Bucks County Herald

Parents appeal for age limit on contact sports

DANA M. ECKMAN

"In the medical community, we hear the mantra: ‘First, do no harm,’ but when we look at schools and universities, we only wish they could say the same," Doug Zegal began last Tuesday night, as he addressed the Central Bucks School Board and administration during the public comment portion of the meeting.

"The very institutions that are responsible for the nurturing and developing of precious brains are often simultaneously destroying them," he added.

The benefits of fresh air, physical exercise and teamwork in school athletics are certainly well documented, but so, too, are the dangers for the brains of collision sports like football, hockey, soccer, lacrosse and others.

"Football camp is set to begin here in two weeks and once again, we’ll be putting children in harm’s way," Zegal said.
His wife, Karen, knows a little something about this.

Her son, Patrick was a standout high school running back carrying his team to the Pennsylvania state championship his senior year.

Back then, she said, "we had no idea the price this tough, young athlete was paying for his success and brief fame."
It was the destruction of his brain.

She blames her son’s suicide in 2014 on CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, found in autopsies of many former football players. CTE is caused by repetitive head trauma.

Patrick Risha was a coach’s son and a football star in a Western Pennsylvania town deeply engrained in the game and then went to the Ivy League at Dartmouth graduating in 2006.

"He came home a changed man," Karen said.

Ten years out of college, Patrick struggled to manage the demands of his daily life and his frustrations grew. He hung himself at age 32.

Patrick was diagnosed post-mortem with CTE.

“Our job as parents is to keep our son out of harm’s way and provide him with educational opportunities that would give him a great chance at being a productive and happy citizen," Karen said. "You have the same job as board members. Sadly, when we signed Patrick up for football, we put him in harm’s way. We didn't know back then."

The Zegels’ visit to the school board was meant to deliver a message to members: No rough contact in youth sports under 14.

The Zegels and other families are pushing for federal legislation to govern contact in youth sports.

Karen and Doug Zegel have started an organization, the Patrick Risha CTE Awareness Foundation, and a website, StopCTE.org, where they offer support for other families. Their mission, they say, is twofold: getting parents of young athletes to understand the risks of impact sports in childhood and to get medical examiners to look for CTE in those who have died. CTE also has been found in people who did not play contact sports.

“We’re asking for no repetitive head trauma, no heading in soccer, no tackling in rugby or football, no checking in hockey until the age of 14,” Doug said.

District Superintendent John Kopicki said he will engage in further discussion with the couple on the topic.

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