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St. Helens junior battles to return from head injury

Cody Haag's story is the reason why schools take precautions

JOHN WILLIAM HOWARD - St. Helens junior Cody Haag takes a baseline test, part of concussion protocol set in place to deal with head injuries.In this digital age, danger of concussions has been well documented. Players — and not just in football, but sports across the board — typically understand the consequences of head injuries if left untreated. Concussions are respected these days.

But for one St. Helens football player, last season bore a powerful reminder of just how fragile the brain can be.

Cody Haag lined up to receive a kickoff in the penultimate game of his sophomore season, but had no idea the next play had the possibility to affect him for years to come.

“We were playing Sandy and during a kickoff, the ball bounced a couple of times and went over all our players and left me wide open for four guys to just pile on top of me,” Haag remembered. “I tried to get out of the first tackle, and then I got slammed on my head.”

The play happened just before halftime, with Sandy already leading 21-7. The Lions were effectively eliminated from postseason contention coming in to the game, and ended up losing 42-17.

Haag remembers trying to stand up and being “groggy” on the sideline, as well as being paranoid. He started to stumble, which is when teammates and coaches caught on: something wasn't right.

“The next thing I knew, they were asking me a bunch of questions and I couldn't remember anything,” Haag said. “I couldn't really focus on anything and I was all over the place. I was trying to remember who I was and my neck was hurting and everything, so they put me in a neck brace and had me sit there for a little bit.”

He was then put on a stretcher and loaded into an ambulance, and spent a night at the hospital being closely monitored. He wasn't allowed to read for a week, and couldn't look at a phone screen. He couldn't even watch television — nothing that would stimulate the brain; just bed rest.

Even once he got out of the hospital, things still didn't return to normal. He had frequent visits to the doctor for checkups, and attending school was a problem.

“I'd have a really hard time focusing because class got really loud and I'd get a really bad headache and I couldn't focus,” Haag said. “There were bright lights in schools, and it made it really hard to pay attention.”

Instead of jumping directly back into classes, Haag was forced to return a little at a time. He'd come in before lunch and leave at midday, or come in at lunchtime and finish out the rest of his classes.

Athletically, things would take even longer. Haag went out for track in the spring, but wasn't cleared for full participation.

“They didn't want me doing any jumping events, only running events, so I didn't re-rattle my brain,” he said.

Now 10 months removed from his injury, Haag said he has learned an incredible lesson and still has reservations about participating in football.

“I thought a concussion was, 'Oh, I'll be fine in a couple weeks,' because that's it,” Haag said. “Then I get a really bad one, and it kind of was a really scary process. Now I still have bad short-term memory. It's there, daunting you.”

Safety first

JOHN WILLIAM HOWARD - A hole sits open, awaiting goal posts and surrounded by gravel as part of field upgrades. The artificial turf field project at St. Helens High School continues to unfold, as site preparation work was completed this week. FieldTurf is expected to begin the process of laying the artificial surface over the next few days, and should be finished by their Sept. 3 deadline. The first home football game is Friday, Sept. 4.

In spite of the dangers and a lingering limitation on heavy lifting and strenuous workouts, Haag is moving forward with his junior season under the watchful eye of first-year head football coach Cory Young. The junior class was in the computer lab at the high school on Wednesday morning as part of pre-season concussion protocol.

Every two years, athletes take a baseline test, regardless of the sport in which they wish to participate. They are shown a series of words, and are asked to remember them a few minutes later. They are also shown a series of patterns, and are tested on their reaction time. Should an athlete be diagnosed with a possible concussion, the player then goes and re-takes the test. Any red flags are sent with the athlete on their OSAA-mandated visit with a physician.

The testing is an early precaution, according to Young, who said St. Helens implemented the program after former athletic director Cyndy Miller attended a conference several years ago. Current director Matt Morgan said similar programs are held at most high schools around the state, though they're not required by the OSAA. Teachers are advised about which players have sustained concussions as well.

The association's recent partnership with Heads Up Football, whose goal is to “take the head out of the game,” only serves to back up player safety ideals which were already in place, Young said.

“First of all, they are removed from play immediately. If we have a student that is showing concussion symptoms — if they're confused, possibly nauseous — they're removed from play,” Young said.

Sidelining the player is the first priority and taking care to correctly assess the situation is important, but the process doesn't stop there. Concussions are treated like any other injury: come back slowly to prevent further injury.

“Once they are cleared to return to participation, there's a protocol there, too,” Young said. “We'll come in and do some light running and make sure that, as we're slowly bringing them back into practice, that they're showing no signs of concussions; no headaches, no sensitivity to light. If any of those symptoms start to reoccur, then we take them back to step one.”