His father, Frank, followed his movements to the sidelines, watching carefully as Jack dropped to the ground and lifted his left leg into the air.
Jack suffered a concussion last year after taking a knee to the helmet in the second game of the season. It kept him off the field the remainder of the season, and took a substantial mental and physical toll. Ever since, his parents have been extra concerned over Jack’s well-being on the field, even for injuries that are nowhere near his head.
“That’s just cramps, right?” Frank asked his wife, Sandy, who was sitting next to him. “Is he okay?”
“It’s just cramps, it’s just cramps,” Sandy replied, her voice calm as she craned her neck to look at Jack. “It’s okay. He’s okay.”
Concerns over injuries are nothing new for football parents, but in 2018, those fears are heightened — particularly when it comes to hits to the head. The long-term health ramifications of head injuries have become a topic of national conversation, from the youth level and high school football all the way up to the NFL.
At Bishop Ireton alone this season, six players were concussed in a span of two weeks, sparking conversations among parents about how to best protect their children.
“I’m nervous every play,” Sandy said of watching Jack. “But I’m getting better.”
Concussions are an issue for high school athletes in sports other than football, but there is more discussion around the sport given the release of studies linking football to the degenerative brain disease Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), which has been found in many former players and is caused by repeated hits to the head.
Football parents often find themselves at the center of an evolving debate: Why let your children play football when the risk could be more dangerous than the reward?
“I’ve had parents tell me that they don’t want their child to play football,” Bishop Ireton Coach Chip Armstrong said. “That is just a choice. When I had my first parents meeting when I was named coach, I stood up and said that if I thought it was really an unsafe game that I wouldn’t be doing this still.”
Jack’s parents had mixed feelings when he returned to the field. On one hand, they get excited to see their 17-year old son light up when he puts on his uniform. They recognize the positive impact that playing football can have not only on Jack’s chances to earn a scholarship or play the sport in college, but on his social life and self-esteem, as well.
But football is still a source of worry for the Esquivels, and it wasn’t an easy choice to allow Jack back on the field. If Jack gets sacked or takes off running, there’s a heightened awareness that one more hit — whether it is vicious or inadvertent — could cause a similar or worse injury to the one that disrupted his life so significantly a year ago.
“I’m just hypersensitive now,” Frank said. “I watch every physical motion.”
It was the second quarter of Bishop Ireton’s game against National Christian on Sept. 2, 2017 when Jack took off running to the right. He tried to get around the defensive end, who grabbed Jack by the shoulder pads and spun him around. Jack lunged for extra yards, and felt a sharp knock against his helmet as another defender came flying in and kneed him in the head. He was consumed by dizziness.
“I felt like I was dreaming,” Jack said. “Everything was foggy.”
He stayed in the game, and on the next play he threw the ball into double coverage and was intercepted. After making it over to the bench, Jack was given a concussion protocol test by the team’s trainer, and an assistant coach came over to see how he was doing.
“[The assistant coach] told me I was actually looking the opposite direction away from him when he was talking to me,” Jack said. “I asked him if I was going to go back in, but he said, ‘No, you’re done.’ I just found that funny. I knew I wanted to go back in, but at the same time I knew I couldn’t.”
In the stands, Frank and Sandy sat unfazed in their normal spot overlooking the Bishop Ireton football field — at the very top, near the 50-yard line. They didn’t see Jack get hit in the head, nor did they think he was hurt when he didn’t go back in the game for the next possession. They assumed Jack was being benched for turning the ball over.
Then, Frank saw Jack get attention from the trainers on the sidelines. He went down to the field and was told that Jack needed to be checked into a hospital. When he arrived, doctors diagnosed him with a mild concussion.
Jack didn’t experience any concussion symptoms until three days after the hit, he said, when the “excruciating headaches” started, along with sensitivity to light and noise and occasional nausea. In the coming weeks, he would sometimes have to wear sunglasses during class or take breaks to go lie down in the nurse’s office. His mother estimates he missed a total of two weeks of school.
“Early in the second week [after the concussion] it really started to affect me socially,” Jack said. “I couldn’t keep conversations with friends or anything.”
His pain didn’t stop until after Christmas, nearly four months after the initial hit.
According to Dr. Anthony Kontos of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, each concussion is unique, meaning there isn’t a uniform timeline for recovery. Kontos said recent research indicates that, on average, a college athlete “may recover in 14 to 21 days,” while youth and high school athletes may recover within 30 days, “which is longer than previously thought.”
“There were some of these scary stories that you hear about kids who are out for three months and sit in dark rooms and stuff, and I ended up being one of those kids,” Jack said. “You can’t do anything. I didn’t even worry about football. I just wanted the pain to stop in my head.”
Back on the field
More than a year later, Jack is back playing football at Bishop Ireton with no noticeable signs of discomfort or lingering effects. His recovery was aided by trips to the Inova Concussion Clinic at Inova Mount Vernon Hospital, where he went through multiple physical and mental exercises. He also went on a strict nutritional plan designed to aid the healing process. He started gradually getting back into football by playing with a noncontact 7-on-7 team during the spring and working with a private quarterback trainer.
His parents, who said watching Jack recover from his concussion put them in “a very painful place,” had multiple discussions about whether they would allow Jack to continue to play football. They ultimately decided to do so, for two main reasons: They knew how much football meant to him, and they knew the struggling mental state he was in when he couldn’t play.
“It definitely put me in a serious state of sadness and darkness for a while,” Jack said. “But, I mean, it was really just cured with football. I just felt really excited. It was good to be back, throwing the ball around. Even playing catch with a friend, that felt good.”
“We were constantly thinking of what Jack would feel,” Frank said. “Football was his world. We know he wanted to go back. We relied on the professionals to make the call. Football is where he gets his self-worth and it is something that he is very good at. It affects his mood and his morale and his well-being.”
Sandy said the family initially had concerns about how the concussion would affect Jack’s long-term health, in part due to having seen reports about former players dealing with effects from hits to the head suffered long ago. But she said that quickly faded after the family was told by a nurse practitioner at the clinic that once Jack’s initial recovery from the symptoms was complete, he would be “perfectly fine.” The Esquivels had moments of hesitation when it appeared that Jack was not recovering at the same pace as high school athletes with similar injuries, but they now believe it is in the past. Because Jack has only had one concussion, Sandy said, the family doesn’t believe it will have an impact on him into adulthood.
Jack says that he, too, is aware of the risks that come from playing football, but maintains he’s as confident as ever. Given that he played almost none of his junior year, he faces longer odds in earning a college scholarship offer, but he is hoping to play well enough to spark more attention. He understands how nervous his parents are when watching him play, but says he knows he has their support when he takes the field.
“You obviously see why it is dangerous, but I don’t know,” Jack said. “I really love the game, but it is hard to love something when it doesn’t love you back, clearly.”