ANTIOCH -- Several decades ago, out on the football field, if you got dinged or hit in the head, they didn't know to call it a "concussion."
Back then, "it was called a stinger -- you didn't want it to stop you from going back on the field," former NFL wide receiver Bobby Shaw told hundreds of Antioch High students Friday during a forum on the debilitating head injuries.
Shaw, a UC Berkeley graduate who went on to play for the Seattle Seahawks, Pittsburgh Steelers, Jacksonville Jaguars, Buffalo Bills and San Diego Chargers, spoke at the forum hosted by U.S. Rep. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, to raise awareness about sports-related head injuries and how to prevent them. He was joined by Akili Calhoun, a former defensive tackle for the Oakland Raiders, who said as a young player he didn't learn the best ways to protect himself.
He recalled playing scrimmage in his early days of the NFL and realizing he was the only one using his head, because he didn't know how to protect himself from injury when he tackled.
"And they threw me around like a rag doll," Calhoun said. "In the NFL, it's where they teach you the proper way to play."
DeSaulnier said protecting student athletes from concussions has been one of his priorities since he took office last year. He authored the Protecting Student Athletes from Concussions Act, which was passed last year as part of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorization. It requires the federal government to set standards in identifying concussions and protecting against them. It also requires every high school receiving federal funds for education to develop a concussion management plan to ensure that students are informed about concussions and given the support they need to recover.
An estimated 140,000 students playing high school sports suffer concussions every year, though many go unreported, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations.
Even before hitting the professional leagues, as a youth on the football field, "it was go out there and see who can hit harder than the other guy ... it was a gladiator sport," Shaw recalled. He and his fellow players didn't have any idea of just how dangerous repeated blows, jolts, shocks and hits to the head could be over time.
"It's a car crash almost every snap, every play," he said. "And I'm glad now that there's more attention being brought to it the proper way."
Antioch High Principal Louie Rocha, who has coached football in Antioch and Concord, said that reporting of concussions, as well as the training to protect players from head injuries, has vastly improved over the years.
Students are taught to lead not with the top of their head or the crown of their helmet, but their shoulders. State regulations state that schools must inspect their football equipment annually and students who are suspected of suffering a concussion must be pulled out of games and get medical clearance before returning to the field.
Cameron Nathan, 16, a junior and player on the school's varsity football team, said he has suffered two concussions, one when he was in sixth grade and another just this year, during a practice before the season began.
It was a scary experience, he said. Although coaches were cautious about getting him off the field and out of the game so he got the recovery time he needed, he believes more training and better equipment for younger players is needed.
David Hong, a pediatric neurosurgeon with John Muir Health, agreed, and added a sobering statistic: There are approximately 2,000 players in the NFL, compared to millions of kids throughout the country who are playing youth sports, without the benefit of world-class athletic trainers and high-end equipment.
"The safety of our young athletes should be our number one priority ...," he said. "And concussions are a silent killer."
Contact Joyce Tsai at 925-945-4764. Follow her at Twitter.com/joycetsainews.