Ikaika Gunderson played all 12 games as a senior for the Camas football team last season.
He cannot remember two of them.
“I’d hit my head and didn’t feel like I was in my own skin,” Gunderson said. “It’s kind of hard to explain. I’d black out a bit. I’d get dizzy. I’d return to the sideline and regroup a little bit.”
For the love of the game, for the love of his teammates, he kept playing.
He kept playing because he was good at keeping secrets.
Gunderson estimates he had two or three concussions as a junior.
“But I didn’t really tell anyone about those ones,” he said.
The worst concussion was still to come. It was a Week 2 game his senior year. By then, he was good at the deception. He threw up at halftime, but not in view of any coaches or trainers. When a medical professional did approach him, Gunderson had all the right answers.
He hid the nausea. He said he wasn’t dizzy. His head wasn’t hurting.
“I was convincing,” Gunderson said.
Turns out, he was just fooling himself.
• • •
Ikaika Gunderson, who had always dreamed of college football, has been told his career is done. His plan of playing at Southern Oregon University is on hold. Gunderson still believes there is a tiny possibility he could make it back to the field one day. Perhaps after a year away from contact.
Unlikely, his father said.
“Right now, as it stands, he’s done,” said Dan Gunderson, who was an assistant coach with Camas during his son’s days at the school and now is an assistant at Fort Vancouver. “His mom says he’s done. The neurosurgeon says he’s done.”
Ikaika Gunderson’s story is not new. Athletes have been trying to fool athletic trainers and coaches for years, trying to keep their position on the field.
What is relatively new in the sports world is the emphasis on concussion education. Not just in football, but in all contact sports.
Two years ago, Gov. Chris Gregoire signed a law stating that Washington schools must remove any athlete suspected of having a concussion and that those athletes cannot return to competition until evaluated by a licensed physician and given written authorization.
Coaches are being trained to spot the symptoms of a concussion. Athletic trainers also have an eye out for head injuries.
Still, some athletes can slip under the radar.
The Gunderson family said they do not fault anybody associated with Camas. Ikaika was cleared to return to the field because he was not honest about his symptoms.
“Coach (Jon) Eagle and his staff, if they would have known, he wouldn’t have been back on the field,” Dan Gunderson said. “We don’t want to get anybody in trouble. Nobody deserves to be in trouble.”
Terry Cavender, Camas’ athletic director, said that the school followed proper protocol.
“You gotta let us know so we can take care of you,” Cavender said. “Kids want to play and they don’t tell anybody. That can be an issue.”
Gunderson even played this summer in the Freedom Bowl Classic, an all-star game for recent graduates, before the stop sign was put up by his doctor.
• • •
So the learning process continues at all schools.
Elissa Baldwin, the athletic trainer at Battle Ground High School who works for Pro Active Physical Therapy, said the Tigers’ coaching staff is doing its job in relation to concussions.
Last week in a game against Columbia River, the coaches took away the helmet of a player they suspected of having a concussion before Baldwin even noticed.
“They’re definitely paying attention,” Baldwin said.
She emphasized that it should not just be the coaches and trainers, though. Parents know their children more than anyone else.
If they notice a change in behavior at home, it could not hurt to ask the trainer to inquire.
Baldwin also wants to get rid of some old-school attitudes regarding hard hits to the head.
“I try to encourage the athletes, parents, and coaches to not refer to it as ‘just being dinged’ or ‘getting your bell rung,’ ” she said.
The most common symptoms of a concussion are headache, nausea, dizziness. Even if the athlete feels one, two, or all three for just a short period of time, it’s best to get checked.
• • •
Sometimes that is a battle in itself. The athletes don’t want to get checked, in fear of being removed from competition.
That fear led to Gunderson’s secret. While no one knows for certain that playing with a concussion made things worse for him, Gunderson acknowledges that he should have sought help.
Back then, he had other ideas.
“I didn’t want to let my teammates down. We were having a great season. I wanted to be on the field as much as I could,” he said.
He also thought he needed to stay on the field to get the attention of college coaches.
But as Baldwin says, quoting a message from the Center for Disease Control, missing one week is better than missing the whole season. Or in Gunderson’s case, by playing when he shouldn’t have been playing, it might have put the rest of his career in jeopardy.
“I was really sad, heart-broken, when they said I couldn’t play football anymore,” Gunderson said. “It kind of crushed my dream.”
That dream turned into a nightmare. He wasn’t the same player on the field for at least the next six weeks.
A solid student, he said he struggled with focus throughout his senior year. He still battles headaches and mood swings.
He has learned much about concussions, but he also is not ready to pass judgment on another player who is thinking about doing what he did.
Still, Gunderson is wiser now.
“It’s not really worth it in the long run,” he said. “You might think it’s OK in the present, but the consequences probably aren’t worth it.
“Don’t hide it. Let the doctors know. Be honest.”