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Local neuropsychologist, father of NFL player talks concussions, brain injury risks

Dr. Efland Amerson and son David Amerson
Dr. Efland Amerson
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Dr. Efland Amerson and son David Amerson, then-player for the Washington Redskins (now known as the Commanders).

Dr. Efland Amerson, a local neuropsychologist and father of a retired NFL player, has been keenly aware of the headlines about Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa's two recent concussions. His son David Amerson was born in Hawaiʻi and grew up on the continent.

The younger Amerson followed his dream to play professional football for the Washington Commanders (then-Redskins), Oakland Raiders, Kansas City Chiefs and Arizona Cardinals. His last season with the Cardinals ended in 2019. The older Amerson recalled one of his son’s early head injuries and the subsequent concussions he suffered in the NFL.

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On David Amerson's first concussion in the NFL

DR. EFLAND AMERSON: He did sustain, I think, two concussions while he was with the Redskins. One of them I remembered vividly in the Dallas game. We were in Dallas, and he actually got hit in the side hole of his helmet from another player. He was a rookie at the time and another rookie on the kickoff came in and hit him in the side of his head. And so he just melted. I saw him just disappear. So I went down to the locker room and I remember seeing him. He was confused why I was there. So that was the first time that I really saw the impact of concussions with him. Now, you know, I'm a retired Navy neuropsychologist, so I dealt with concussions in Afghanistan. So I know the impact of those from sports and also from trauma. So I knew that he sustained a pretty bad concussion at that time. And there were about five other events that occurred throughout his career. And towards the latter end of his career, I could see his play had really started to decline, meaning that he didn't run as fast as he used to and he wasn't responsive as he used to. And he kind of had voiced that. But like most of these athletes in the NFL, they spend the majority of their later adolescence and into adulthood just being fine-tuned athletes, and they want to play.

Chiefs Falcons Football David Amerson
John Amis/ASSOCIATED PRESS
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FR69715 AP
Kansas City Chiefs defensive back David Amerson (24) walks the sidelines during the second half of an NFL preseason football game between the Atlanta Falcons and the Kansas City Chiefs, Friday, Aug. 17, 2018, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Amis)

On how his son is doing post-NFL career

AMERSON: He's doing well. And I think one of the things that he recognized — I better get out while I can, and I'm not, you know, severely impaired.

On Tua Tagovailoa's two recent concussions

AMERSON: When I saw Tua, I saw the hit, and then I saw him try to stand up and walk. Then I assumed that he was concussed based on my experience. But I knew that feeling because I know his parents were in attendance in that game. And I knew probably they were feeling kind of helpless. Because seeing that and based on my training, watching my son take a hit like that — most time people don't see the hit, and they don't recognize it. But I've seen my son get up and kind of stagger. So it was very familiar to me — there's an issue here, and this individual should probably leave the game and not return.

On watching Tagovailoa go back for a second game

AMERSON: That was concerning to me. And I'm not sure of this whole evaluation. But from what I know, there is something called a second impact syndrome. You have to be careful that when you have an initial concussion, and then you have, before your body can reconstitute, and you take another hit — that could prove to be fatal, or you know, very dangerous that there are long-term effects. And that's something that really that high schools have picked up on that once you take that hit and you're out a game, you take the helmet and cannot go back in because we've lost a lot of athletes. Especially in adolescence, high school, they've taken a hit, gone back in, taken a second hit and they didn't survive. And so just seeing him back out there, I was surprised. Maybe I'm thinking well they said he cleared the protocol, but I was really surprised to see him back out there that soon.

Bills Dolphins Football Tua Tagovailoa
Rebecca Blackwell/AP
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AP
Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (1) is assisted off the field during the first half of an NFL football game against the Buffalo Bills, Sunday, Sept. 25, 2022, in Miami Gardens. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

On how multiple mild concussions can affect people long-term

AMERSON: A lot of these injuries are what we call mild concussions. And that can be a misnomer. But a mild concussion, the recovery time especially from a sports injury, usually occurs in one to three weeks. And so they can get back out there. The NFL usually turns them around in just about seven days. They're following those guidelines of a mild concussion. But when you have individuals that have several mild concussions, it doesn't take much for them to be concussed. I evaluated an individual many years ago, a Marine, who had been concussed several times. But he's had so many concussions that when he shoots his rifle, he was just about being concussed again from the blowback of the rifle. You can bump into a door after you've had seven or eight and you can, you know, have a concussion. So there's a long-term effect that can occur from cumulative concussions.

On what he hopes will come out of this national discussion on brain injuries and football

AMERSON: I think the sense of urgency of really monitoring the players — and the NFL has done that, they have given it a sense of urgency and they are concerned with their players, that want to keep them healthy — but I think this raises the spotlight that anytime that the individual is concussed or we think he's concussed or we see symptoms and signs of a concussion, that we want to err on the side of safety. He made very well and went out there and passed the concussion protocol, but they still have to look beyond the concussion protocol. The sense of urgency should be, you know, looking at the protocols again, are we doing everything that we can? I think the NFL has announced that they are revising some things to monitor this. Even here in our islands, we want to be a little bit more concerned about our young players out there. I've attended some games and seen individuals that may look like they've been stunned and should have come out, but they've been back out there. So this is where it starts.

This interview aired on The Conversation on Oct. 5, 2022. The Conversation airs weekdays at 11 a.m. on HPR-1.

Catherine Cruz is the host of The Conversation. Originally from Guam, she spent more than 30 years at KITV, covering beats from government to education. Contact her at ccruz@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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