By CLINT FOSTER
It was a typically wet evening in Seattle, Wash., last Thursday, as fans gathered at CenturyLink Field for the preseason finale: an exhibition game between the hometown Seattle Seahawks and the Oakland Raiders. Like most preseason games, this one wasn’t much to write home about, but something happened after a pregame Seattle rain shower subsided that might have left few dry eyes in the stadium.
Derrick Jensen, an eight-year veteran of the National Football League, was honored before kickoff. The former tight end and special teams captain for the Oakland Raiders had spent the last 22 years as a scout for the Seahawks organization.
As a tribute to his service, the Seahawks arranged for Jensen’s family to come to the game and raise the 12th Man flag – a symbol of the spirit of the Seahawks and their fans – not unlike the moniker used at Texas A&M. His mother, Sharleen Stone, is a Mineral Wells resident who traveled to the event. His son, Davis, raised the flag for his father, who has now lost the use of his arms.
Jensen, 57, suffers from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. ALS is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that attacks nerve cells in the brain, slowing breaking down a person’s ability to use everyday faculties.
Readers may remember ALS took the life of Palo Pinto Precinct 1 Commissioner Ted Ray in March of 2008.
But how did Jensen – a former football player out of University of Texas at Arlington and a Super Bowl Champion who scored the first touchdown of Super Bowl XVIII against the Washington Redskins when he blocked a punt and recovered it in the endzone – fall victim to such a disease?
The answer probably lies in arguably one of the single biggest issues surrounding the sport of football today: head injuries.
The same day that Jensen’s son raised the flag in Seattle last week, the NFL agreed to pay $765 million to settle a lawsuit filed by more than 4,500 former players and families affected by concussions and head trauma.
This lawsuit is the culmination of rule changes and other drastic shifts in all levels of football to try and make the sport more safe. Struggles of former athletes have been well documented recently, some of which resulted in suicides. Many believe these are directly linked to repercussions associated with repeated head trauma in a football career.
But the NFL is not the only level of competition that is making player safety a top priority these days. High school football teams all over the nation are doing what they can to protect the developing minds of their young players.
Mineral Wells High School Head Athletic Trainer Cliff “Doc” Payne said the Rams have been very fortunate, having only one player sustain a concussion over the last two years. He said the coaching staff places high priority on teaching kids how to tackle properly, not using their helmet as a weapon or “battering ram.” The seriousness of concussions is not lost on Payne.
“I think whatever you need to do to prevent concussions, you need to do,” he said. “If you get a concussion, it’s not just bruising your skull, it’s bruising your brain. And you have to live with that for the rest of your life.
“Troy Aikman and Roger Staubach – one of the main reasons they got out of football was the concussions. I’m for whatever they can do to help prevent them. You’re not going to stop it completely, but there are some things you can do to try and prevent them.”
Payne said the Rams coaching staff is very proactive concerning player safety. Mineral Wells Head Coach Chuck Lawrence said all of the coaches are required to go through concussion training every two years either at the Ben Hogan Clinic or online. University Interscholastic League rules now dictate that teams cannot exceed 90 minutes of full contact in practice per week, a mark Lawrence says his team never comes close to in their limited contact practices. Lawrence also credited the schools “good-sized budget” for increasing players safety.
“Our equipment is outstanding,” he said. “We’ve got a good budget and we spent a good portion of it on top-of-the-line Riddell helmets. We teach tackling with the chest and try to take the head completely out of it. I think we have been on the cutting edge of that for several years.”
Riddell has been at the forefront of new advancements in helmets for years. The newest incarnations – the Revo Speed and Riddell 360 – offer some of the finest concussion protection available, boasting awards and “five star rankings” from experts, according to Riddell’s website. Schutt has also focused on helmet innovations, recently providing an update to their DNA helmet in the form of the Schutt ION 4D and Vengeance DCT. Each helmet style caters to individual players’ needs and comfort.
Payne, being a highly qualified head athletic trainer, is very familiar with the symptoms of concussions. He said he tries to get to know players well so he can easily identify when they are acting strange after coming off the field from a big hit. He said he checks to see if their eyes are “dilating properly or if they look droopy or sleepy.” He added some other symptoms include nausea and headaches.
“I start asking them a bunch of questions: Who’d they have in class today, who were their teachers today, who are we playing, what’s the score,” he explained. “I try to do some different tests like that and just keep an eye on them. I have a team of five people and we set up protocols for concussions.”
Payne said nowadays a concussion, regardless of severity, usually keeps a player out a full two-to-three weeks. Players must be released by a doctor and be headache free for 24 hours before Payne will even clear them for slight activity.
Payne’s son, Landon, a quarterback for the Community Christian School Warriors, has been leery of concussions this month after hit he took to the head about a year ago that his father called “pretty scary.” Landon was pitching in a baseball game when a line drive came back at him, hitting him about an inch above his temple. Landon recovered under the watchful eye of his trainer father, but Payne says Landon is still wary of headaches in football practice.
As Payne’s story illustrates, Lawrence said that concussions can happen in any sport. However, he added, that should not be a reason to keep kids from playing.
“We’re all worried about the health of the kids, but you can get hurt walking across the street,” he said. “Athletics is a great teacher of life skills, it’s a great teacher of teamwork. [Football] rules committees have got the safety of the kids in mind, coaches have the safety of the kids in mind and [parents] need to let their kids play if they want to.”
As for Jensen, the damage has already been done.
“I’ve been blessed to have great people around me who are supportive,” he told the Olympian, a newspaper in Olympia, Wash. “And there have been some breakthroughs that look promising, but nothing you can go to right now and get cured.”
After Jensen announced his his retirement last spring, the Seahawks heard of his condition and honored him by allowing him to make the final two selections for Seattle in the 2013 NFL Draft.
The Olympian reported nothing but positive feelings from Jensen’s former coworkers in Seattle and teammates from Oakland at events surrounding the ceremony.
“It’s a sad story, but warm at the same time,” Former Raiders Head Coach Tom Flores told The Olympian. “It’s one where you just try to not let the sad part of it block the memories of all the good things about him.”
Jensen’s future may be unclear, but with so many changes and strides being made across all levels of football, the hope is that the sport will be much safer to help secure the futures of generations to come.
Follow Clint on Twitter @Clint_Foster55
The Olympian contributed to this article