LINCOLN, Neb. — Unlike Tommy Armstrong, the hit didn’t turn out the lights. But Blake Lawrence’s bulb started dimming. Flickering.
And the worst part? A fuse in his brain got blown, and the Nebraska linebacker didn’t even stinking know it. He’d just dropped the hammer on a Kansas State player in November 2008, and while the adrenaline kept going, the Google translate button in his head — the one that converted English to, you know, English — had gone completely haywire.
“I stayed on the field for a couple of drives, and as a linebacker, I was calling the defense,” Lawrence told Land of 10. “So the coaches would call in the play, and I was just making up plays, calling the wrong things. But I didn’t know it. I was just, like, out of it.
“And you’re not aware. It’s a crazy thing.”
So when he saw Cornhuskers quarterback Tommy Armstrong get his bell rung in a 62-3 loss at Ohio State last Saturday, then lay unconscious on the Buckeye sideline after hitting the turf head first, the defender-turned-entrepreneur feared the absolute worst.
Until Tommy came back.
“He was helping his teammates on plays,” Lawrence said of the Nebraska signal-caller, who returned to Ohio Stadium in sweats during the second half and could be seen offering engagement and encouragement. “Which gives me the indication that his brain function was back to normal, right?
“There would be a lot of different ways to look at it. But I would say how he came back on to the field, given the kind of clearance by the doctors and trainers to interact with his teammates and to be a part of the end of the game — I would say the early indications and impact of the concussion were less severe than it would’ve looked like, given the situation on the field.”
Lawrence has been there, even if he couldn’t remember it at the time, even if he had to be told about it by someone else. The hit in 2008 was one of four concussions the Kansas native suffered in a span of about 16 months, a series of blows that cut a promising football career prematurely short — Lawrence gave up football in 2009 — and helped to get a successful business career off the ground.
“Recovery is what’s most important,” said Lawrence, the CEO and co-founder of Opendorse, an online platform that pairs marketers with athletes. “It’s also the biggest question mark.”
And so we wait. Nebraska coach Mike Riley told reporters Monday that Armstrong was undergoing the Huskers’ concussion protocol and was officially day-to-day. He said the earliest the medical staff could give the coaching staff a thumbs up or down would be Thursday. Until then, the Big Red (7-2, 4-2 Big Ten) is going to prepare for Saturday night’s showdown with Minnesota (7-2, 4-2) as if backup Ryker Fyfe is getting the start.
“The decision,” Riley said, “is out of our hands.”
So you pose the question: Could Armstrong go?
More to the point, should he go?
“Him not moving, it’s scary,” Lawrence said. “And that’s a sign of some head trauma, no matter what degree of severity.”
Dr. Alan Shataji concurred. A sports medicine and primary care physician in the Concussion Clinic at UC San Diego Health, Shataji said Armstrong’s quick return to the field Saturday and subsequent interactions in a noisy environment portend well for a quick recovery. Which is good.
Less good: He also noted that fewer than 10 percent of sports-related concussions result in unconsciousness.
“There are a lot of other factors that go into deciding whether somebody is recovered or not.”
— former Nebraska linebacker Blake Lawrence
“If it’s less than one minute, the outcomes tend to not be as worrisome or have any worse prognostic factor,” noted Shataji, who’s served as a team physician with the U.S. Soccer Federation, the University of San Diego and UC San Diego. “But if it’s more than a minute, that’s when they usually say, ‘OK, this could be a sign of a more (significant) brain injury.’
“Concussion, by definition, is a mild traumatic brain injury. But when you see that loss of consciousness … by the second minute, you definitely have in the back of your mind that ‘This could be a more severe brain injury,’ and so that’s wholly appropriate to take those precautions.”
When it comes to treating teens and younger, Shataji said, the clinic recommends at least a two-week break between full contact. For adults, the usual benchmark is seven-to-10 days, if things are right.
“You don’t want to get them back too quickly,” he said, “because that increases the risk of an additional injury and a prolonged recovery.”
To that end, the university’s concussion protocol involves monitoring, rest and progress over the next several days before a neurocognitive test can be administered:
“Nobody wanted to play more than Tommy,” Lawrence said. “But nobody wants to protect the long-term health of kids more than the university. So there’s that balance. The tests that they use are still not perfect.
“It’s not as simple as the test — there are a lot of other factors that go into deciding whether somebody is recovered or not.”
Lawrence got his marketing degree in 2009, co-founding the social media agency Hurrdat while working on his MBA. Lawrence teamed with another ex-Husker, Adi Kunalic, to launch Opendorse in 2013. They’ve forged partnerships with the NFLPA and the UFC while building a client list that includes Rob Gronkowski, Joe Flacco, Jamaal Charles and Andre Drummond.
“These concussions, they impact different players in different ways,” Lawrence said.
To wit: The entrepreneur’s old teammate, former Huskers quarterback Joe Ganz, got popped in the head so badly during the first half of the 2009 Gator Bowl that he reportedly couldn’t remember what happened after halftime — even though signal-caller remained in the game and helped rally the Big Red to a 26-21 win over Clemson.
“That’s why it’s difficult to determine recovery time,” Lawrence explained. “For me, I had a concussion, but I didn’t know it. I was not aware that I was not thinking correctly. And my teammates, in all four of my concussions, were the ones that notified the trainers that I was not thinking correctly.”
Another time, he took a shot so severe that he suffered short-term memory loss over the 24 hours that followed. How can you remember not to forget what you can’t remember happening in the first place?
“I didn’t know my teammates’ names, my coaches’ names or the plays,” Lawrence said. “And it was a week before I could play again. So losing consciousness, it’s a different type of reaction to a head trauma. But if he is recovered, to a point, I could see him playing on Saturday.”