It’s been more than three months since a 17-year-old football player at La Jolla High School suffered a concussion during a game and he has not been back at school for a full day since then.

The student, who we’ll refer to as Blake – his family asked us not to use his name, citing privacy concerns – is receiving continuing treatment for a concussion and chronic migraines from head-on contact with another football player on Oct. 16.

Blake stayed in the game despite telling an assistant coach he was hurt, Blake’s father and the head coach of the La Jolla football team, Jason Carter, said. (That assistant coach, who was later suspended, disputes that account.)

Regardless, state athletic rules mandate training for all coaches to identify possible head injuries. Players have to be immediately removed from a game after any suspected concussion and they are only allowed back after a medical professional provides written clearance for them to return.


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In this case, Blake had a head injury and kept playing — exactly the situation that state concussion rules are supposed to prevent. Why that happened is disputed. But what’s clear is that Blake’s injuries are serious. He’s supposed to have a parent with him at all times, and must refrain from all strenuous physical and cognitive activities, according to medical records shared with VOSD.

“Football was very important to (my son),” said Blake’s father. “Frankly, it was a large part of keeping him in school. And now that’s over. So it burns all the way around.”

A Blow to the Head

On Oct. 16, early in a junior varsity game against Point Loma High School, Blake took a blow to the head that left him dazed. According to Blake’s father, who was watching the game, his son was vomiting on the sidelines – indications he may have sustained a head injury.

Blake told assistant coach Steven Wachs that he wasn’t feeling well and asked if he could sit out. Carter said Wachs refused, then told Blake to “suck it up” and get back into the game.

Blake’s father said Wachs went further, telling his son, “I don’t have time for this crap.” When Blake re-entered the game, dizzy, he forgot his instructions and cost the team points. Wachs yelled at Blake after the play; Blake yelled back. When Blake stayed in the game, it was partly out of guilt for his mistake, his father said.

But Wachs has a much different version of how this played out. He said neither Blake nor anyone else ever told him the boy was injured. When he was trying to get his kickoff team together – the play Blake reportedly asked to sit out – he said it was business as usual.

“In all the chatter that was going on the sidelines, it was never communicated to me once that (Blake) was injured, I promise you,” Wachs said.

That’s where the stories diverge. But everyone agrees that Blake stayed on the field. He played offense, defense and special teams, absorbing more blows to the head as the game progressed.

Go to the Hospital

Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle
Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

Blake’s father said that late in the game, a teammate looked at Blake’s eyes and sensed he needed help. The teammate told him to get out of the game immediately and see an athletic trainer.

The trainer assessed Blake for a concussion, then told his father to take him to the hospital.

His father said Blake now experiences a constant state of fogginess. He can’t read more than three lines at a time before a searing headache sets in. When he goes outside on a bright day, he has to sit in the car and cover his eyes for five minutes before he can do anything.

Blake hasn’t formally withdrawn from school, his dad said, but his grades for the semester won’t count. His football career – and probably his ability to play any contact sport – is over.

Wachs was suspended from coaching for two games, the remainder of the season.

The California Interscholastic Federation, the state body that governs high school sports, requires written clearance from a licensed health care provider before athletes return from a suspected head injury.

decision-pqBut Wachs said he wants to be very clear: He never made a call to keep Blake in the game.

“There was never a decision. I never made a decision to put him back in the game because he was never taken out,” he said.

Furthermore, Wachs said, if Blake had received a head injury before the kickoff, which was early in the game, he wouldn’t have been able to stay on the field and continue to play. The team runs a fast-tempo offense and throws a lot of passes; he wouldn’t have been able to make the quick decisions required of him if he suffered a serious head injury early on, Wachs said.

The way Wachs describes it, Carter is letting him take the fall for Blake’s injury. Wachs was merely an assistant coach on the junior varsity team, which had its own head coach. Carter – who heads the varsity team and oversees the entire football program – was in the stadium during the game, but wasn’t coaching.

Wachs said he hadn’t been with the team long, and that days before the injury occurred, he complained to other coaches that the team was allowing too much contact during practice by making the junior varsity team scrimmage against older, stronger varsity players.

In short, Wachs said he was singled out because he was the new guy who stepped out of line and tried to make the program safer.

Wachs said that he agreed to the suspension because he thought Carter’s job was at stake, and felt Carter had more to lose. Wachs said he had the impression that he was welcome to return to the team next year.

When I asked district spokesperson Ursula Kroemer about Wachs’ employment status with La Jolla High, she said it was the first she’d heard of the specifics of the situation, and that Wachs was still listed as active in the district system. That could be because of a lag in the system and didn’t necessarily mean he would be retained as a coach, she said.

