PAULLINA, Iowa | Hours after the National Academy of Sciences releases a study about concussions in high school football on Wednesday, Gunnar Klinker prepares for a first-round playoff game at South O'Brien High School in Paullina, Iowa.
Klinker, 17, doesn't don a helmet or shoulder pads. He slips a stocking cap on his head and a sweatshirt over his shoulders. He cheers from the sidelines this night, his football career over.
Klinker suffered a concussion while blocking a linebacker from Hartley-Melvin-Sanborn on Oct. 4. He stays in the game for one more play, and barely nudges from his three-point stance. When he does, he staggers right instead of left, as the play, "25 Option," suggests.
It is not a mistake this "A" student and class president would make under normal conditions.
These aren't normal conditions.
After getting to the sideline, assistant coach Jayme Rozeboom asks Klinker how he feels. Head pounding, Klinker bursts into tears.
"I was coming to the realization that it was a concussion," Klinker says. "I'd talked to my parents before and we had decided that, based on my history and my brother Knute's, I'd be done if I got one more."
Knute Klinker, now 21 and a junior at Iowa State University, fought for two years to get past the lingering effects of four concussions; he suffered one in wrestling, two in football and one while snowmobiling. The jarring hit Knute Klinker takes on his snowmobile comes on the eve of the district wrestling meet his senior year. He'd advanced to the state tournament the year before.
"He couldn't wrestle in districts as a senior because of the concussion," his younger brother remembers.
It's also how Gunnar Klinker's wrestling season ended eight months ago. With a record of 24-5, Klinker klunks his head on the mat while wrestling at Vermillion, S.D. It marks his last competition in a contact sport until this fall.
The National Academy of Sciences notes that 250,000 concussions among high schoolers were reported to emergency rooms four years ago. That number far exceeds the 2001 total of 150,000.
Increased incidents can be traced to heightened awareness concerning head trauma in the wake of a high-profile lawsuit involving former National Football League stars such as Jim McMahon and Tony Dorsett, two of more than 4,500 plaintiffs who settle with the NFL on Aug. 29 for $765 million.
In the settlement, the NFL agrees to pay for medical treatment for its former players, as well as for ongoing research, like Wednesday's report. The league also institutes safety measures to protect current players. Penalties, fines and ejections, particularly for upper-body hits and targeted helmet-to-helmet collisions, flow from the NFL to the college ranks and below.
The Iowa High School Athletic Association runs ahead of the train, requiring in 2011 that all athletes in grades 7-12 join their parents in reading "Heads Up: Concussion in High School Sports" before starting competition. Gunnar Klinker reads it before each school year, including this one. He signs it, as do his parents, Bill and Dianne Klinker of Primghar, Iowa.
The junior football player, a two-way starter enjoying a banner season for the 9-1 Class 1A District 1 champions, has since come to terms with his football fate. Though he's relegated to supporting his teammates from the sidelines, his passion for his team and the sport won't wane.
He still shows enthusiasm for the type of contact that knocked him out and continues to plague him with early-morning headaches.
"I understand the rules changes to make it safer," he says. "But as a fan, I love the contact. Going into it, I knew the risks that go along with playing football. I was unlucky. I still love the game for what it is."
Before I meet Klinker, I have doubts about the future of this sport. The high school team I follow each week, Woodbury Central, has six players sidelined with concussions during the season. While writing a column two weeks ago on Seth Wheeler, a defensive tackle from OABCIG High School returning from his second concussion, I learn he suffers a third concussion in his comeback bid. Klinker tells me of a teammate who returns to the Wolverine lineup after suffering a concussion.
The risks are inherent in a contact sport, Klinker argues. Athletes make a conscious decision to play a rough-and-tumble game. They run, they block, they tackle.
To borrow a metaphor from another sport, he throws me a curve ball. Rather than wallow in pity about his fate, Klinker says his sport will endure. He remains "pumped" about football and wrestling, the other sport he can now only watch.
"I plan to help coach youth wrestling this winter," he says, pulling his stocking cap over his head. "And I know my role for the football team. I'm there to give the guys encouragement."
He stands tall on Wednesday, cheering on the Wolverines in a 28-0 triumph. He'll assume the same position on Monday night as his sport rolls on.