Placer High football players taking extra precautions to avoid concussions

By: Matthew Kimel, Journal sports editor
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Like oh-so-many football players that came before him, Michael Downen never knew much about concussions until he got one. 

The Placer High School freshman suffered his first — and only — concussion when he was 11 years old while playing midget football. When Downen, a defensive lineman, went in for a sack, a teammate’s shoulder pad collided straight into his helmet.

“I don’t remember what it felt like, I was (knocked) out,” Downen said. “I was out for 10 seconds. (When I saw the replay) everyone on the video had already gotten up and I woke up when the coaches were undoing the straps to my helmet.”

It was a scary moment for Downen.

“I didn’t really understand the severity of it,” he said. “I never had an experience like that before.”

Though Downen, 14, received a major head injury, he isn’t scared to keep playing football. Instead of quitting, he decided to learn more about concussions and what he needs to do to prevent them. 

The 6-foot-2, 197-pound Downen now makes it a point to not allow players to get on top of him and to always keep his head moving. 

Since August, when the freshmen started preparing for their 2012 campaign, Downen has been wearing a Guardian cap over his helmet at practice. The cap, a soft-shell protective device, is made of spandex and lycra that has thick padding throughout and attaches over a player’s traditional helmet.

Studies have shown the Guardian may reduce impact by 1/3 on hits to the head.

According to Downen, the Guardian takes away just about any feeling on hits to the helmet.

Downen recently took a cleat to the noggin in practice and hardly noticed. 

“When you get hit in the head with (the Guardian), you can’t really feel anything,” he said. “No jolt or ringing as when you don’t have it on.”

Downen said without the cap, headshots hurt just as much whether he’s wearing a helmet or not.  

Downen isn’t the only Hillmen player using the Guardian.

His teammate, quarterback Marcus Ante, also wears one. So does Austin Hess of the junior varsity team. 

Hess’ cap was recently passed down from his brother, Anthony, who is redshirting at Southern Oregon. 

Both Hesses, along with their older brother, Andrew, have all had concussions playing football.

Their mother, Annie, is still OK with them playing the sport, even though she said Andrew can no longer “critically think” after he was involved in a motorcycle accident and an MRI showed numerous bruises on his brain from his football-play days.

“That’s their love,” she said. “They live, eat and sleep football.”

But as a mother, Annie is all about safety first.

“Anything that will help prevent a concussion, I’m all for,” she said. “I like all that I’ve read about the Guardian cap.”

Steve Cook, the varsity soccer coach at Placer High, is a sales representative for the Guardian. He recently donated two to the Hillmen varsity team. 

Coach Joey Montoya said whenever any of his players are having head issues, they wear the Guardian.

“Anytime you have anything extra to protect kids’ heads,” he said, “you got to give them a try.”

Montoya hopes to get an additional 20 Guardians to help protect his players. 

Michael Downen’s father, Mike, said other Placer parents are looking into purchasing Guardians for their children. 

“It’s worth every penny,” Downen said of the cap, which retails for $69.95 plus shipping.

“Ninety percent of the head injuries happen during practice. He’s covered a good portion of the time. We figured, we went and purchased the Xenith helmet, it has airbags in it. The Guardian has added to that.”

Mike Downen hopes he doesn’t have to witness his son suffering from another concussion, but understands that football is a collision sport. 

“It’s scary to see your son get hit and their arms go limp and they don’t get up,” he said. “It’s very unsettling.”

As unsettling as it was, Michael Downen still enjoys playing football.

“When it happened, I didn’t understand what it was,” he said of his concussion. “I didn’t know it was a bruise on your brain. I didn’t understand it then, but it didn’t scare me from playing at all.”

And with his Guardian, he certainly isn’t scared of getting another head injury.

Of getting a concussion with the cap on, Downen said, “I don’t think I could.”

Reach Matthew Kimel at Follow him on Twitter @matthewkimel