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Cheerleading injury brings concussions' universal nature to light

Published: Wednesday, April 24, 2013 2:00 p.m. CDT • Updated: Wednesday, April 24, 2013 2:50 p.m. CDT

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It wasn't an act of aggression or violence. Juan Gonzalez was simply acting on his protective instincts.

So often, people think of football when they discuss concussions. But Gonzalez, who's earned three varsity letters playing football, suffered a concussion by exercising caution during cheerleading practice.

He popped Sammi Olson high into the air. Typically, she would complete one full spin before landing in the bases' arms. But sectionals were less than 2 weeks away, and Olson reluctantly decided to take a shot at two spins.

"When you step up your game and you go to that higher level, you know your flyer's going to be a little hesitant," Newman cheerleading coach Susie LeMay said. "The base people are going to push harder and catch her, no matter what, so that she's confident and she'll go for it again the next time.

"Juan knew he wasn't going to let anybody fall. He took it serious and … he didn't let her fall."

Extra: Click here to watch a video interview with Susie LeMay, Newman cheerleading coach, as she discusses Juan's injury

Sensing Olson's trepidation, Gonzalez took a small step forward to assure her safety. Toward the end of her descent, their eyes locked.

"She did the spins perfect, and then at the last second she looked right at me," Gonzalez said. "I remember that, and I don't remember anything after the hit."

The hit was her orbital bone cracking against Gonzalez's head, behind his right ear.

"Everything turned black," he said. "And then it felt like I'd just woken up from a dream. I was a little freaked out. I opened my eyes and had no idea what was happening. I saw her sitting there in pain, holding on to her face."

The price of chivalry

Olson got a big ice pack and a screaming headache. Gonzalez wasn't so fortunate.

About 15 minutes after their close encounter, Newman athletic trainer Andy Accardi administered a psychological exam and compared the results to the baseline Gonzalez had established by taking the same test before football season. Gonzalez's score had slipped.

"I was getting some things right, but the numbers and the things he would say and I had to repeat back was a blur," Gonzalez said. "Especially the numbers – I couldn't remember how to count backwards."

Gonzalez failed the test and would miss the next week and a half of action. While he was disappointed, he couldn't explain why he nearly broke into tears when he got home.

"I was very confused and frustrated," Gonzalez said. "I was overly emotional. I just started tearing up for no reason. I didn't know a concussion could do something like that to you."

"That's one of the big symptoms I remember," Accardi said. "And that's a big indicator when you notice, this kid doesn't usually act that way."

Accardi had a basis of comparison in Gonzalez's case, as he'd diagnosed him with a Grade 1 concussion – one that paled in comparison to the cheerleading concussion – after football tackling drills left him woozy during his junior season.

That last sentence reflects a few of the many misconceptions when it comes to concussions. They don't just occur during games, and one needs not be rendered unconscious. Most glaringly, the hidden injury isn't exclusively reserved for the gridiron.

"In football, you're taught how to hit and how to receive a hit – to lower your shoulders and everything," Gonzalez said. "In cheerleading, you're not expecting a hit. You're trained to flip and perform your routine."

Happy ending

Not all concussion stories have a happy ending, but Gonzalez's does.

That's not to say it came easy.

He was a restless mess while watching his team compete in a meet leading up to sectionals.

"I wanted to be out there with my team," Gonzalez said. "I was watching some of the guys and thinking, 'I could be doing a lot of what we're doing.'"

But, while he didn't miss any school, Gonzalez was as good as absent. Nothing he studied stuck. The emotional roller coaster the concussion put him through was compounded with separation anxiety and unnecessary guilt.

"He was being asked all day long how he was feeling by all the girls and the coaches and the teachers," LeMay said. "I think that was very difficult for him, and he felt like he let everybody down. But everyone was really just concerned."

"He followed everything we asked him to do," Accardi said. "The frustrating thing on his part was he was doing everything we asked him to do. And he's thinking, 'Why wasn't it getting better?'"

Despite a heart that ached as incessantly as his head, Gonzalez was at every practice, cheering on his teammates. Every day, Lemay checked in with Accardi, who touched base with Gonzalez at school.

Finally, about 10 days after his injury, Gonzalez was able to rejoin his team – just in time to place fourth at sectionals and compete in two state meets.

"To know there was a big difference between me not being out there and me being out there? To be honest, it really warmed my heart," Gonzalez said.

Going forward

Gonzalez will attend Sauk Valley Community College, where he's thinking about cheering. After that, he hopes to attend a 4-year college in California and aspires to work in radiology or nursing.

He has Accardi to thank for his full-fledged faculties. If it were up to him, he would've run through stop signs to rejoin his team sooner than he was allowed.

"He's a great teacher, a great coach and a really good athletic trainer," Gonzalez said. "If someone's hurt, he's right there. It feels like there's a doctor out there. We trust him."

We'll explore the value of the bond between athletic trainers and athletes, coaches and parents, in the next installment of "The Hidden Injury."

More online

To read more from our special series on sports concussion, please check out The Hidden Injury project page on saukvalley.com. Click here to visit.

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