ConVal district tackles concussions

  • ConVal cheerleader Anastasia Barbosa casts a worried glance at quarterback Dan Spezzaferri after he suffered a concussion at Hollis-Brookline in 2016. Staff photo by Ben Conant

  • ConVal quarterback Dan Spezzaferri is helped off the field after suffering a concussion at Hollis-Brookline last year. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • Staff photo by Ben Conant—

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Wednesday, January 17, 2018 6:4PM

ConVal’s star quarterback was playing well at Hollis-Brookline when the two teams faced off in 2016.

It was Dan Spezzaferri’s junior year, and hopes were high after a breakout sophomore season. He had scored two touchdowns and racked up almost 200 yards of passing in the first quarter at Hollis-Brookline, and the Cavaliers were gunning for the young Cougar QB. Spezzaferri ran up the right sideline, where he was hit hard with an out-of-bounds tackle. The hit was so hard that it knocked his helmet clear off his head.

“Once I got up I knew I had a concussion,” Spezzaferri said in a recent interview.

Spezzaferri said, even still, he kept playing.

At the very beginning of the second quarter, Spezzaferri was running with the ball when he got hit in the head again. This time he stood up and immediately fell back to the ground. Spezzaferri said he remembers physical trainers and his coach rushing onto the field.

Jay Spezzaferri, Dan’s dad, said his son was lying on the ground for about a half an hour after the hit. ConVal’s head coach Paul Landau asked Spezzaferri to squeeze his hand, but Spezzaferri said he couldn’t feel anything. He was eventually able to walk off the field with the help of the trainers. As time passed, he slowly regained feeling in his body. He remembers having a headache and feeling nauseous and dizzy.

He sat out for about a week after the concussion. Then he went back out on the field.

Spezzaferri threw 1,741 yards during that season. The team went 6 - 3 that year.

The beginning of Spezzaferri’s senior season for the Cougars was shaping up well. The team was young but had a lot of energy and enthusiasm. And it showed. The Cougars started out the season on fire with a 4 - 0 record, a feat the team had never reached.

Spezzaferri said it was in the fourth quarter in a game against Sanborn when he had taken a knee and a player on the other team hit him in the back of the head.

At that point, the Cougars already had a comfortable lead and Spezzaferri took himself out of the game.

That hit left Spezzaferri on the sidelines for the rest of the season.

The team finished the season 4 - 4 last fall.

ConVal’s athletic trainer Chris Lundsted said the number of concussions the athletic department tallies has been going down in recent years. In the fall of 2015, ConVal recorded 30 concussions, in 2016, there were 18, and this past fall there were 17.

That number may be going down for a number of reasons.  

The football team became aware of soft-shell helmet covers that can absorb the impact of collision during a scrimmage in 2015. The ConVal Booster Club purchased 50 of the helmet covers, which are called Guardian Caps, the following year. This summer a group of middle school parents asked local businesses to sponsor the purchase of 53 caps for the younger players.

The players wear the caps during practice during but not in games.

School board Vice Chair Rich Cahoon asked Athletic Director Mark Swasey during a recent school board meeting why the athletes only wear the caps during practice. Swasey said the caps lessen the impact from linear acceleration but not angular or rotational acceleration. He said there are more linear tackles in practices than in games. He said there is also research that shows the caps create a larger impact area and could increase the chance of a head injury. One researcher said the protection may also provide a false sense of security.

Players wear the caps during practices and have the option to wear them during games. Cahoon said if the risk increases if a player is wearing a cap during a game, the district should have families sign liability waivers.

At the same meeting, the board also voted to purchase new helmets for all athletic teams. After some conversation, the board decided to purchase the most expensive football helmet out of four separate options. The helmet is called All Speed Felx with InSite, which is a monitoring technology that sends an alert when significant impact occurs. The 110 helmets the district needs will cost $62,075, a number significantly higher than any other helmet overall for any other athletic team. The school board voted to take about $77,000 needed to replace all of its sports helmets out of an athletic co-curricular trust fund. Taxpayers will decide if the district can expend the money for the helmets from its trust fund. 

Jay Spezzaferri, Dan’s dad, said Guardian Caps and purchasing top of the line helmets are important. But, “none of that stuff is as important as athletes learning the proper tackling technique.”

He said poorly executed hits were the reason his son sustained those concussions. If players knew how to tackle properly, he said, those injuries likely would have been avoided. He said referees should toss players out of games for a bad hit.

Spezzaferri said he is still recovering from that hit against Sanborn.

The first couple of weeks after the injury, Spezzaferri said he had to skip school and said he couldn’t even hang out with his friends.

“I couldn’t do anything without feeling like crap,” he said.

Spezzaferri said he spent most of the time sitting in a chair trying to recover.

The concussion caused a lot of anxiety and then depression.

“I couldn’t focus on conversations and I would feel shaky and weak all the time,” Spezzaferri said.

He said sitting on the sidelines last season was hard.

“Every second I wanted to be on the field with my team,” Spezzaferri said.

He said it was especially hard to sit out on senior night.

Jay said he and Dan’s mom encouraged their son to fully recover before going back out onto the field. He said the coaches at ConVal were good about it too. In many cases, he said, there is pressure to come back before the concussion has fully healed, especially when the player wants to get back in.

“I tell the kids I used to coach, and I tell my son, ‘you have the rest of your life to live. This is small-town New Hampshire football,’” Jay said.

After a couple of months passed, Spezzaferri has noticed an improvement but the effects of the injury are still lingering.

Some of them, Spezzaferri fears may stay with him forever.

“I have a really bad memory and it affects my concentration, and I am worried about all that for the rest of my life,” Spezzaferri.

Not worried enough to stop playing football altogether though. Playing college ball has been a dream of Spezzaferri’s since he was six.

And he plans to just that.

He said is waiting for national signing day to reveal where he is going to college.