Austin Autry never saw it coming.
The senior quarterback at Clovis North High had just thrown a dumb pass. Autry made a sudden spin deep in his own backfield and floated a ball down the middle that sailed right into the arms of Central safety Dehlon Preston.
While Preston weaved upfield during what became a 60-yard interception return for a touchdown, Autry positioned himself near the sideline for the saving tackle.
He never saw Preston’s teammate, Dejon Ricks, measuring him up from halfway across the field.
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Ricks’ hit was a legal play. Creaming the quarterback after he throws a pick is a time-honored tradition, and on impact the smattering of fans who turned out Thursday night to watch the top-ranked Broncos face the No. 9 Grizzlies let out an audible gasp.
Ricks slammed into Autry, and the left side of Autry’s helmet slammed into the Veterans Memorial Stadium turf.
“I just remember having my face on the ground and gathering my thoughts,” Autry recalled Saturday morning.
“I was moving slow. I remember my teammate grabbing my shoulder pads, pulling at my jersey and telling me to get up.”
Autry sat up, but that’s when the team’s trainers arrived and told him to stay down. He remembers thinking, “Oh, boy. They’re going to go overboard on this.”
That depends on your perspective.
Welcome to football — all contact sports, really — in the second decade of the 21st century. Concussions, both their immediate ramifications and long-term impacts, are foremost on everyone’s minds: athletes, trainers, coaches, parents, educators, lawmakers.
The bell has rung on getting your bell rung.
If this was the 1950s, when Clovis North coach Tim Simons played high school football, or the 1980s, when I did, an ultracompetitive guy like Autry would’ve begged his way back in the game just as soon as the stars cleared.
Not in 2014.
The decision isn’t up to him. Nor is it up to the coach, or even the parent.
“In the old days, I’ll have to admit, I’d probably have put (Autry) back in if he said he was feeling good,” Simons said. “But the trainers saw something I didn’t see.”
California law requires high schools to immediately remove from competition all athletes suspected of having a concussion or head injury for the remainder of the day. That athlete is then prohibited from returning to all athletic activities until evaluated and cleared by a licensed health care professional “trained in the management of concussions and acting within the scope of his or her practice.”
Autry wasn’t the only Broncos player looking groggy after that interception return. Both and he and center Peyton Peralez spent the next several minutes being given concussion protocols by Rick Lembo, director of sports medicine for Sierra Pacific Orthopedics.
The standardized exam used by Lembo is named SCAT3, the third edition of what stands for Sport Concussion Assessment Tool. It contains a series of questions (What venue are we playing in? What half is it? Who scored last?) in which both the athlete’s answers along with eye, verbal and motor responses are judged.
“It’s pretty black and white, but if there’s any doubt I’m always going to err on the side of caution,” Lembo said. “I don’t want to be the guy who ends up on CNN Monday morning because a kid I cleared collapses at In-N-Out Burger after the game.”
In this case, trainers determined that Peralez was exhibiting concussion-like symptoms and sent him home. But Autry passed the test and did not show symptoms. He went back into the game and led the Broncos’ first touchdown drive with two perfect passes to receiver Bransin Johnson.
Autry probably would’ve played in the second half, too, had he not thrown up “two or three times” in the locker room during halftime.
The trainers intercepted him as soon as he left the toilet stall. Vomiting is a primary concussion symptom. Autry was declared out for the second half, to his strenuous objections.
In Autry’s thinking, he passed the concussion test. He proved he was OK by throwing those passes and signaling in the plays. He gets nauseous before and during games all the time. His queasy, nervous stomach made him vomit — not anything inside his head.
Clovis North and Central was a big game; the winner would remain undefeated in Tri-River Athletic Conference play, gain the inside lane to the league title.
“You want to get back in there so bad. You want to lead your team,” Autry said. “It’s kind of frustrating when you know your body best and someone else tells you otherwise. Real frustrating.”
Autry tried desperately to get back in the game. He argued and pleaded with the training staff. (Enough that he later apologized.) When one of them hid his helmet behind the Broncos bench, he found it, strapped it on and trotted into the huddle before being nabbed.
The 18-year-old even pleaded to his Dad, who happens to be the former mayor of Fresno and an NFL player for 2 1/2 seasons.
“He tried to lobby me,” Alan Autry said. “I said, ‘Son, I’ve got no juice here whatsoever.’ And thank God I don’t. …
“He wanted to be out there real bad, but this is the right thing. People talk about how tough everybody was back in the old days. You know what, though? There should be nothing nostalgic about it. Too many people paid the price with their health.”
The hit on Austin Autry was just one hit, in one game. But it’s happening all the time, more and more. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention says American hospitals treat 173,285 youth and teenage athletes every year for sports-related traumatic brain injuries, a 60% increase over the last decade. (Football, at 55,007 incidents, and girls’ soccer, at 29,167, have the highest rates.)
Locally, the numbers are harder to pin down. But Lembo, who has made concussions in youth sports sort of his personal crusade, said he has treated 12 CUSD athletes during the last week.
Another obstacle for Fresno-area trainers and athletes is a dearth of doctors who have the training and confidence to properly diagnose and treat concussions. Even the handful who do specialize in other areas. The central San Joaquin Valley also lacks any sort of dedicated concussion care center.
Those are the thoughts off Brenna Hughes, a speech language pathologist for Community Regional Medical Center. She’s the founder of the Central Valley Concussion Consortium, a group trying to raise awareness and effective treatment.
“We’re such a sports-crazy area, and yet we really don’t have a specialized clinic to manage concussions,” Hughes said. “It’s something we really need.”
Medical professionals like Lembo and Hughes are hopeful that changes in the near future; certain proposals have been made.
Meantime, the concussions, both the real and potentially so, will continue.
Austin Autry has a Monday doctor’s appointment. He’s hoping then to be cleared to practice and play in the Broncos’ game Friday against Clovis.
While sticking to his guns about the last one.
“I’m fine. I could’ve played,” Autry said. “They were just being overcautious, and I understand it’s for my long-term health. But I know I could’ve gone back in and played.”
Alan Autry, who watched the second half of Clovis North’s 41-15 romp from the sideline, is thankful the decision was up to someone else.
“You know what? One day he might have to come down to the field and take my grandson off. Then he’ll understand. But right now he’s ticked off.”