Head injuries are a growing problem for young athletes, but Luke Nelson’s trauma ended his football career — and almost his life.
It was late in the fourth quarter on the first Friday of September, and the game was close.
The Dassel-Cokato high school defense dug in on the line of scrimmage against Orono when suddenly, instead of setting himself for the play, linebacker Luke Nelson turned and staggered away.
Chargers coach Ryan Weinandt didn’t wait for a whistle. He bolted onto the field and rushed to the 16-year-old junior, helping him sit down.
“I’m hurtin’,” Nelson said, slurring his words.
From the home-side bleachers, Luke’s parents, Sara and Greg Nelson, saw their son rolled onto his side and figured he was vomiting. Then one of his legs suddenly straightened. Instinctively, they knew: He was in seizure.
Within 10 minutes, Nelson was loaded into an ambulance for the 15-mile trip west from Cokato to Meeker Memorial Hospital in Litchfield. Greg, a member of the Dassel Volunteer Fire Department, rode with his son.
No one knew for certain at the time, but Luke was bleeding on the brain, most likely from a hit during the game, and in danger of dying.
Concussions and head injuries have become the scourge of American football from the pro ranks through youth leagues. The effects range from players filing multimillion-dollar lawsuits claiming long-term brain damage to parents increasingly keeping their children from playing for fear of injuries like Luke’s.
Sara Nelson headed first toward Litchfield, alone in the family car. When the approaching ambulance emerged behind her, she pulled over unprepared for the emotions that hit her as it whizzed by, lights flashing and siren blaring.
“I just said, ‘God, please hang on to him.’ ”
Battling to live
About halfway through the ambulance ride, Luke looked at his dad and squeezed his hand. But things “headed south in a hurry” at the hospital, Greg said. Luke continued to seizure and struggled to maintain consciousness.
A scan showed bleeding on the brain. Luke was flown by helicopter to Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis. Shortly after midnight, surgeons began their work and discovered a scenario worse than expected: A vessel was still bleeding. Luke’s brain was under a lot of pressure.
To combat potentially fatal brain swelling, doctors removed a portion of Luke’s skull on the right side. Three hours later, they emerged to tell Sara and Greg that they had saved their son’s life.
“When he woke up, he was Luke,” Sara said. “He asked what happened. He was mad they lost the game. And he asked if he could play next week against Fairmont.”
Luke had suffered a subdural hematoma, or brain bleed, regarded as a moderate to severe brain injury. Initial news reports suggested his helmet had collided with the thigh of a bigger Orono player several plays before he collapsed. Doctors studied video of the game and could not conclusively pinpoint a hit that led to his downfall.
As a freshman, Luke had suffered a concussion in football practice. His parents held him out for the rest of the season. Doctors do not believe the two injuries are related.
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