Noah Letuligasenoa has played football since he was nine years old. But as of last spring, he will never play another snap. The reason? Seven diagnosed concussions in 11 years.
The impacts may have differed in nature, but his mental state was often the same.
“You feel like you’re in a fog. You feel like you’re dreaming or watching yourself do all these things,” communication studies junior Letuligasenoa said. “It’s a weird and very scary thing to go through.”
Concussions recently became a major talking point in the sports world. One may remember the 2015 film “Concussion” starring Will Smith based on the discovery of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive degenerative condition of the brain found primarily in athletes with repeated head traumas. The discovery made by Dr. Bennet Omalu (portrayed by Smith) shows that repeated concussions from contact sports, especially football, could have a lasting degenerative effect on the brain. This condition afflicted many deceased professional football players, including Hall of Famers Frank Gifford, Junior Seau, Ken Stabler and Mike Webster.
Unlike those players, Letuligasenoa won’t have a chance to make it to the professional level. The 20 year old had to medically retire from Cal Poly football after suffering his seventh diagnosed concussion during spring practice last season.
“After speaking with the coaches and the trainers, we all thought it was best for me,” he said.
Letuligasenoa may have a shorter career than many of his college teammates, but the problems of CTE or conditions similar to those associated with Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s could still be a problem.
“What is the result of [multiple concussions] over time? That is just a nightmare,” psychology professor Gary Laver, whose research includes memory and cognition with aging, said. “The nature of the damage can vary from person to person. And depending on where the damage is or was can result in different specific symptoms.”
The science of concussions
In the simplest sense, a concussion is when a person’s head moves very quickly, causing the brain to bounce or twist in the skull, which in turn causes chemical changes in the brain.
“When there’s a concussion, there is a disruption in the sodium levels in the system,” Laver said.
Sodium levels are important, as sodium-potassium ions generate the electrical activity of neurons via pump-like structures in the membranes of cells. This disruption could be made worse by repeated trauma.
“What the neurons do is they will develop more sodium channels to compensate for the damage and, if you have a second concussion to a system where the neurons have all these extra sodium channels, you’ll get a double flooding,” he said. “It’s like pouring salt water on the brain.”
With disrupted sodium levels, the brain may vary in recovery time depending on the person. That could range from a couple to several months. Still, it can be hard for an athlete to stay away from their sport.
“As soon as it happens, I think you know you have one,” Letuligasenoa said. “But the whole mindset of being a football player is you just got to be tough and try not to talk about it.”
Being tough could have serious consequences for someone like him. Though most of the research is exploratory due to a relatively small demographic of people suffering multiple concussions, the long-term effects can be dire.
“If someone has suffered enough injury repetitively of this sort, they could easily suffer compound brain damage over the decades so that their lifespan is cut by a decade or two,” Laver said. “That isn’t unheard of.”
Beyond the gridiron
Often, concussions are associated with football, but they can happen in any sport.
“Concussions are not limited to blows to the head,” Laver said. “They can occur shy of that. Tumbling or rough housing around or diving for a ball, all of that is fair game.”
Journalism sophomore Lauren Pluim has had six concussions in six years while playing volleyball and field events. But some of her concussions occurred when she wasn’t practicing or playing.Her sophomore year included one during pre-season training for volleyball while doing step-ups on a box with a barbell on her back. When stepping up on the box, her right foot rolled and gave out.
“Initially, I thought I just broke my ankle,” she said. “I’m then falling off the box and the [barbell] hit the squat rack behind me and then I went forward and hit my head on the corner of the box. My teammates told me I was out for 15, maybe 20 seconds.”
The last one of her playing career was in the track shed, when some pole vaulting poles fell on her head as she was grabbing some javelins before throwing practice.
Like Letuligasenoa, Pluim won’t play in professional leagues. She’ll have to live with the consequences of repeated head traumas, but won’t necessarily have the resources to help with any medical problems that even semi-professional athletes enjoy.
Some of those consequences were apparent immediately.
“In the weeks after, I had decreased focus, light sensitivity, noise sensitivity and memory spottiness,” she said. “My biggest symptom was lack of ability to focus and I still have problems with that.”
The immediate symptoms varied for both Letuligasenoa and Pluim depending on where the trauma was in the brain. For Letuligasenoa, it was light sensitivity and short-term memory loss.
Bright lights of any sort caused discomfort after a couple concussions and he had trouble remembering plays after one of his concussions in high school. For Pluim, she felt nauseous and had trouble focusing.
The long term effects may take time to appear. It could be a relative non-factor or, as Laver said, cause a shortened life span. However, Letuligasenoa wouldn’t have done anything differently.
“If you really have a passion for the game and really love it, that’s a risk that players are willing to take,” Letuligasenoa said. “Without football, I wouldn’t be [at Cal Poly] and wouldn’t have learned things on the football field you can’t learn in the classroom. It teaches you a lot about how to be a strong person and a part of a brotherhood.”
Pluim wouldn’t take anything back either.
“The friendships that it brought me and the experience of getting to [play volleyball and track and field], I would never trade that,” Pluim said.
For these two, the risk is worth the rewards of experiences and joy from playing their respective sports. It’s a judgment call many players make but can be incredulous for those like Laver.
After Laver heard Pluim’s history of head trauma, he couldn’t help circling back to it.
“You spoke to someone who had six concussions in that time?” he said.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” he said, shaking his head.