Brothers Face Concussions Head On
By Mary Margaret Johnson
For Reporting Texas
In a summer scrimmage three years ago in Dallas, Lake Highlands High School freshman cornerback Jack Cronin collided with a running back from South Garland.
The impact caused the screws attaching the facemask to his helmet to dig into his head. He wobbled back to the huddle.
“I had no memory of what just happened,” Cronin said months later.
Cronin was 15 when he suffered the concussion that ended his football career. He became, on that afternoon, a piece of an important and timely conversation in America: Is football causing too many serious head injuries?
The Centers for Disease Control estimate that 1.6 million to 3.8 million concussions occur each year. Males playing football have a 75 percent chance of receiving a concussion, and 78 percent of football-related concussions occur during games, the CDC reports.
The University Interscholastic League, which regulates high school sports in Texas, requires a player who has suffered a concussion to receive clearance from a physician before beginning the return-to-play protocol, where the athlete gradually works up to fully practicing.
Cronin had played the game since elementary school when he suffered his first concussion in the 2011 scrimmage. Two days later, he went to Dr. James Sterling, a sports medicine doctor who specializes in concussions in high school sports.
“We usually advise kids to get lots of sleep, no electronics, no academics, and basically a social shutdown in the days directly after a concussion,” Sterling said.
When Jack went to the hospital two days later, he took the computerized ImPACT test for concussions and scored extremely high on the various modules, which meant he had more concussion symptoms. The ImPACT test measures different aspects of cognitive function in athletes, like memory, reaction time and attention span.
“It’s hard to tell how bad a concussion will be just by looking at the ImPACT results,” Sterling said. “It only measures neurological functions, but it can’t tell how long the person might be out.”
After three weeks of staying in a cold room with blankets tacked over the windows, Jack had made little progress. He was then prescribed three different medicines over a nine-week period and a migraine medicine administered through an IV drip for a week to abate his headaches.
“I had to see a therapist, because I would have huge mood swings, and I stopped caring about anything. The therapist told me that I had similar symptoms to someone who had been a prisoner of war, in that I had so little human interaction and hadn’t been outside in so long,” Cronin said.
He had to stay out of school until November, when his headaches were mild enough to return. He spent most of that time sitting in a dark and quiet room, taking medicines generally used to treat depression, which were shrinking the blood vessels in his brain to abate his headaches.
“Did it scare us? Of course it did,” said his mother, Lizzy Cronin. “Here was our son, who was alone and hurting, and we couldn’t do anything to help him.”
Although doctors warned the family that he shouldn’t play football again, his parents still had to talk him out of trying.
“We talked about the importance of his brain and his thought process,” Lizzy Cronin said. “Luckily at that same time the NFL was doing a lot of concussion stories and more information was coming out about the dangers of them. We basically had to tell Jack that he won’t be a football player forever and that he has to take care of his brain to get a job and be able to focus and think.”
That concussion took Jack out of football for good. But it didn’t stop his younger brother, Blake.
“I just never really thought I would get a concussion, even after Jack got his. I mean it always looms in my mind while I’m playing, but I didn’t want to stop playing because there was a chance I could get hurt,” Blake said.
Blake now is a starting wide receivers for Lake Highlands as a junior. He suffered his first concussion in September 2013, in a tackle during practice. He blacked out for a couple of seconds, and when he stood up he was stumbling. He went to the trainer immediately and went to the hospital to get a CAT scan.
When he was taking the ImPACT test, he couldn’t finish it the first couple of times. Once he did, he scored relatively high but nowhere near what Jack had scored. Blake was prescribed medicine and, like his brother, sat in a dark and cold room for four weeks before he could return to school.
“Since my headache wasn’t nearly as bad as Jack’s, I decided that I still wanted to continue playing football,” Blake Cronin said. “But it definitely made me think, and now I’m a lot more cautious while I’m playing, because I don’t want to have to experience that again.”
According to Sterling, the difference in severity between the brothers’ concussions is where the injury occurred. Jack was hit in the front left side of his head, the part of the brain that controls concentration, thought, behavior and problem solving. Blake was hit in the back of the head, which controls perception and balance.
“I know Jack misses playing football very much and that it is really hard for him, but in some ways the concussion was good for him,” Lizzy Cronin said. “It affected him and taught him a lesson that most people don’t learn until they’re older,” to deal positively with adversity.
Jack Cronin still wishes he could be out on the field with his brother. Now, as a senior, he stands proudly on the sidelines every Friday night and cheers on Lake Highlands. He’s doing his best to still be a part of the team.