PENINSULA WOMAN: Mom uses worry over son’s football injury to help other parents

Jean Rickerson and her 17-year-old son, Drew, have proven themselves to be a tough pair.

Rickerson has faced some of the scariest things that can befall a parent, starting on the night of Nov. 7, 2008. Drew, Sequim High School’s star quarterback, was “speared” on the football field: He took a direct and hard hit from an opponent. Then he continued to play, and in the next 15 minutes threw a touchdown pass and scored a touchdown himself.

But Rickerson, watching from the stands, covered her mouth with her hand as her son ran across the field in a way she had never seen before.

When Drew finally took himself out of the game and sat on the bench, she kept her binoculars on him, saw him pour water over his shoulder, and thought he was trying to cool himself off.

When the game ended, she went down onto the field.

“He turned and looked at me, and my knees buckled,” Rickerson recalls. “His face was completely vacant.”

She learned that he’d been trying to drink water, but couldn’t manage to pour it into his mouth.

She asked Drew, her 6-foot-1, 170-pound paragon of fitness, what was wrong; he couldn’t tell her. It turned out he had suffered a concussion — a violent jarring of the brain against the skull. Before the night was over, Drew lost both his hearing and his eyesight.

The teen was then told to “rest at home.” Which he did; Drew slept all weekend, waking only to eat. Each time he opened his eyes, he saw stars.

Come Monday, Rickerson and her husband, Rick, brought Drew to the family doctor, who said he could “return to play when able.”

Then the Rickersons watched their son struggle; he missed two weeks of school, couldn’t concentrate on much of anything, and was, his mother said, a slow-motion version of himself.

“Everybody was telling me this was ‘no big deal.’ In my heart, I knew different,” Rickerson remembers.

A 52-year-old retired video producer, she scoured the Internet for data on concussions and youth, and found next to nothing.

Then, one night, Drew felt his extremities go numb, and Rickerson called 9-1-1.

A trip to the emergency room at Olympic Medical Center led to tests that showed Drew wasn’t bleeding internally, and the Rickersons were told to go home.

Over the next 10 weeks, Drew continued to suffer. Rickerson was “terrified. I didn’t know that most concussions heal. . . . I had never shed so many tears.”

At the same time, over those long weeks, Rickerson fought to hide her despair from Drew.

Finally, she found someone who acknowledged the seriousness of his injury: Dr. Stan Herring, team physician for the Seattle Seahawks and medical codirector of the Seattle Sports Concussion Clinic.

From that point, Rickerson’s campaign to raise awareness about the effects of concussions ­– of which more than 300,000 occur among young athletes each year — took off.

With help from Herring, Rickerson gathered information and research from the Centers for Disease Control and from universities across the United States and established www.SportsConcussions.org, a touchstone for parents, coaches and emergency medical workers.

Rickerson called herself naive, however, for thinking concussion danger was limited to football.

When she worked with Herring on an educational video titled “Help! My Bell Just Rang,” she found 16 athletes — from wrestling to lacrosse to equestrian competition — who had suffered serious head injuries.

The video was just one facet of Rickerson’s effort to caution anyone connected with youth sports to keep injured athletes off the playing field until they have fully healed. It screened in June 2009 as part of a sports-safety conference at Sequim High School, attracting some 200 people from Clallam Bay to Bremerton.

Chase O’Neil, then a Sequim High student, was among the athletes in the video. A soccer player who had suffered a concussion in a game her junior year, she crystallized the message.

“Chase said, ‘I’d rather have my brain than my last year of soccer,'” Rickerson recalled.

Chase’s mother, Virginia O’Neil, also remembers how scared she was after her daughter was hurt. Chase missed 46 days of school, and “her concussion was not resolving,” O’Neil said.

Then she ran into Rickerson at Costco. “We had a tearful conversation,” O’Neil said; not long after, Rickerson referred her to Herring in Seattle.

Chase has since recovered. She won a full academic scholarship to the University of Washington, where she is now. Yet she still suffers migraines, her mother said.

The youth sports concussions issue, of course, pervades the nation. O’Neil hails Rickerson as a woman who, by gathering information as ammunition, has empowered countless parents, coaches and medical care providers with it.

“You don’t dismiss Jean. She leads in a soft-spoken way, but she doesn’t take ‘no’ for an answer,” O’Neil added.

And Rickerson is not resting. She noted sadly that Nathan Stiles, a Kansas high school senior running back, died following reinjury of a previous subdural hematoma during an October football game.

This month, Rickerson will debut an expanded website: SportsCNN.com, a clearinghouse of research, expert opinions and information about signs, symptoms and after-care of sports-related brain injury.

“The whole conversation has grown,” Rickerson said. “There was too much information; we needed to reorganize it all,” into a more easily navigable site.

Drew, meantime, has been fortunate; his injury healed, and he was cleared to rejoin the Sequim Wolves in September 2009.

But his mother knew too much to feel as good. Though she had come a long way from not wanting Drew to ride in a car lest a bump in the road reinjure his brain, she’d also learned that football helmets don’t prevent concussions, that not all “minor” hits are harmless, and that many concussions go undetected.

Letting her son play football again “was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” she said. “But I didn’t want to let my fear change his path.”

She wanted him to pursue his passion, to use his gifts, which are prodigious. During his career as the Wolves’ quarterback, Drew was sixth in Washington state’s high school football rankings, having passed for 4,847 yards and 52 touchdowns.

In addition to earning all-league honors for four years in football, Drew has been an all-league baseball player for three years. Now he’s on the swim team, excelling in the 50- and 100-meter freestyle events.

“I love all my sports,” Drew says.

In June, the Peninsula College Running Start student will receive both an associate of arts college degree and a diploma from Sequim High.

He’s looking at schools including Menlo College in Palo Alto, Calif., and Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma.

And Drew shows unabashed admiration for his mom. He watched her build the Sports Concussions.org website, and then expand it into www.SportsCNN.com — and he’s seen her stand up for injured players, on his team and off.

“She’s taken it head on,” Drew said, “and pretty much alone.”

And, not surprisingly, there has been at least one time when Rickerson was, to Drew, a little overprotective.

At one of last season’s games, a hit “tweaked my neck,” he said. Mom made sure he got an MRI, even after he insisted he was fine.

“We agree a lot,” Drew said. “But that night, we butted heads.”

“We’ve learned a lot about negotiation,” Rickerson added, smiling at her son.

Drew considers her message, which he boils down to “don’t mess with a concussion,” a crucial one. It’s hard to sit out, he said, but a few games aren’t worth the damage that can come with brain reinjury.

Rickerson, who started by knocking on doors and talking with other parents in Sequim, now responds to calls and e-mails from mothers and fathers in all parts of the country.

“Initially, I thought maybe I would become tired,” she said, “and go back to my ‘pre-concussion life.’ But what fuels me are the parents and families,” seeking information.

On Christmas Day, she heard from a Massachusetts man whose son was hurt wrestling; she was able to give him referrals to doctors in the Boston area.

Together, Rickerson and her son are finding a fine balance between Drew’s need to be who he is and her desire to protect him.

In an essay for SportsCNN.com, she writes: “Changing the game to make it as safe as possible is imperative, and there’s room for improvement without fundamentally altering its core.”

As for the young athletes, “we owe them our best.”

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