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TACKLING INJURY As student-athletes prepare for the fall season, coaches and parents are taking steps to protect them from the effects of blows to the head

High school athletes already are flocking back to Western New York's sports fields. While students are busy sprinting, kicking and tackling to make their teams, their parents and coaches are focusing on a goal they say is just as important:

Ensuring their boys and girls don't suffer the debilitating effects of concussions.

* A new sports concussion center opened in Amherst, where athletes as young as 10 can receive the "base-line" testing that advocates deem crucial to measuring the effects of a concussion.

* The Williamsville Central School District, Canisius High School and St. Joseph's Collegiate Institute have signed up their student-athletes for the computerized before-and-after tests.

* Buffalo Public School coaches and trainers -- about 50 in all -- met with local health experts this month for a seminar on concussions and other sports-related injuries, and officials are creating a pamphlet to inform parents and students.

Even creators of the popular Madden NFL video game have become involved. This year's version of the football game not only is less violent but also requires players who suffer a concussion to sit out the rest of the game.

"The days where you 'had your bell rung' and can go back in are long past," said Dr. Steven Lana, medical director for the Buffalo Public Schools. "It's a fact, and we can't take a chance of a student-athlete going down that path."

"There is a better awareness now," said Dr. Jason M. Matuszak, director of the newly opened Comprehensive Sports Concussion Center at Excelsior Orthopaedics in Amherst. "I think you're getting more people in the right places now that do care about health and safety first and foremost."

The increased emphasis locally comes after national media attention focused on NHL star Sidney Crosby's head injury and a concussion-related lawsuit by retired pro football players who claim the NFL withheld knowledge about the effects of concussions.

It also follows a bill passed in June by the State Legislature that would establish the first-ever statewide concussion standards for its 700 public schools. The bill is expected to go to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo for signing into law by Labor Day and would take effect next July for the 2012-13 school year.

The state legislation would keep students suspected of having suffered concussions out of sports for at least 24 hours after they are symptom-free. A doctor's permission would be needed to return.

Local doctors and concussion experts are recommending measures that surpass those called for in the legislation, including base-line testing and a more gradual rehabilitation process that could take two to three weeks to complete.

And they recommend the measures start now, instead of waiting for the state law to take effect.

Advocates have praised the base-line testing as a more measurable way to determine the effects of a concussion. Students would be tested before the sports season, then after a suspected concussion. The tests are used throughout professional sports.

"It gives us a reference point so we can say, at any given point in time, 'This is how this kid performed,' " Matuszak said.

Excelsior charges $20 for the testing, though officials said they are seeking donations from local businesses to lessen the costs for large families.

The tests, along with proper diagnosis, could avoid the brain damage suffered by athletes who return to the field prematurely.

Once a concussion is diagnosed, a day or two of rest is not necessarily sufficient, Lana said. A gradual, performance-based recovery with measurable physical milestones and medical supervision is recommended.

Faculty from the University at Buffalo's Concussion Management Center developed a pioneering treatment that helped former Buffalo Sabres center Tim Connolly return to the ice in 2007. The treatment includes a regulated exercise routine.

The new strategies for diagnosing and dealing with concussions can't come fast enough for parents of local student-athletes.

"Sure, it worries you," said Donna Crum, an Excelsior employee whose daughter Riley, 10, plays travel soccer. "Competitive athletics are getting a lot tougher than when we were kids."

The "warrior" mentality that has long permeated football, hockey and other contact sports is losing hold, doctors say.

"We've seen accidents on the football field, and in years past we've seen kids get assessed by a trainer, and the coach is like, 'Put them back in the game.' And that never sat well with me," said Aubrey Lloyd, athletic director for the Buffalo Public Schools.

Athletes who are taken off the field must be supervised, Lana said. An athlete who appears to "shake off a head hit could actually be suffering a brain bleed."

"It's not enough to take an athlete off the field," Lana said. "Every few minutes you have to be talking to them and make sure they're responding and behaving appropriately."

Football and hockey players aren't the only athletes in danger of head injuries. Female athletes are actually more susceptible to concussions, Matuszak noted, compared with male athletes playing the same sports.

The bottom line, Lana said, is protecting the student-athlete's future.

"People will take this seriously and have to appreciate the fact that when we're talking about student-athletes that are not making a living, there's really no reason to expose [them] to long-term developmental consequences of head injuries," Lana said.

eos email: cspecht@buffnews.com1