January 26th, 2012
09:18 AM ET

Gupta on where 'Big Hits, Broken Dreams' began

Watch "Dr. Sanjay Gupta Reports: Big Hits, Broken Dreams" Sunday, January 29 at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. ET.

One day late in the summer of 2010, I was sitting in my backyard with my oldest daughter. We had just finished cutting the lawn when my neighbor and his oldest son stopped by.

His son, a football player at one of the powerhouse local high schools, had grown nearly an inch over the summer and weighed more than 200 pounds. He was already in practice for the upcoming season. He asked if I had time to speak to a friend of his who also played football and had suffered a concussion the previous season.

They were asking me in my capacity as a neurosurgeon, but also in desperation, as this young man was still having tremendous difficulty nearly a year after his injury.

Most of the patients I see in the hospital visit me at the time of their injury, and I hardly ever get to see the longer term impact of a severe concussion on an otherwise healthy young person. What he shared with me was stunning, and also formed the basis of the year long project, "Big Hits, Broken Dreams."

This young, physically robust, handsome man couldn’t remember the details of the hit in a mid-season practice that led to his concussion, but he was able to describe in awful detail how much his life had changed since. Once a nearly 4.0 student, his grades had dropped to “mainly Cs,” he told me. His memory was affected, and even during our discussion I could tell that his ability to retrieve words spontaneously had been impacted.

“The headaches are the worst,” he said, and no one had been able to help him.

Doctors had recommended everything from hyperbaric therapy to cervical spine surgery, as well as a laundry list of medications. In short, there were no good answers or solutions.

“Tincture of time,” was the common refrain he heard, and with post concussive syndrome or PCS – most times that is all medicine can legitimately offer. Near the end of our conversation, the dad in me came out as I asked him: “Do you have any regrets about playing football?”

He didn’t hesitate. “Not at all,” he quickly answered.

If baseball is our national pastime, then football is our national passion. And, I love football as much as anyone. Over the last year, however, I have learned there are ways to play football more safely, and still have football be... football. There are ways to play football more safely, and still win.

Whether it is the mandatory presence of athletic trainers who can diagnose concussions and are empowered to sit a player out, or it is fewer practices with full gear and repeated drills involving hits to the head - there are so many simple things that can be done to preserve the game, and the men who play it.

The young man in my backyard was just a teenager, but based on national statistics had been averaging 650 hits to his head every season he had been playing football.

Fortunately, none of them led to the most catastrophic outcome of death, usually due to second impact syndrome - a second concussion before the brain had healed from the first. Unfortunately, however, he was neurologically impacted, and there was no end of his misery in sight.

I offered as much advice as I could, but also promised to tell the story of players like him, and the latest science to try to reduce these tragic situations. If you are a player, a parent or a participant in the fanfare of football, I hope you get a chance to see "Big Hits, Broken Dreams."

soundoff (87 Responses)
  1. Laura

    As the mother of a child who has suffered two concussions playing sports (neither involving tackle football,) I watched the story with interest, but was disappointed with its narrow focus. The incidence of concussion has been rising in this country, and football is certainly not the only sport where it is a problem (soccer, baseball, wrestling, skiing, the list is long.) I wish it had included more on what to watch for when your child suffers even a seemingly minor head injury, like headaches, vomiting, what to do, how the incidence of concussion might be reduced in other sports, too, like padded soccer helmets. I wish it had probed why the incidence is rising in emergency rooms (is it awareness or something more?) With a little more effort, I think the story could have been much broader and reached many more parents who should be concerned about concussions.

    January 30, 2012 at 16:26 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Jenny

      Hi Laura,
      The symptoms of concussions are vomiting, diarrhea, irritation, stiffness and tightness in the neck and back. Even uneven limbs meaning if u lay ur child down on even hard surface and his/ her leg is longer than the other that means he/ she has concussion. In America there is not any treatment for it, but I'm not from here and back home we do. I practice it but only in my community.

      August 18, 2012 at 23:48 | Report abuse |
  2. Rosemary

    I agree that the focus on PCS is on football, and this is far too narrow. I personally know half a dozen youth athletes that have been removed from sports due to concussions, and NONE of them played football. Most of them played soccer. My daughter received her life-changing concussions in volleyball. Please see our story here: http://threesidesofasword.wordpress.com/2011/08/

    My daughter that was an honor-roll student now is on a 504 in school and struggles with problem solving and experiences debilitating migraines still (2 years after her last concussion). We don't really know when or if she'll start to feel better.

