Gregori football player helps secure helmet sensors for Stanislaus teams

08/09/2014 8:15 PM

08/09/2014 11:31 PM

The National Football League is a $10 billion a year industry, and it’s been reported that Commissioner Roger Goodell has set a goal of $25 billion in earnings by 2027.

Then there’s college football … another sacred cash cow.

High school’s Friday night lights have even caught the attention of major cable networks.

Yes, in this country, football is king and its reign is undisputed. But, as Shakespeare warned, uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.

What has a multibillion-dollar industry got to be worried about? Well, let’s get back to what Shakespeare said … uneasy lies the head.

The head-trauma issue, at all levels, is no longer football’s dirty little secret.

Gregori High School football player Dominic Barandica is aware of it and isn’t scared off by the plethora of concussion-related horror stories he’s heard or read about.

“I was never afraid to play the game,” said Barandica, a 15-year-old sophomore. “I feel like that’s how most athletes are in this day and age; I feel like it’s more the adults’ concern with the game.”

Nevertheless, in an effort to protect the sport and his fellow athletes, Barandica wrote and presented a proposal that helped secure a $10,000 grant from Doctors Medical Center toward helmet sensors that detect high-impact collisions and alert sideline personnel during games.

Nine schools nationwide used them last year, and the Gregori High Jaguars will be one of two Stanislaus District schools this season to equip some of their players with helmet-maker Riddell’s InSite Impact Response System.

Barandica made his presentation before leaders of Modesto City Schools and DMC, where his father, Dr. Robert Barandica, is an emergency room physician.

“He knocked my socks off in that presentation,” said Carin Sarkis, an associate administrator of business development at Doctors. “Everyone was so impressed. We threw some pretty hard questions at him and it was evident he put a lot of time and research into this. There was nothing for which he was unprepared.

“And it’s clear he doesn’t just want to help his team, but also the teams and players that will come after him.”

The issue made big headlines last year when the NFL agreed to pay $765 million to settle a lawsuit brought by former players over concussion-related brain injuries, only to have a federal judge decline to approve the settlement, which means it may eventually cost the league more.

But really, head injuries always have been an underlying concern at every level.

According to the website ClearedToPlay.org, high school athletes who have suffered concussions are three times more likely to suffer another concussion in the same season. Also, nearly 16 percent of football players who suffer a concussion severe enough to lose consciousness return to play the same day. Most alarming is this: Half of all “second impact syndrome” incidents – brain injuries caused from a premature return to activity – result in death.

Though not tied to any specific reasons, there are numerous reports about the declining numbers of high school and Pop Warner football players in the United States. In this state, the numbers are stagnant. According to the California Interscholastic Federation’s 2014 participation census, numbers for high school athletes are up, reaching record heights. But when you single out football, the numbers are up less than 1 percent after falling by the same margin the previous season.

Robert Barandica had reservations about allowing his son to play football.

“I never have played football,” he said. “Quite honestly, I tell people my son is a great football player because I never played and can’t teach him a thing.

“When we chose a youth football team for him to play for, we made the decision based on how well the kids were coached, and that’s why we went with the Central Saints.”

Nudged by a freshman-year English teacher who read his essay about making the sport safer, Barandica wrote the proposal seeking funds for the helmet sensors.

Made by equipment manufacturer Riddell, the sensors are connected remotely to a monitor (about the size of a mobile phone) that records high-impact collisions and alert sideline personnel when a player takes a hit that exceeds a threshold based on the player’s position and competition level. The player can then be removed from the game and examined immediately.

With the grant money Barandica helped secure, Gregori purchased 36 InSite units – 12 each for the varsity, JV and freshman teams at $150 per unit – plus a dozen extra Revolution Speed helmets, which run about $225 each.

The sensors fit only into Riddell’s Speed models and measure impacts in five different zones.

Westlake High School in Los Angeles County was one of the schools that used them last year.

“I was very pleased with the system,” said Westlake head coach Jim Benkert. “Only two times all season did players have to come out because the sensor went off. We were able to check them out and both times they were able to go back in the game.”

Westlake used 12 sensor units last season and has ordered six more for this year.

According to Erin Griffin, senior communications manager for Riddell, hundreds of schools will be using the technology in the fall, including Sonora High School, which ordered 12.

Other schools that might have wanted to use the technology perhaps chose otherwise because it would have required the purchase of Speed helmets, the only helmet to receive a five-star safety rating in a 2011 study conducted by Virginia Tech university, according to Riddell.

In the future, Griffin said, the sensors will become available for use in Riddell’s 360 model, the Rolls-Royce of helmets, which disperses the energy of frontal impacts.

“We had limited quantities on the field last year because we didn’t officially launch it until October of 2013,” said Griffin, based in Rosemont, Ill. “We’re seeing entire districts make the decision to go with InSite this year.”

Modesto City Schools eventually could be among those districts.

“If it proves effective, we would look at increasing our funding and expanding to other schools,” said DMC’s Sarkis. “This is part of a greater collaborative effort with Modesto City Schools to impact safety and prevent these types of injuries. That’s our goal as a Level 2 trauma center and a leader in the community in neuroscience. We know how important this is.”

Barandica, a 5-foot-11, 190-pound right guard and middle linebacker, is a bright, polite young man who seems more like an Ivy League graduate than a high school sophomore. He had a weighted grade-point average of 4.67 last year and thinks he might one day want to be a prosecuting attorney or a trauma surgeon.

“I was leaning more toward law,” Barandica said. “But after getting involved with this grant project, I’ve found that I have a love for athletes and for the game, so I think I’m leaning more toward trauma now.”

It’s not like he doesn’t have time to figure it out. He is, after all, just a kid.

“Dominic is about as impressive a young man you could imagine,” said Gregori athletic director Jim Davis. “What Dominic has done here is something very important to high school sports and goes a long way to helping coaches put a healthy player back on the field.”

Barandica’s dad will be on the sideline each Friday night monitoring the alert system. Gregori assistant coach Dr. Hugh Tobin, a Modesto cardiovascular surgeon, and athletic trainer Buzz Rolicheck will handle the other monitors during weekday practices. Should they receive a warning, the player immediately will be brought to the sideline and, if a concussion is suspected, the player will be done for the day.

And that unleashes another set of protocols.

The CIF, under rule 503.H, mandates that players removed from a game for a concussion-related injury cannot return to action until cleared by a medical doctor or doctor of osteopathy.

Safety is becoming more important than ever to administrators, coaches, parents and players alike.

“This young man has done a service to his high school,” Westlake’s Benkert said of Barandica.

Escalon High School’s Mark Loureiro, the dean of Stanislaus District coaches entering his 26th season, understands the seriousness of the issue.

In 2009, after an Escalon player suffered a concussion during Week 9, Loureiro shut him down for the rest of the regular season and the playoffs – more than a month – because he didn’t want to take any chances.

“You’ve got to have the best interest of the kids in mind,” said Loureiro, who didn’t allow his son to play tackle football until the seventh grade. “You’ve only got so many hits in you and this game is losing participation a little bit. It’s a serious thing.”

And that’s what troubled Barandica in the first place. He said he’d hate to see football suffer, especially when the sport has so much to offer.

“I wanted to see our athletes safer,” said Barandica, who will be one of the 12 wearing sensors this season. “Football teaches us teamwork, leadership and cooperation. We have study hall on Thursdays even though it takes away an hour from practice. We had a 3.3 cumulative team GPA.

“The opportunity for those life lessons won’t be there if football’s not around.”

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