Isaiah Kacyvenski is Leading the Charge to Make Football Safer

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February 17, 2013

By Dave Boling

Isaiah Kacyvenski explains the inner workings of the CheckLight helmet senser on TechCrunch TV.

Kacyvenski250_02_0217Football coaches historically carried a special affinity for players who treated themselves as human missiles. Their highest compliment often was to laud a player for exhibiting “a reckless disregard” for his body.

Isaiah Kacyvenski was such a perfect example of this breed of player that he made a living at it as a linebacker with the Seahawks for six seasons (2000-2006, St. Louis: 2006).

In a way, concussions were an indicator Kacyvenski was doing his job. Whether absorbing or delivering them, they were a sign he was contributing to violent collisions.

But now Kacyvenski is spearheading a drive to make the game safer by helping to produce and market a device that applies electronic technology to the problem of traumatic head injuries.

“It’s a problem, and what I wanted to do is develop a solution to be able to help out the way that head trauma is looked at and managed,” he said. “The game has to change, in my opinion, in mindset and awareness. What we know now is a lot different from what we knew 10 years ago, even five years ago.”

Kacyvenski said he was diagnosed with seven concussions (“those were just the ones I couldn’t get away with”), and when he retired in 2008, he added a Harvard MBA to the pre-med undergrad degree he earned there.

There were other times when he experienced symptoms but remained silent.

Kacyvenski250_0217“My last two happened within two weeks of each other in my second-to-last year of playing,” Kacyvenski said. “They were both really scary points in my life. When I say, ‘diagnosed,’ those are the ones where I couldn’t hide it. I really couldn’t function on the field. I couldn’t protect myself. Those are the ones where I had to fess up and say something.”

Kacyvenski today works for MC10, a hi-tech firm in Cambridge, Mass., as their Director of Sports Segment Licensing and Business Development, and he has has been working on a product called CheckLight, which will be on the market this spring.

The Checklight system

The CheckLight system

Sensors are embedded in the sort of skullcaps players often wear beneath their helmets. Each impact is measured and tallied, and the amount of force activates a series of lights: green (safe), yellow (moderate), red (severe).

Kacyvenski stresses it’s not a diagnostic tool to replace examination by doctors or trainers, but rather an objective measurement of impact that “starts a conversation that far too many times doesn’t exist.”

“It’s like an extra set of eyes on the athlete,” he said. “It can help inform some of the evaluation on the sidelines.”

The device also measures cumulative impact so it can be used as a teaching device in practices. “You see a change of behavior for the athlete; they avoid wanting to have the light triggered, so that makes it safer… you want to keep your head out of contact.”

A second effect addresses the tough-guy mindset prevalent in contact sports, in which it is viewed as unmanly to admit to an injury.

“It takes that pride issue out of it,” he said. “It’s a heavy burden on athletes. I’ve been there. You don’t want to be looked at like that. This takes it out of the hands of the athlete and offers objective data.”

Matt Hasselbeck wearing the CheckLight cap

Matt Hasselbeck wearing the CheckLight cap

Former Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck (Green Bay: 1998-2000, Seattle: 2001-2010, Tennessee: 2011 – present) said he was excited when Kacyvenski called him about a year ago to see if he would be on the football advisory board for CheckLight, because he thinks it will contribute significant information in trying to solve a complicated problem.

Hasselbeck said the misconception that taking a break for water was a “sign of weakness” during his father’s pro football career resulted from bad information, but has been corrected by science. He’s hoping increased information will help with concussion prevention, diagnosis and treatment.

“Now we know that hydration is not only safer but helps recovery,” Hasselbeck said. “Here at the Titans we do a great job of – immediately after practice is over – everybody gets some sort of nutrients in their body, whether it’s a protein shake or a Gatorade.”

Usage would allow coaches to track and manage a player’s exposure through the season, meaning they might develop more insightful ways to plan practices.

“You could chart that over the season,” Kacyvenski said, saying it might be similar to pitch counts in baseball. “If we care so much about elbows, why not care that much about the brain?”

The growing research on traumatic brain injuries has prompted the NFL to alter certain rules regarding contact.

Fans and many players object to the changes on the grounds that it eliminates the game’s fundamental appeal.

Kacyvenski is part of a suit by some 4,000 former players against the league over its handling of injuries. Liability and increased concern over long-term damage is considered by some a threat to the future of the game.

Whether to expose youths to the risks of contact football is a debate parents are having across the country, Kacyvenski said. The creation of an objective electronic device to measure and perhaps help control the amount of head trauma would help them make the decision “with a clear conscience.”

Hasselbeck recognizes that the situation has improved in dealing with head trauma for NFL players.

“I think in the last few years the NFL and NFL Players have done a nice job of starting to change the culture where it’s okay to tell the truth to the doctors about how your head is feeling, or it’s okay to sort of whistle-blow on your buddy to the doctor if you know that something is not right with your teammate,” Hasselbeck said. “We’ve done a nice job there. I think we’ve also done a nice job of putting in place hurdles for guys to overcome to get back on the field. For example, if you’ve got a concussion on Sunday, you don’t automatically get to practice Wednesday if you say, ‘Yeah, I’m good.’ They’ve taken it out of the player’s hands, so to speak, and now you have to be symptom-free before you’re allowed to practice again.”

Kacyvenski was the first of the more than 600 players to pledge to donate their brains to the Boston University medical school and the Sports Legacy Institute, which is studying the causes and effects of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

Chris Nowinski, the founder of the Sports Legacy Institute, was Kazyvenski’s roommate at Harvard. He went on to wrestle for WWE as Chris Harvard before becoming a force in concussion research.

CTE was cited in the suicide death of linebacker Junior Seau. And as Kacyvenski sees more studies of CTE sufferers, a pattern has developed showing how players’ lives have changed over time, including depression and the loss of impulse control.

“It’s a very complex issue,” he said, and the brain is an extremely complex organ. “But hitting your head 2,000 times a year probably doesn’t help.”

Hasselbeck said he suffered his first concussion in third grade while ice skating. His most recent one occurred during the 2009 season, and he said the observation was extensive.

“They sent a questionnaire home with my wife and they also quizzed the quarterbacks coach and the quarterbacks, ‘Hey, how has he been acting? Has he been short-tempered? Has he been quiet? Has he been irritable?’ All these different things,” Hasselbeck said. “That’s the best indication that you are back. I was passing the other tests, and I’ve been very fortunate with that.”

Kacyvenski stresses he’s not trying to be an ingrate to a game that put food on his table, or to steer people away from it.

“I don’t want anybody to think I’m an alarmist,” he said. “What I’m trying to do is help people understand there are measures in place, and the use of technology is definitely something I see in the future.

“I love the game of football and I want the game to be preserved and want it to grow over time. I want this (Checklight) to be a tool to help it. All the great things I learned about myself and how I live my life – the hard work, the perseverance, the work ethic – all of that was learned through sports. You can’t replace that. I want to be able to preserve that for my son and generations behind him.”

Yes, Isaiah Kacyvenski Jr., age 9, is a large part of Kacyvenski’s motivation; he’s already bugging his father about playing tackle football.

“I want football to thrive and survive and to do great things, but it needs to change. That’s not what a lot of people want to hear; the game can still be played, it can be done a lot more safely.”

In other words, there should be no more reckless disregard for players’ health.

And, yes, he’s worried about his own future and health, even though he’s just 35.

“I want to make the most out of every single day,” he said. “I want to find a solution; I want to leave a lasting legacy.”

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