. He’s saying, ‘I’m not your motivator. You're motivating me.’”

Victor and Zack Lystedt are also again doing something that created a tight father-son bond before the latter’s accident. They watch NFL games together.

“We’re still football fans,” Zack said.

They both notice one thing has changed. The announcers, like the NFL itself, are placing far more emphasis on the serious nature of concussions and the potential damage if not properly managed.

Zack Lystedt is part of the reason this has happened. But that doesn’t mean he has become complacent in championing his cause.

“I’m not even done,” Zack Lystedt said. “That's the crazy thing.”

Tuesday, Part II will examine why states are reluctant to embrace the passing of legislation to protect youth football players from post-concussion damage.