What is clear is that neither Wachs, an athletic trainer who was present on the sidelines, nor the other coaches stepped in until Blake came out on his own accord late in the game. By then, the boy was badly injured.

CIF mandates all coaches take a football-specific course on how to handle possible concussions. And besides, Wachs isn’t just a coach. He’s a chiropractor who specializes in treating sports injuries.

A constellation of safeguards was in place to protect Blake from this exact type of injury. All of them failed.

Carter’s Take

Neither La Jolla High School’s athletic director Paula Conway nor Vice Principal William Hawthorne would talk to me. Both referred me eventually to the school’s principal. But Carter did speak with me.

After Coach Carter was hired as head coach before the 2013 season, he got to work rebuilding the team’s offense, shifting to a fast-tempo strategy that relies on its pass attack. Carter’s experience playing college ball for Texas A&M, then in the pros for the Carolina Panthers and Minnesota Vikings, energized the La Jolla football program.

On Dec. 10, when I first contacted him, I told Carter that a concerned parent had told VOSD that a LJHS player continued playing in a game after showing signs of concussion, and was then injured worse.

“(The parent) must have been talking about a different program,” Carter said. “He wasn’t talking about my kids, because nothing like that ever happened. My coaches know what to do if they suspect a concussion. If I ever heard that a coach put a kid back in the game, I’d fire him on the spot.”

As a coach, balancing intensity and competitiveness with the need for safety is a matter of understanding your players, Carter said.

The team has only had one concussion in two years he’s been a coach, he said at the time.

But a day later, after I approached him with more details of the incident, Carter confirmed that Blake had been injured.

He said he had been referring to the varsity team when he’d said no one had been injured in the way I described. Blake was on the junior varsity team. Carter was present at the junior varsity game on Oct. 16, but didn’t see Blake get injured.

About the call to keep Blake in the game, Carter said Blake informed the coach he wasn’t feeling right but he didn’t specify: “In Wachs’ defense, (Blake) never said he had a head injury. He didn’t say anything about a concussion.”

I verified Blake’s diagnosis with the Neurology Center of Southern California, where he is a patient. His father gave the clinic permission to speak with Voice of San Diego.

Relying solely on someone who has sustained a head injury to recognize and report a concussion is asking a lot.

According to a study by the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council, most concussions don’t result in loss of consciousness; players may not recognize the injuries. And if they do, football’s play-through-pain ethos may keep them from reporting them.

Despite previously insisting that he would fire a coach on the spot, Carter decided to suspend Wachs instead of firing him because it was an immediate solution.

In that same conversation, when I asked how Blake was doing, Carter said, “He’s good. I saw him at school today. He was out on the field, catching passes.”

Only Blake wasn’t OK. His dad said Blake had stopped by the school after hours, and snapped a few balls to his friend, but that he wasn’t working out or exercising.

Neither La Jolla High nor San Diego Unified has offered much clarity on how the school responded to the injury, or steps it plans to take to prevent further injuries. Chuck Podhorsky, the LJHS principal, didn’t confirm or deny anything. He said only that “we are conducting a thorough review of the processes for evaluating athletes who may be injured during the course of a game to make sure appropriate steps were followed and that assessments of possible injuries are completed in a timely fashion.”

Carter said the parent who told VOSD about Blake’s injury should have taken any concerns to him personally. Carter called the parent a “coward” for speaking to the media.

“Kids now believe in themselves, they didn’t before I got here. Now they’re going to class. Now they’re winning games,” Carter said.

Policing Football

Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle
Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle
Tackling dummies at La Jolla High's football stadium

Even now, Blake’s family is loyal to the team. His father says the school and team have been incredibly supportive of his son.

youth-pqCarter and other coaches call the house to check up on Blake, his father said. Teachers and school staff are doing what they can to get Blake back on his feet academically. He believes Carter and the school took swift and serious action once they knew the details of what happened.

But, he said, he doesn’t want this to happen to another kid.

“It would be dishonest to say that there’s not anger there. Particularly in the youth setting, there should be no question when a kid complains that something is not right – especially someone like (Blake), who never complains – the coach should do whatever he can to immediately remedy the situation,” Blake’s father said.

His worry for his son and loyalty to the team encapsulates the public’s ambivalence toward football.

Even with mounting evidence that the sport poses both immediate and long-term risks, and can muddle an athlete’s brain years after the final whistle sounds, football’s mix of brutality and grace captures regional pride, young manhood, school spirit.

In recent years, CIF has implemented rules aimed at making football safer for high school athletes. In 2015, a new law will take effect that limits full contact to two practices a week. Players who suffer concussions will also have to go through a return-to-play protocol that lasts at least a week.

