Joe Kozlowski started his football career at Beverly High with a bang, though it was not the type of hit he would recommend to any other player.
Playing his first game for the freshman squad in 2010, the defensive back took on his Concord-Carlisle Regional foe near the line of scrimmage and made a gross mistake: He hit the player with his head.
He got up, shook it off, and lined up for the next play, barely fazed.
“At first I felt a little confused. Later in the game my head was hurting a bit, and then after the game my head was just killing me,” recalled Kozlowski, now a senior, who also plays running back.
Kozlowski had no idea at the time, but he had suffered a concussion, one that was diagnosed after the game and forced him to be sidelined for the next week.
And it would not be his first.
The following September, facing Lynn Classical, Kozlowski made a block on offense, once again leading with his head. And once again, he stayed in the game, thinking he was just a little shaken up after an ordinary hit.
He was later diagnosed with his second concussion, only the severity this time was much worse, causing him to miss a week and a half of football; his performance in the classroom was also adversely affected.
“I couldn’t focus at all. I just put my head down on the desk because it was just hard to focus and I couldn’t really think well,” said the 5-foot-9 Kozlowski.
To help decrease their chances of playing through future head injuries, Kozlowski and his teammates from the defending Division 2 Super Bowl champion were hard at work Friday morning.
But they were in the school library, taking a test.
Representatives of the Beverly Hospital Orthopedics and Sports Medicine Concussion Management Program of Lahey Health had provided the funding for 300 ImPACT (Immediate Post-Concussion Assessment and Cognitive Testing) baseline tests; roughly 100 were administered to the football team.
If one of the athletes develops a head injury during the season, they will take a post-injury test, which will be compared to the original and used as a tool to make sure athletes are not suiting up too soon. The aim is to decrease the risk of a second concussion.
Kowlowski appreciates that the hospital is concerned about the safety of the athletes. “It shows that they care about us athletes and our well-being,” he said.
“If you come back before you’re ready after you get a concussion, then you’ll just get worse and you could ruin your brain for the rest of your life.”
Rick Tolstrup, an Ipswich resident who is the director of physician recruitment at the hospital, helped kick-start the Concussion Management Program in January.
He took a keen interest after his son, Dane, was affected severely by a string of four or five concussions while playing youth hockey. He did not play the game for two years.
The tests were first administered to the lacrosse programs at Ipswich High in April.
“It’s the only scientific way to determine when an athlete is ready to go back on the field or ice and return to play,” said Tolstrup, who also directs the North Shore Ice Hawks youth hockey program.
“I mean there are other factors that need to be taken into consideration as well, but it’s the only data-driven way to say: “OK, you’re back to where you were.”
The remaining fall athletes at Beverly High took the test on Monday and Tuesday, and the Ipswich High football team is scheduled for Thursday and Friday. The rest of the athletes at Ipswich will follow at a later date, in addition to those at Gloucester in November.
“We realized that this is something that we should take seriously,” said Gerald MacKillop, the associate director of community relations at Lahey Health. “We want to prevent kids from having cognitive damage due to sports.”
MacKillop, who was assisting with the test administration, added: “We also want it to be safe for them to go back and play, and I think that the way to stress safety was to reach out to schools, and [they’ve] been responsive.”
According to Charla Bouranis,the athletic trainer at Beverly, 12 athletes at the school were diagnosed with concussions during the 2012-13 academic year, down from 18 in 2011-12. Eighty percent of those diagnosed were football players.
Beverly’s head football coach, Dan Bauer, makes it a point to limit contact in practices. That limit had little impact on the field: The Panthers were 13-0 last fall.
“We don’t take guys down to the ground in practice; there’s no need to do that,” said Bauer, who also focuses largely on proper tackling and blocking techniques. “We need to make sure the head is not involved .”
But occasionally a player will launch himself headfirst to bring down an opponent. That’s why Bouranis is on the sideline every game, always on her toes looking for signs.
“You watch them get hit and then you look for immediate things,” she said. “Like you look for them to shake their head, like they’re a dog almost, and you know that if they’re doing that, they probably instantly got a headache and they’re trying to shake it off or they’re dizzy.”
Bouranis is prepared, with a set of memory-based questions and balance tests. If a player is diagnosed with a concussion, the Concussion Management Program representives can determine when an athlete can safely return to the playing field.
“I think with the hype with the concussions over the last few years, it helps people get a sense that it is important, so in order to take care of it, we need to be proactive,” said Bouranis.
“It’s good for the community because it shows that they care about the student-athletes and the school, so that’s helpful for the kids, coaches, and parents.”