CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta Kicks Up Reality in Big Hits, Broken Dreams

Dwight DrumCorrespondent IIIFebruary 13, 2012

Dr. Sanjay Gupta smiles for viewers.  Photo credit: Mark Hill / CNN
Dr. Sanjay Gupta smiles for viewers. Photo credit: Mark Hill / CNN

Perhaps more than any other injury description, the following words have echoed more frequently year after year across high school, college and professional football fields during practice and games—He only "got his bell rung," he’ll be okay.

But contemporary research has turned that notion on its head.

The NFL has recently initiated strict sideline concussion rules and cognitive tests administered by trainers and doctors. Coaching staffs cannot overrule their decisions.

CNN’s chief medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, was intrigued by this subject. From that came the CNN documentary 'Big Hits, Broken Dreams' that spotlights the case of Jaquan Waller, a 16-year-old football player from Greenville, N.C., who died of concussive blows.

That program will replay February 25 at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. ET. For late night viewers, it will also replay at 2 a.m. ET Feb. 26 on CNN.

Dr. Gupta focused on concussions in high school football while he and his team consumed a year of research and production completing the documentary.

Those who administered high school sports programs were like NFL officials, who for many decades were unaware of the nature and real consequences of player concussions.

During an NFL teleconference, coaching and broadcasting legend John Madden talked about the mentality that all coaches had for many years

“Don’t hurt your ankle or don’t hurt your knee—where you can’t run,” Madden said. “Or don’t hurt your shoulder where you can’t tackle. But your head, heck— that will clear up in a couple minutes. You’ll be okay. We were all that way.

Dr. Gupta and team at work on a high school football field.   Photo courtesy of CNN
Dr. Gupta and team at work on a high school football field. Photo courtesy of CNN


“When I went into broadcasting I still had that. Then you see the seriousness of it.

“The helmet has gotten bigger. The facemask has gotten bigger. The more helmet to helmet, you see how dangerous it is and you see what it’s doing. You become educated and you change.

“You think I did some dumb things when I was a coach? I probably said a lot of dumb things in broadcasting. If I were to do either one of them over again, I wouldn’t do it again.”

Professional football at the NFL level is the nation’s number one sport, and football in high school and college is immensely popular as well.

Also on the NFL teleconference, Dr. Richard Ellenbogen, Co-Chair, NFL Head, Neck and Spine Committee and Chairman of Neurosurgery at University of Washington School of Medicine, explained the significance of concussions at all levels.

“This affects three million kids,” Ellenbogen said. “We’re talking about one to three million concussions that are occurring per year in sports related events. Probably 40 million kids playing sports, which we think is good, but we want to make it safer.

“There is a huge trickle down from the NFL all the way down to girls’ volleyball and girls’ hockey and boys’ baseball. So our goal is to try to develop the education, let people know that 90 percent of the people that get concussions, don’t get knocked out.

“If in doubt, we’re going to sit the player out.”

This reporter thanks CNN for this special interview opportunity with Dr. Sanjay Gupta.


Dr. Sanjay Gupta described the nature of their filming in the aftermath of Jaquan Waller’s death due to concussion.

“It’s challenging,” Gupta said. “I think simply just the school district where Jaquan Waller died three years ago. This is a town that Sports Illustrated called, Sports Town USA. When you go to these towns where so much of their culture, so much of their values, their self-value is determined by their athletics. It can be a very exciting place, but when something like this happens it really threw the town into a tailspin for a long time.

“I think one of the challenging things to production was basically getting them to open up the doors, unrestricted, no strings attached access. That was what we really wanted. It was painful, I think for them to think about Jaquan and what had happened to their football program. I think once they did it, they realized what we were trying to do with the documentary. I think in the end they were very happy with it, certainly, very okay with it.”

Dr. Gupta also explained the concussion process in a very understandable way.

“In a football game when someone takes a hard hit, the helmet does a pretty good job of protecting the skull from getting a skull fracture,” Gupta said. “But what is really happening when someone is running down the field and all the sudden they get hit—the brain keeps moving inside the skull.

“So think about it as a yolk inside an egg shell, the egg yolk is moving and it hits the front of the egg shell. It bounces back and hits the back of the egg shell and goes back and forth. The same thing is happening to your brain. So it's not so much the hit, although that it is very important, what is really causing the problem is what is known as acceleration/deceleration.


“So the brain is accelerating as you are moving down the field and then suddenly it decelerates and that's what causes concussion.”

Gupta expected a resistance to changing football programs to reduce the chance of concussion death during the filming of ‘Big Hits, Broken Dreams,’ but was surprised.

“What I found was the coach, who had been the head coach when Jaquan Waller died—he very much got it,” Gupta said. “He is a football player through and through. He had been playing since he was a young kid. He loves it, everything about him breathes football.

“I sat down and said: ‘The school district coming to you and saying either you change or the football program is done.’ He said: 'That's not it. I didn't want Jaquan Waller to die. His phone number is still on my phone four years later. I think about that kid every day. And I will do whatever it takes to not let that happen again.’

“I think if there is any ray of optimism in the sort of culture-changing, not to change football, but to make it a safer game so it preserves the game and the players that play it. Coach Lipe is a pretty good example of that. That was a little surprising to me.”

Madden echoed the concern for education.

“This whole player safety issue we’ve been looking at for some time—concussions are right at the top. We want to do anything just to promote awareness, awareness on all levels. If we can do it in the NFL we think we can get a trickle to college, high school and youth football, just all football players. What a concussion is and being aware, when you get one, you can’t play anymore.”

Parents and fans can learn more by watching ‘Big Hits, Broken Dreams’ replay February 25 at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m ET. For late night viewers it will also replay at 2 a.m ET Feb. 26 on CNN