    I am working on developing local peer-to-peer support for youth with Post Concussive Syndrome. I feel fortunate that the schools and medical community in our area are very aware of post-concussion treatments and "When in doubt, sit them out" policies. But awareness needs to move beyond football and encompass ALL youth sports and activities.

    January 30, 2012 at 18:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Sharon

    Wonderful program. As a nurse, I've seen several high school football players with head injuries. However, I do think it's time we look at girls sports. I have granddaughters and nieces playing middle and high school basketball. The roughness on the court is alarming. Two girls on the team have had multiple concussions and have returned to the game. We (school community) need to re-evaluate this before it's too late.

    February 1, 2012 at 13:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Joe

    I am a Certified Athletic Trainier in MI. Is there any way to purchase a DVD of this program to show my coaches/parents/athletes?

    February 1, 2012 at 15:43 | Report abuse | Reply
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      March 5, 2012 at 22:50 | Report abuse |
  5. Joe

    I am a certified athletic trainer in central new york. I was on the sideline and first to care for a young man from the opposing team who suffered a head injury. What started as an obvious concussion quickly became the worst night of my life as the young man's condition deteriorated and with in an hour for all intents and purposes he died. I stayed and assisted emergency care all the way to the hospital. This is a night that I care never to relive. This video is by far one of the best I have ever seen. Though many say the scope is too narrow, it is finally a fantastic start. It also starts with the sport that may be the most difficult to change. Concussions can happen in any aspect of life where kinetic energy is involved. I am also a health teacher in the same district I am the athletic trainer for. I work with the coaches and they are a phenominal group of people to work with, especially on the topic of head injuries. I teach a health elective, intro to sports medicine, I am hoping to in someway obtain a copy of big hits broken dreams to use as a resource for my class, my coaches and any parent in the district who would like more information. Thank you for the research and please continue searching for more answer.

    February 6, 2012 at 13:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Becky

    This is a wonderful program. I want to know how to get a copy of it. Even though I live in the state of Washington where we have a concussion law, my son was allowed to continue to play and practice football after sustaining a hard hit. He can recall at least two to three more hits before the headaches haunted him on a daily basis and still do three and half months later. He also deals with stomach aches, vomiting and irritability. This program NEEDS to be watched by our coaching staff. My son's second, third and fourth hits could have been prevented.

    February 7, 2012 at 13:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Dale Eiermann

    I am curious if there is anything that could be watched or looked at to determine which kids might be at a higher risk. Due to the fact that professional players have played for many years taking those kinds of hits there must be a reason they have not sustained any major injuries.

    February 7, 2012 at 17:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Lisa Hemmer

    After recent death of soccer player (age 14) in neighborhood from secondary concussion, I have been struggling to find information about long-term impacts of childhood concussions. I find nothing. Please post a resource if possible? I have a child who (at 5) slid and fell on head in school (lost ability to recognize us at the time); at 7 (ice-skating, vomited and in hospital); at 10 (in pick up game at nearby playground, got hit (lost half of his vision temporarily)). All impacts severe, separated by years. Is there information on long-term impacts in children 10 and under?

    February 17, 2012 at 12:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Mary Melusen

    When will the Big Hits Broken Dreams air again?

    February 27, 2012 at 12:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Jerry Giardina

    On the featured story Dr. Sanjay G. did not comment on the safe testing done at the US Army Medical Unit in Ft. Detrick, Md (during the same time frame as the tests done at Edgewood) The tests were safe and the volunteers were later awarded medals by congress, This program went on for at least 20 years or so. The US Army Medical Unit was formed I think in 1958 or so!! This was positive safe research done by our goverment

    March 10, 2012 at 23:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Sam Bogale Calgary Alberta

    This was a great show! Thanks for making it!

    April 12, 2012 at 16:10 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Rosalie @ MN

    I would be interested in hearing about the possibility of research into a connection between repeated blows to the head during childhood abuse and brain injury symptoms, in particular depression, headaches, post-traumatic stress, etc.

    May 4, 2012 at 07:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Jess

    Is there any way to get a copy of Big Hits, Broken Dreams on dvd because I would like to show it in my Sports Medicine class this year?

    July 26, 2012 at 18:34 | Report abuse | Reply
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About this blog

Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.