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The fact that the doctor was a podiatrist made it easier for Hawkins to speak up.
"I said, 'I don't know how many concussions that podiatrist has seen,'" Hawkins recalls. "'I'm going to err on the side of caution. I don't think he should go back.'"
Sometimes the athletes need convincing. On a cloudless night in late September, Hawkins was working a De Soto football game. In the third quarter, one of his players lay writhing on the field. The player eventually walked off the field, favoring a leg. Hawkins stayed by his side. "Leave me alone, Hawkins! Jeez!" the player finally pleaded.
As the game wore on, the player wanted back into the game. "Why are you trying to keep me out right now, Hawkins?" By the fourth quarter, he was back on the field.
Hawkins didn't diagnose any concussions that night. (One of his tricks is to ask for a locker combination, even though he has no way of knowing if the answer he gets is right.) If he had found a head injury, the ImPACT test would lessen the likelihood that a player returned to play too quickly.
Louisburg, De Soto's opponent, is not an ImPACT subscriber. The team traveled to the game with a chiropractor.
Although he's just a volunteer, Waeckerle's commitment to his Rockhurst players is profound. He's at the school three or four days a week. "I truly hope they believe I'm there for them, that I'm dedicated to them," he says.
Now 64, Waeckerle is at a stage in his career where he can be more selective about how he spends his time. He has backed off the 100-hour workweeks that went into building his 24-page CV. But he remains engaged. Though his time with the Chiefs came to an end, he has continued to serve on the league's concussion committee. He's also a member of the brain-injury committee of the NFL Players Association. Not part of Pellman's inner circle, Waeckerle escaped the NFL concussion battles with his reputation intact.
He now wants to make his knowledge about brain injuries more widely available. He and a prominent local neurosurgeon have discussed starting a regional concussion center in Kansas City, similar to programs at the University of Washington and the University of Pittsburgh. Patients referred to the center would have access to specialists from different fields — neuroradiology, neuropsychology, ophthalmology and the like. Waeckerle imagines himself as the "point of the spear," determining needs and protocols.
The center would concentrate on young people because they spend more time in cleats and on skateboards. Waeckerle says brain injuries simply aren't being treated with the best possible medicine. The return-to-play permission slips are effective only if the physicians signing them know what they're doing.
"It's pretty hard to be up to snuff in every area," Waeckerle says. "These are my areas. I want to make sure kids get the best possible advice and treatment and have access to be the best possible care."
After Nathan Stiles died, Waeckerle says, he spoke with Rockhurst students and their parents about devastating injuries.
"It may happen at Rockhurst no matter what I do," he says. "That's just a fact of life. But I tell you what, we're going to bust our tail — and we have busted our tail — to make sure we can do everything we can do to prevent any bad outcomes. But there are always going to be bad outcomes because we're all human beings. We just want to minimize them."