Only time and research will tell whether rules and precautions can stem the bulk of serious injuries that result from football, said Howard Taras, a pediatrician and a professor at UCSD. Taras contracts with school districts, including San Diego Unified, and advises them on health and safety policies.

“I think the story on football’s safety is not quite fully told, just yet,” he said

“We may have to add more rules, and try to make the game safer,” Taras said. “But we have to wonder, as we add more rules, whether there’s a safe way of playing football without changing the game entirely.”

After all, there were already numerous safeguards already in place the day Blake was injured.

    This article relates to: Concussions, Education, News

    Written by Mario Koran

    Mario asks questions and writes stories about San Diego schools. Reach him directly at 619.325.0531, or by email: mario@vosd.org.

    21 comments
    Edward Petersen
    Edward Petersen subscriber

    One recent trend is to teach the football tackle like they do in rugby.  Pete Carroll has been doing this for over two years, and has won a Superbowl and has a shot at winning a second.  If professional athletes are able to play 80 minutes with no pads or helmets and have a lower incidence of brain trauma then there is something to look at.  Rugby, when played well is a game of avoidance, and when it breaks down it becomes a game of contact.

    http://www.bostonglobe.com/sports/2015/01/27/seahawks-coach-pete-carroll-tells-his-players-tackle-like-rugby-player/OQy6KCmN7zfSPgKDCzthhM/story.html

    Richard Barton
    Richard Barton subscriber

    “Football was very important to (my son),” said Blake’s father. “Frankly, it was a large part of keeping him in school. And now that’s over. So it burns all the way around.”


    Sad commentary on today's "student" athletes!   Only a very small percent of players advance to the next level(s) of competition.  So, what then?


    LJHS PARENT
    LJHS PARENT

    I was at this game along with several parents that saw this incident. Blake got hit, didn't feel well, came out told the sideline coach, and got put back in the game two to three times. The head coach, Jason Carter became aware of the situation and all he did was tell a coach to leave the field. Jason Carter, continuously lies to cover himself, as well as Will Hawthorne, Paula Conway, and principal Dr. Podhorsky. It's always a cover up at La Jolla High School, not only in sports but in academics. Fear is the approach instilled by the principal on all staff and coaches. Actually, there were 2 concussions that happened just about the same time during this game. The so called athletic trainer was assisting this injured player that also suffered a concussion, not as a serious as Blake. The parents should request a full and thorough investigation. A top notch attorney is what is needed here. San Diego Unified School District, the Fraud Hotline, and their legal team always discounts any event at La Jolla High School at the expense of athletic players, students, teachers, and the community. Shame on on our Superintendent Cindy Marten and all her cover ups.

    James
    James subscriber

    I would hope that by now the school district has reported the incident to the Child Welfare Service. Perhaps then someone or some entity will begin to act in this matter with the kid's best interests at the center of their concerns.

    John H Borja
    John H Borja subscriber

    Vomiting? Really?  I couldn't venture anybody thinking something was ok with anyone vomiting. So, I don't want to discount that this occurred or the incident "blown off", but there must be a flip side to this.  Over the last two years I have read stories of heavy overreaching by state sports associations across the nation against students, players, and coaches. The court of public opinion does no good justice to any of the parties. Players in sports often times are the same kids doing X-gamer type activities like highly risky skateboarding off rails, curbs, and concrete "rinks".  These are kids that are thrilled by contact sports and activities. They are kinesthetic.  They enjoy the rough and tumble. So, the real question that nobody wants to answer is, is tackle football, hockey safe enough to play at the high school level. We know that other sports can have incidents, but not nearly the level of football or hockey.  The other questions that really no one can answer very well except just the college researchers, the NFL(they won't talk), and the military(they won't talk) is, what is concussion, what does it look like, and what do we do about it.  All the CDC can come up with are "guidelines", nothing definitive. Why? No one dares talk to any one else that can talk intelligently about concussion.  No one can see a "bell ringing". All we can do is observe the player and listen to the player and make the best decision.  There is a lot of pressure in competitive sports and our society must put pressure on the medical establishment to gets some well researched facts out to the public. Other than that parents and children must decide whether the risks of the sport are worth the thrill. All parents sign a waiver stating, generally, you are now on notice that your child will be playing in a sport in which he/she could be injured.

    For the Kids
    For the Kids subscriber

    While the coaches should be ultimately responsible, if you are a parent and you see your child vomiting on the sideline (quote from article: "According to Blake’s father, who was watching the game, his son was vomiting on the sidelines – indications he may have sustained a head injury"), don't you intervene? How could he be watching the game and NOT see his son vomiting on the sidelines? I have a son in high school who plays sports, so I realize the taboo nature of a parent stepping in. But if it is this serious and your child's life and/or future is possibly at stake, insist your son stop playing immediately. You are your child's advocate, even at 17 years old.

