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Ahead of the game: Axemen players, trainers take brain injuries seriously, take baseline tests Friday

Matt Morris (right) athletic trainer with Sanford Bemidji Medical Center, helps Bemidji Axemen player Jordan Morgan navigate the introduction to the concussion testing program. A total of 26 members of the Axeman went through the testing Friday afternoon at Sanford Bemidji. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer

Bethany Wesley

BEMIDJI — You’d expect two dozen professional football players to be doing something more physical than staring at computer screens a week before their opening game.

But that’s exactly what the Bemidji Axemen were doing Friday afternoon. However, it wasn’t to simply pass the time: Players were taking a computerized test that could later be used to gauge their condition after sustaining a tough hit to the head or a concussion.

Sanford Bemidji is providing medical and athletic training services for the Bemidji Axemen in their inaugural season, which opens 7 p.m. Friday at the Sanford Center when they take on the Cedar Rapids Titans.

Through the arrangement with Sanford, Axemen players took the IMPACT test Friday at Sanford’s training facility inside Beltrami Electric. The test allows players to offer a baseline sample of how their brain functions. Then, if they suffer a head injury, they could be asked to take the test again to gauge their recovery and help determine if they are fit to return to play.

“A concussion is a brain injury … and all brain injuries are serious,” said Dr. Mark Carlson, a sports medicine physician at Sanford Bemidji.

Matt Morris, a graduate student at Bemidji State University, is serving as the Axemen’s head athletic trainer. Employed by Sanford Bemidji Orthopedics and Sports Medicine, Morris will help cover Bemidji High School events but is assigned to the Axemen. He will attend training, practices and all games.

“It’s going to be fast,” Morris said of the style of football played in the Indoor Football League. “It’s going to be a lot faster, more hard-hitting, than a lot of the football you’ve seen before.”

While concussion-monitoring is just one small piece of what Morris will do, the speed and force of the IFL game does make it a necessary component of his work. He said, based on what he’s heard from other IFL teams, that of 24 members on each team, there may be four or five each season who sustain a concussion.

“If they have a history of concussions, then we worry about more concussions,” Carlson said. “It does make it more important to really demonstrate or prove that when they recover from their concussion, that they are really recovered from that injury.”

Carlson said he has been treating more concussions in recent years, but it is difficult to determine if they are occurring more frequently or being diagnosed more often. He sees athletes from all age groups coming in with head injuries.

The IMPACT testing is just one tool used to gauge whether an athlete is recovered from a head injury. Taking tests after a concussion, personnel can use the test, along with other diagnostic tools, to determine if the athlete is fit to return to competition.

The test, in use for about 10 years though first in a paper form, can be used at all levels of competition. Sanford’s Jon Laakso, the head trainer for BHS athletics, has been working with the high school age group.

Sanford also provides IMPACT testing to Blackduck and Walker-Hackensack-Akeley athletes and plans to expand to other area districts, as well.

“Helmets don’t prevent concussions,” Carlson said, speaking to a myth that if a player is wearing a helmet he or she is then protected. “Helmets are very good at what they’re designed to do —prevent fatal or nearly fatal — head injuries … and they do probably prevent some concussions, but we don’t know just how well they do that.”

Because the brain is free to move about in the head, no matter how much paddling you put around the exterior of your head, you still can suffer an injury inside your skull, Carlson said..

“I think whether to play contact or collision sports is a personal decision,” he said.

There are concerns with health impacts that could result from injuries sustained during competition, but he said it is up to athletes and their families to decide if they are comfortable with the risk.

“I’m not in favor of banning contact or collision sports,” he said.

Three of his own children play hockey. “I worry about head injuries but I wasn’t worried enough to keep them out of their sport,” Carlson said.