Concussion numbers for Jacksonville-area high football school players don't add up

by: Russell Colburn, Action News Jax Updated:

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - An Action News Jax investigation uncovers a broken system that tracks high school football concussions in Florida. 

Action News Jax found out the the number of concussions reported statewide are inaccurate and inconsistent — and the agency responsible for tracking even admits it.

Derek Johnson, 21, lives with memory loss, high blood pressure and chronic migraines.  It’s all because he suffered concussions while playing high school football for Creekside High in St. Johns County.

“We’re talking about three [concussions] in a 3-4 week timespan,” said his father, Mike Johnson.

A blindside block Derek Johnson suffered in a game during his junior year sent his head snapping back.

“They waved me down from the stands and when I came to see him, his eyes were shifting back and forth, and they couldn't stop,” Mike Johnson said. “That was extraordinarily scary.”

The weeks that followed brought constant pain — and depression.

“I got to the point where I had 10 or 15 sleeping pills in my hand, and I was like 'I swallow this, that's it,” Derek Johnson said.  “I actually poured it all in my hand, and I thought about it. 

“That was intense. I was in a lot of pain, and I didn't see an end to it.”

Before the hit, Johnson believes he suffered another concussion in practice, but he didn't report his symptoms to his coaches.

Many coaches, players and parents we spoke with believe that happens often with young players.

“If you have a concussion before your brain has had an opportunity to fix the first one, then it actually could kill you,” Mike Johnson said.

Starting in 2016, Florida schools were required to report concussions to the Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA).

“I think a lot of those things are working toward making the game safer,” said Mandarin High football head coach Bobby Ramsay.

Ramsay said he has seen two concussions so far this season and that both were suffered on the practice field. He believes the reason for that is simple — you practice more than you play.

It took the Duval County School District more than a month — along with more months of corrections — to get us its football concussion data.

For the 2016-2017 season,  Mandarin High School had the most, with six players suffering concussions. Lee High and Sandalwood High Schools reported none at all.

We compared Duval County's numbers to data given to us by the FHSAA — and the numbers didn't add up.

Duval County Public Schools said there were 39 football-related concussions in 2016, but the FHSAA’s data shows 257 concussions.

The numbers at the individual schools are even more off — with discrepancies of 48, 73 and 109.

According to the FHSAA data, at Fletcher High School, there were as many concussions as there were players.
  
Robert Sefcik, the Executive Director of the Jacksonville Sports Medicine Program, says “Many schools don't have licensed athletic trainers available to collect that information to report, so the reliability on who's reporting that is different throughout the state.” 

FHSAA wouldn’t agree to be interviewed about any of the concussion data. They even declined when Action News Jax dropped by its Gainesville office.

A representative admitted in an email some of their data ‘appears to be inaccurate,’ and that ‘no conclusions can be drawn until accurate data is provided.’  

Action News Jax has learned there's no mechanism in place to make sure that ever happens. While schools are required to report the number of concussions, there’s no actual penalty for failing to report.

So if the data is wrong, how can Florida track trends — or create new rules — designed to protect its players?
It's frustrating for the Johnson family. 

Five years later, they’re still leaving with the impact of one big hit.

“Every time [Derek] gets a headache now, we wonder is it just a headache or is it because of the concussions,” Mike Johnson said.  “We'll never know the answer to that.”

FHSAA said in a statement that they “expect to learn a lot more this year and in the coming years about how many concussions are actually occurring across the state and in individual regions.” 

They added: “We are constantly reevaluating our policies and methods and welcome any feedback from membership on how to improve.”

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