MARTINEZ -- Alhambra High School junior Victor Romiti knows firsthand the devastating effects of a concussion.
The two-sport athlete suffered a severe one in December during wrestling practice, and it wasn't until February that doctors finally cleared him of symptoms, which included headaches, constant drowsiness and inability to concentrate.
"It was so difficult for him because he loves sports so much," said his grandmother, Barbara Romiti.
On Monday night, the Romitis were in the audience as U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Napa, convened a panel discussion at the high school to educate young athletes and their parents on the dangers of concussions, how to recognize them and what can be done to avoid them.
The experts began by dispelling some common beliefs that can prevent a concussion from being recognized. For starters, football players are not the only athletes at risk; lacrosse and soccer players are also high on the list, but any sport can be risky.
Also, concussions do not usually cause sufferers to lose consciousness, and they are not always caused by a blow to the head. Dr. Jose Yasul, director of musculoskeletal and sports medicine education at Contra Costa Regional Medical Center, said whiplash injuries or even blows to the body whose force travels to the head can also cause significant concussions.
The symptoms usually set on rapidly, and can include headache, confusion, dizziness, nausea or irritability. The best way to recover from a concussion is to rest the brain and the body -- typically lying in a dark, quiet room -- and most resolve within 10 days.
But the long-term effects may not be seen for years or decades, said Elizabeth Edgerly, chief regional program officer with the Alzheimer's Association. She said research has confirmed that repeated brain injury can cause dementia, including the type called chronic traumatic encephalopathy -- the degenerative illness that athletes including late National Football League star Junior Seau have been stricken by.
"They've seen their heroes suffer these injuries," said Dr. Yasul, who noted that tragic cases like Seau's and the NFL's recent settlement with former players have dramatically raised concussion awareness in recent years.
Also on the panel was former NFL wide receiver Onome Ojo, who, Super Bowl ring glinting under the auditorium's lights, drove home the point that even at the highest levels, being a pro athlete is a temporary job.
Ojo, now an officer with the Richmond Police Department, echoes the advice he received from his mentor, Jerry Rice, when he implores young athletes to make "career decisions" -- with "career" referring to life after sports.
"Love the game, play the game. But when you get hurt, pay attention to what your body is telling you," said Ojo, a member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Super Bowl-winning team in 2002 before injuries ended his NFL career.
Yasul called it "respecting the symptoms," even the subtle ones like a mild headache or mood change following a head injury.
One step that schools, including Alhambra, are now taking to lower the risks is performing baseline cognitive evaluations for their athletes, so that if an injury does occur, it will be easier to recognize its effects.
Head football coach Alan Hern said all of the school's coaches have also undergone concussion training to learn how to spot the symptoms, and that players will get in trouble for making plays that they know are unsafe, like tackling with their head down.
Anecdotally, Hern said he has seen injuries go down as the emphasis on endurance and overall fitness grows, and as schools put more limits on the length and intensity of their sports practices.
The overall goal, everyone agreed, is for students to get the benefits of fitness and camaraderie from playing on a team but still walk away from the experience healthy.
"There's a lot of life to live," Ojo said.