CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta, left, speaks with Dr. Scott Sagraves of the Brody School of Medicine at ECU during an October interview for "Big Hits, Broken Dreams," a documentary that airs Sunday on the cable network. (Photo by Doug Boyd)

ECU to be featured on documentary about sports concussions 

Jan. 26, 2012

By Doug Boyd
ECU News Services

A successful partnership between East Carolina University and Pitt County Schools will be featured Sunday when CNN airs "Big Hits, Broken Dreams," a documentary about concussions in high school football.

CNN will air the hour-long documentary Sunday at 8 p.m. It will re-air at 11 p.m. and 2 a.m. Monday, then again Feb. 4.

A CNN crew followed the J.H. Rose High School Rampants football team last fall. It was three seasons after Jaquan Waller, who played running back for Rose, died after suffering a blow to the head two days before a game and then another blow during a game. ECU forensic pathologist Dr. M.G.F. Gilliland ruled his cause of death as second impact syndrome. Waller had two concussions within 72 hours.

In partnership with ECU, Pitt County Schools revamped its athletic training program following Waller's death. Working with Dr. Sharon Rogers, an assistant professor of health education at ECU, and Dr. Brock Niceler, a board-certified sports medicine specialist in the Department of Family Medicine at the Brody School of Medicine at ECU, the system now has licensed athletic trainers at every football practice and game in the county and at many practices and games in all other sports.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN's chief medical reporter and an Atlanta neurosurgeon, hosts the documentary. He interviewed Niceler, Rogers and Dr. Scott Sagraves, an ECU associate professor of surgery and chief of trauma and surgical critical care, while in Greenville last October. Sagraves treated Waller in 2008 when the player arrived at the trauma center.

"We've had a heightened sense of awareness that, although rare, this could happen to anybody," Sagraves said in October. "If in doubt, take the player out.

"I think the lesson is be involved with your kid's activities," said Sagraves, whose own son played football at South Central High at the time of Waller's death. "You know your kid the best."

Niceler, who participated in a panel discussion following Wednesday's screening, said the number of reported concussions has risen each year in the two years the program has existed. That's a sign the program is working, because concussions are being recognized and properly treated and not waved off as "bell ringers" and "dings."

"For athletes' safety, we need a team," Niceler said. "That includes the athletes, the parents and the coaches."

He also said athletic trainers were involved in more than 400 musculoskeletal injuries, which means players got proper treatment sooner and at less expense than a doctor visit.

The athletic trainers are ECU graduate students. One of them, Becky Grant, is featured in the documentary.

"I hope it makes people realize athletic trainers are needed in a high school setting and shows what Pitt County and ECU have done to fix this problem," Grant said at Wednesday's screening.

Grant and A.J. Flores, a former Rampants quarterback who suffered six concussions, traveled to CNN headquarters in Atlanta earlier in the week for a premiere of the documentary and to participate in a panel discussion with medical experts and a former NFL player.

Last year, Gov. Beverly Perdue signed into law the Gfeller-Waller Concussion Awareness Act, named for the Rose High athlete and 15-year-old Matthew Gfeller of R.J. Reynolds High School in Winston-Salem, who also died three years ago. The law intends to provide better education about the danger of head injuries. It also requires schools to have an emergency action plan in place to protect student-athletes.

In addition to interviewing players and experts in Greenville, Gupta also spoke with concussion experts at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Boston University.

Also involved in the project was Will Adams, 22, an ECU senior communications major who will graduate in May. He worked as a videographer on the project.

CNN provided him with equipment, and from August to November he attended most every practice, followed players who had concussion symptoms on their doctor visits, and filmed most games and put together highlight reels. He was paid, but Adams said the experience was worth much more.

"When they came down, I usually just shadowed, but they were willing to show me things," Adams said. "I was just listening to the experiences they've had and the things they've done. Even if it wasn't paid, I wouldn't trade it for the world."

In addition to learning about big-time television work, he also learned about his community, Rose High School and medicine.

Adams played football as a youth and hopes to go into sports production. "Now, I'm going to have my name on a big project with a big name, not just CNN but Sanjay Gupta," he said.

A link to Gupta's health blog, which contains a preview of Sunday's documentary and an explanation of concussions, is online at

An article about the athletic trainer partnership between ECU and Pitt County Schools is online at

More information about sports concussions is online at the Sports Concussion Institute website,



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