Much has been made over the NFL and its perceived lack of action when it comes to the issues of head injures and player safety in football.

The league announced earlier this month that it was donating $100 million toward equipment development and research on the subject, but many critics claim there still isn’t enough being done to help current and former players deal with the lifelong effects of head injuries they sustained in the game.

One area where the NFL has increased its focus on the subject of not only head injuries, but injuries in general, is its program in with certified athletic trainers (ATCs) work preseason and regular season games and review each play for possible player injuries. Chris Watson is the head athletic trainer at Malone University in his full-time job, but on Sundays in the fall, he’s also one of three ATCs tasked with working Browns home games. Watson, a Green resident, has followed the issue closely over the past few years.

The program was launched in 2011 when Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison (Coventry) leveled then-Browns quarterback Colt McCoy, delivering a helmet-to-helmet hit that left McCoy clearly dazed.

“When James Harrison laid of Colt McCoy, that was the straw that broke the camel’s back. When they went to NFL training staffs, they said that they had been watching different things, but that play basically pushed the league and the players’ union over the edge to do something else,” Watson said. “Right when that play happened, everybody knew he (McCoy) had a concussion … what happened if you watch the reply, he actually gets his hand in between the facemask in between him and James Harrison, so the medical staff evaluates him and asked him what was wrong and he only complained of his right hand and he only missed a couple of snaps.”

McCoy re-entered the game, but afterward, the lights and noise of his postgame interview session bothered him and he was later diagnosed with a concussion. In the weeks after the incident, the NFL faced pressure to do more to combat concussions and ensure proper treatment as soon as a player suffers one.

When he heard about the program, Watson decided to reach out about getting involved.

“I knew they were starting this program and I basically sent a cold resume then and said, ‘Hey, I’m interesting in being a part of this,’ and I gave my background working with USA Track and Field, with other professionals,” Watson said. “They said that would get back to me and I thought, ‘I’m never going to hear back about it, I don’t have an in.’”

For a while, it appeared that he was right. Months went by and Watson figured he wasn’t going to get a chance to be an ATC spotter. Then last year, he received a call asking if he would be interested in being one of the spotters at Browns home games. The program was expanding from having one spotter at games to two, doubling the demand for qualified trainers

This season, Watson has been assigned four games and was also slated to work the Hall of Fame game, which was canceled due to field issues at Tom Benson Stadium.

Watson worked the Browns’ preseason game against the Chicago Bears and noted that the job of an ATC spotter isn’t simply identifying head injuries.

“The way that it works is everyone thinks it’s just head injuries,” Watson said. “In the preseason game against the Bears, we actually tagged 10 injuries … only one as a possible head injury, so we’re looking at everything … ankles, knees … the Bears sidelines actually called up twice, they wanted us to send in replays of a knee injury that we tagged.”

During the game, the review booth is a busy place. A video technician controls the content using an X Box video game controller and ATC spotters work to tag each play for any potential injuries they may see. Teams can contact them from the sideline and discuss possible plays to tag and tags that have been applied. Each possible injury is time-stamped and that way, teams and the league can go back and review each play as needed.

If an ATC spotter identifies a possible head injury, they notify the team’s medical personnel on the sideline. If nothing is done and the player remains in the game while action is ongoing, the ATC spotter calls the officiating crew and stops the game. Play is blown dead and the player is removed from the game. He must then be evaluated by an independent neurologist on the sideline before he’s allow to return to action.

Watson recalled during his ATC spotter training that one of the San Diego Chargers’ spotters relayed a story of a visiting team that argued with the spotters over stopping the game when injuries were tagged.

“Basically they said, ‘Do you want me to stop the game for every hit? It’s just a regular hit,’ but our goal is to tag those possible head injuries that aren’t getting caught,” Watson said.

When he first started working as a spotter, Watson was admittedly skeptical about how receptive the NFL and team medical staffs would be to outside input. So far, he hasn’t encountered any problems and believes that the league is trying to approach the issue the right way.

When it comes to identifying possible head injuries during a play, Watson said, the classic sign is a player who grabs at his helmet or facemask after a big hit. Another is a player involved in a big hit whose opponent trash talks him, but the player doesn’t respond at all.

The program is still developing and being refined, but the hope of Watson and his fellow ATC spotters is that they can make a positive impact on the game by ensuring that players are properly diagnosed with in-game injuries and that those who suffer concussions are taken out of harm’s way before they put themselves in further danger. Helping players deal with long-term health issues once they retire is also important, but preventing those issues before they happen is also a goal. Football remains a physical violent game, but the medical professionals around the game want to be sure that serious injuries are handled properly when they happen.

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