    Manny Chen
    Manny Chen subscriber

     a bunch of pu**ies all around.  it's football.  people get hurt.  the guys who play get the glory and the chicks.  end of story.  don't play if you can't pay the iron price...

    richard brick
    richard brick subscribermember

    Several people who have commented place all the blame on the coaches. One even quoted what a coach said to the player,"suck it up". So I'm to believe that these people were actually on the sideline and witnessed what was said by both the player and the coach? If that is the case I'm sure the school district would like to get a hold of you for their investigation


    Seems like both sides are trying to cover their behinds from any liability I'm sure the parents have retained a lawyer and are working on filing a law suit against the district, and the coaches. Who has the deepest pockets? The district would also be protecting their behinds from being sued and have to cover medical costs. 


    There doesn't seem to be any winners in this case, and a young mans future has been changed for ever.

    James Weber
    James Weber subscriber

    Why does Carter still have a job at La Jolla High?

    LJHS PARENT
    LJHS PARENT

    Good question. Why is he running his own side business at La Jolla High School without a permit, and charging these outside athletes and/or participants? Now, he has moved his business to Muirlands Middle School. How's that for what the San Diego Unified School District does by continuously covering up? Head coach, Jason Carter, make promises of more playing time to La Jolla High School football players by offering the parents (those who can afford) that he will personally train the players at the school field or weight room by charging them? He needs to be fired. All he cares is about winning games and making money, not the players' welfare. The principal, vice principal, and athletic director are fully aware of this taking place at La Jolla High School.

    Mark Cafferty
    Mark Cafferty subscribermember

    While I clearly do not know all of the details surrounding this case, in my opinion, this is just great reporting by Mario and VOSD at a crucial time.

    Head injuries in football are under such a heavy spotlight right now. Catching something like this happening at a local high school showcases how far we have to go in getting the right messages through to those who we trust to coach our children. Telling someone to "suck it up" for not wanting to get back on the field after and injury, or labeling a parent "a coward" for speaking to the media, showcase the central problems of a sideline and locker room culture that has to change.

    I found this piece below from CNN to be a great and straightforward perspective about this issue at the college and pro level.

    http://cnn.it/1BhgsyI

    Great work, Mario. Great work VOSD. Thanks.

    Matty Azure
    Matty Azure subscriber

    In my professional opinion - it is the coaches who have brain damage.

    Signed,

    Yes, I am a neurosurgeon

    mel luce
    mel luce subscriber

    Okay for now this student has disabilities and needs help.  I want to know what SDUSD is doing to make sure he is learning.  He shouldn't be losing time, he should be having home tutoring, school work that has been accommodating his, hopefully temporary, disabilities.  Even though he is injured, whomever is to blame, don't take it out on this child.  He needs his education and it seems like the administrators are so busy dodging blame, that he is not having his education needs met by SDUSD.  So, if the district is worried about anything, they should be worried about an additional lawsuit for not providing Federal mandated education, no matter what his status is at this time.  Serve the child's best interest SDUSD!

    Will Wurth
    Will Wurth subscriber

    Bad form, Assistant Coach. You've lied- it's that obvious. Hope that young Blake recovers one day. I'm sure that the multi-million dollar lawsuit will provide him with the best of care.

    Greg Chick
    Greg Chick subscriber

    I have had head injuries, I have viewed sports as an over aggressive sport.  I feel that the team skills and athletic skills are achievable with out such high impact activity.  Health reasons alone show what I am saying is worth considering.  

    Dylan Mann
    Dylan Mann subscriber

    Seeing stars or "getting your bell rung" means you had a concussion. A whole high school team had one concussion in two years?! That's wrong, Coach. You need some more education, Coach. Vomiting after a head injury?! That means high pressure in the brain. The kid should've been in an ambulance. This is a problem.

    Alex Finlayson
    Alex Finlayson subscriber

    My brother was a quadriplegic from a neck injury he received playing high school football in the 1970s. Before his own injury occurred, he witnessed the death of a teammate who was ordered back on the field by a coach, when it was clear to the team that the boy, who suffered a hard blow,  was in no fit shape to play.  The team watched their friend crawl back out on the field, collapse and die.  I've known firsthand the risks of high school football for 40 years.  I can't believe that anyone would allow their beloved son or daughter to play this  "sport."

    Chris Brewster
    Chris Brewster subscribermember

    The question is, do you want your child playing in a game that causes these types of injuries and do you want to rely on coaches lacking medical training to determine when they have sustained a brain injury? The NFL now places those decisions in the hands of doctors because when those decisions were in the hands of coaches, it didn't work. Ask the family of Junior Seau.