Making Football Safer
By Alex Cantatore
It all started with a seemingly simple freshman English assignment at Modesto’s Gregory High School: Write about a goal, a dream of yours.
Some kids wrote about getting bigger muscles. Others wrote about getting rich. Most were standard high schooler dreams, in short.
But Dominic Barandica’s essay was different.
“I wrote about making the sport I love safer,” Barandica said.
For Barandica, football is a passion. But he saw football as endangered, potentially falling out of fashion due to the danger of concussions.
The concussion epidemic is driving NFL pros to quit the game — by choice, or otherwise. And as scientists have learned more about the lasting impact of repeat concussions, some risk-averse parents are keeping their kids out of the sport entirely.
Losing the sport terrifies Barandica. He offers the normal reasons — it keeps kids off the street, provides an opportunity to learn about teamwork and yourself, and builds character. But it’s not what Barandica says about football’s benefits, it’s how he says it: With the conviction that lets you know what this sport truly means to him.
“I want to play football for as long as I can, and I want my friends to do so, too,” Barandica said.
Barandica turned in that freshman English essay, and his teacher pulled him aside. She said, “Dominic, you can do this.”
Barandica approached Modesto’s Doctors Medical Center with a plan. He suggested purchasing 36 new helmets for Gregori High School, featuring a new, high-tech concussion monitoring system.
The Riddel InSight Impact Response System helmets include five sensors, wirelessly connected to a monitoring device on the sideline. When a player undergoes a potentially serious impact, the helmet communicates to a doctor on the sidelines. Barandica wrote a grant application. He presented in-person, wowing the DMC board. And he won $10,000 for the trial program.
“We are pleased to partner with Modesto City Schools in a joint effort to improve the safety and well-being of our student athletes,” said Carin Sarkis, DMC Chief Business Development Officer.“We felt like funding the concussion software pilot was a logical fit for DMC as we work every day in the effort to improve the lives of everyone in our community.”
Barandica’s dad, Dr. Robert Barandica, an emergency room doctor at DMC, never played football. But he ended up on the sidelines of every Gregori game, volunteering to read the concussion sensors and assess players.
An athlete will try to push through everything, Dominic Barandica says. But the sensors give you another set of eyes on the field.
He tells about an offensive lineman who pulled out on a routine play, hit a linebacker, and tripped. He hit the ground, hard. The impact triggered a reading.
“He didn’t have the ball,” Dr. Robert Barandica said. “No one was watching him.”
These kind of off-the-ball collisions are the hardest to spot. But because of this system, the player was removed from the field and assessed, preventing a more dangerous second concussion.
A player isn’t removed from the field permanently, just because a sensor trips. There are false alarms, rarely. The sensor simply identifies a potential injury, letting a doctor know to assess the player and potentially clear him for return.
The sensors can also help players to learn to play safer. If a player is triggering sensors in practice, coaches know to teach that player.
Dominic Barandica says the concussion monitoring system has received nothing but positive feedback in the first year — mostly from the moms.
After a successful one-year trial, Barandica was asked to present to the Modesto City School Board. He asked to expand the program this year, with 18 helmets for every team.
“(Boardmember) Mr. (Steven) Grenbeaux stopped us and said, ‘This isn’t enough. We have to take this further, to every athlete,’” Barandica said.
This fall, each Modesto City School will receive 89 Riddel InSight helmets. The district will become become the third district in the state to offer the helmets district-wide, by far the largest such program in the state.
DMC remains a strong partner in the program; DMC orthopedic residents will be on the sidelines of every game, reading the sensors. And a special “Friday Night Clinic” program will have doctors and surgeons on staff to help injured football players immediately — regardless of insurance coverage.
Media coverage of Barandica has led to concussion-monitoring programs at other local schools. Big Valley Christian and Central Catholic high schools have adopted the helmets, and Barandica will present to a Kern County school district later this summer.
One day, Barandica hopes to become a trauma surgeon. But until then, he’ll play football as long as he can, knowing he did what he could to protect the sport that he loves.
“Football isn’t going anywhere, thank God,” Barandica said.