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Waeckerle survived the housecleaning. But he's uncomfortable talking about these events. Besides, he says, "I'm just a country doc from Kansas City. My job is to take care of people."
The truth is, he remains a skeptic. Although CTE has now been diagnosed in more than 20 dead NFL players, Waeckerle isn't ready to say football is killing guys like Mike Webster. Maybe it's genetics. Maybe it's steroids. Maybe it's a combination of things. "We don't know if there's a cause and effect yet," he says. "We're studying it."
But if the scientist in Waeckerle still needs convincing, the caregiver in him acknowledges that concussions need to be managed carefully to keep athletes from going into nursing homes before they turn gray.
"I don't know the answers. But I know this is a possibility. And if it's a possibility, then I'm going to do everything I can to minimize the possibility," he says. "That's the safest approach, the most conservative approach. My dedication of my life, like most docs, is, I gotta do the best for my patient. I don't want to get embroiled in the debates."
Waeckerle won't, however, second-guess the treatment he gave Chiefs players. He chafes at a suggestion that the league was callous about head injuries. They just didn't have the data, he says.
"I hope I will never be able to say to you, I never did the best I could," he says. "God, if I do that, I better quit, immediately."
Are we supposed to take our shoes off?"
Steve Hawkins, an athletic trainer at De Soto High School in western Johnson County, is inside his office on a weekday afternoon. The students are starting to show up, and they're wondering about the shoe situation.
"Uh-huh," Hawkins answers. "See how clean the floor is? I vacuumed today."
As the shoes pile up in the hallway, Hawkins begins taping ankles and tending to sore shins. The room is not much larger than his training table. His hands are a blur as he tapes the various body parts that come his way between the final bell and the first whistles. "I tell my wife, 'Don't call me during prime time,'" Hawkins says.
Hawkins is 6 feet 4 inches tall and has spiky, dishwater-blond hair. He became a certified athletic trainer 26 years ago. He now works for Olathe Medical Center, which has a contract with the school.
Hawkins remembers when torn knee ligaments preoccupied his profession. Today, concussion management is the priority.
Still, most high schools don't have someone with the education of Waeckerle or Hawkins, who has a master's in sports medicine, working with their students. Even fewer do the concussion testing that Hawkins does.
De Soto has access to ImPACT, a computerized concussion-evaluation system. Before the season begins, student athletes sit in front of a computer and take a test that measures reaction time, problem solving, and other aspects of cognitive function. This establishes a baseline, and if players become concussed, they retake the test. It lasts about 20 minutes. The scores are then compared to determine if the fog has lifted.
All NFL teams and most colleges subscribe to the service, but ImPACT is slowly reaching the high school level. De Soto is one of 14 Kansas high schools that tests its athletes. "It's a shame that it has to trickle down that way, instead of the reverse," Hawkins says. "If you look at where the most participants are, they're at the high school level."
More trickling still needs to happen. Hawkins was working at another school when he watched a wrestler's head get slammed to the mat. An attending physician looked at the young man and said he was good to go. Hawkins told the referee that he disagreed.