Natasha Helmick felt alone.
“I just felt like I was in a deep tunnel by myself and nobody knew what was going on with me and all this stuff going on with my head and I just felt, I don’t know, like a dark hole.”
She was a high school soccer player in Austin, Texas, and had suffered four severe concussions that left her with memory loss, mood swings, and, as she and several doctors have said, overall brain damage.
Now she has become speaker, an advocate for tougher youth sports concussion laws and the namesake for the “Natasha Law.”
Her parents started her playing at the age of 4, and early on they could tell that she had an aggressive style of play.
“My parents have film of me and I’m so small but I was heading the ball, it was amazing. It was crazy. I just loved to head the ball at a young age.”
It was this mentality that would lead to future issues for her, issues that will affect her for the rest of her life.
Helmick experienced her first concussion in eighth grade when going up for a ball and an opposing player’s head struck her directly in the temple. As she rose from the tumble, she had a headache and realized she couldn’t see out of one eye. All she saw was darkness. When her coach asked her if she was good to go, she lied and said she was, and played the rest of the game.
“I was thinking, ‘I can’t let my teammates down, I can’t let my coach down, I can’t let my parents down.’ Every athlete thinks every game is the end of the world and they don’t realize what they’re doing to themselves. I just wish we had all known more about concussions back then.”
Three concussions later, she was recruited by Texas State-San Marcos and she accepted an athletic scholarship to play for them in 2010. Not long into her freshman preseason, she suffered yet another concussion. Because of the severity and the amount of concussions she had already incurred, she was forced to retire. It was then that her story was discovered by lobbyists and state senators advocating for improved regulations for youth athletes experiencing concussions.
“They were like, ‘Your story kind of fits perfect with what we’re trying to do.’ And then we just started writing things up, and then I was talking in front of the House of Representatives next thing you know it. It was crazy.”
Unfortunately for Blake Allen Ripple, the advocacy for stricter regulations didn’t come soon enough. Ripple was an offensive llineman in 2009 and 2010 for the Marble Falls High School football team in Austin. During that time he and his doctors say that he suffered 30 to 40 concussions and subconcussive hits while playing, and though his coach and his school were made aware of his deteriorating condition, he wasn’t held out of competition for any significant period of time. In fact, with Texas high school football being as influential as it is, Ripple says he felt forced to play out of fear of retaliation from his school or his community. In one practice, Ripple claims that his coach made him run so hard that he began to bleed from his ears and his nose, and when complaints were made by Ripple’s family to the administration regarding the coach’s conduct, they were told to “relax” so as not to stir things up.
The Texas state law that passed in May 2011, after Ripple had already retired from football due to brain damage, was House Bill 2038, or “Natasha’s Law.” It mandated stricter rules for middle school and high school athletic programs when dealing with situations like Helmick’s and Ripple’s. Requirements for each school district or charter school include maintaining a concussion oversight team (COT) consisting of at least one Texas licensed physician and at least one of the following: a Texas licensed athletic trainer, advanced practice nurse, neuropsychologist or licensed physician assistant. This team is responsible for establishing a return-to-play protocol for any student-athlete believed to have suffered a concussion. Additionally the law enforces mandatory concussion education every two years for coaches and athletic trainers, and also states that a student-athlete can be removed from a practice or game by anyone with authority who believes the student has suffered a concussion. This includes a coach, physician, licensed healthcare professional or the student’s parent or guardian. When this occurs, the return-to-play protocol established by the COT must be followed.
When asked why this bill was so important to her, Helmick, now 20, says, “Because of the fact that maybe I could help people not have to go through what I had to go through, or if they’re going through it to help them and lengthen their career time, you know? If I was smarter, if my law had been in place, I probably would be playing still at Texas State. My career would have been lengthened. I would have sat out when I was supposed to. I wouldn’t have been playing and got another one, and got another one.”
Had this law been in place sooner, Ripple also likely would have been forced to sit out longer or perhaps even retire before the majority of the damage was done. Now he and his family claim he is permanently disabled and unable to live independently because of his constant vomiting as a result from recurring head trauma rendering him helpless unless aided by another person. In the fall of 2012, Ripple sued Marble Falls Independent School District and his former coach Cord Woerner, Marble Falls High School athletic director, alleging numerous counts of negligence on the parts of both parties.
While it is easy to look back at the incidents where a player?s health was overlooked due of a lack of legislation, the new law has already proven effective in the form of someone directly associated with Helmick: her brother. A high school senior and lifelong soccer player, he endured three concussions in 2012 after which his parents gave him an ultimatum: He would sit out six months and then play the rest of his senior year, but after that he’s done, no more soccer. Helmick says they don’t want to have the same experience with him that they have had with her, like the trouble she has remembering her childhood for instance.
“As I get older, everything from my past slowly evaporates,” she said. “Right now I don’t remember anything from elementary on, and middle school is really, really blurry. I hardly remember middle school at all.”
After going through what she says was “a difficult time” during her sophomore year, she left San Marcos and moved back home to be closer to her family. Now enrolled at Collin College in Plano, Helmick spends her time studying, unsure of what she wants to do, and working at an Adidas store where she sells soccer shoes, shoes that she’ll never be able to wear again — at least in competition.
“I really do think about it a lot,” Helmick said. “And especially when I’m selling soccer shoes to somebody, or anything in general that brings my mind to soccer, I think about it and I get sad and I miss it.
“But I just think I could be in a lot worse shape now if I didn’t quit then, so I should just try to be positive about it.”
– Dylann Tharp, special to NFL Evolution