RALEIGH — Markiest Waller, whose younger brother died of a football-related concussion in 2009, rejoiced Thursday at the signing of a bill designed to protect young athletes from head injuries.
The Gfeller-Waller Concussion Act was signed into law by Gov. Bev Perdue in the old House of Representatives chamber of the State Capitol as North Carolina became the 21st state to have a concussion law.
"It has been a long road," Waller said. "But the bill passed. People working together can accomplish great things."
The act previously had been endorsed by every member of the North Carolina House and Senate.
Kevin Guskiewicz, a UNC professor and the director of the Matthew Gfeller Sport-Related Traumatic Brain Injury Research Center, said the law is the best in the country.
"It has such a strong educational component," he said. "I suspect we will hear from other states wanting to copy it."
The N.C. High School Athletic Association, which administers public school high school athletics in the state, adopted a concussion policy soon after Jaquan Waller, a junior at Greenville Rose, and Matthew Gfeller, a sophomore playing his first varsity football game at Winston-Salem Reynolds, died in August 2009 while playing in football games.
The Gfeller-Waller Act extends protections into middle school athletics and adds education and emergency planning requirements.
The law has three thrusts.
The law requires athletes at North Carolina public high schools and middle schools to be removed from participation if there is a suspicion that the athlete has had a concussion. The athlete cannot return to participation until being cleared by a medical professional.
Public high school and middle school coaches, trainers, athletes and parents will receive information about concussions each year.
Schools will be required to formulate emergency action plans.
"These are things that we should have already been going," Perdue said.
The law might have prevented Waller's death.
The junior running back suffered a concussion in practice on a Wednesday but played two days later against Wilmington Hoggard. A hit during the game induced a lethal case of second-impact syndrome, which occurs when there is a second concussion before a first one has healed.
Markiest Waller said he can understand why his younger brother wanted to play.
"It was Friday night lights. That's what he lived for," he said. "He had been the offensive player of the game the year before against Hoggard. Rose had won back-to-back-to-back state titles. He thought he was the man to get it going again."
Working for passage of the bill has forced Markiest Waller to relive the events of that night over and over.
"The only way I could get through it was with faith," he said. "You don't get over it, you get through it. Two teenagers died because they were playing sports. That's tough to handle. But with this law, maybe some other families won't have this type of tragedy. I have to look back and see how much good has come."
Unlike Waller, Gfeller's injury came from a single blow, and the new law would not have helped deal with that type of injury.
Guskiewicz said the law will help thousands of youngsters and not just those involved in middle school and interscholastic athletics.
"Hopefully, what starts at the high school and middle school level filters down to little league, Pop Warner and youth soccer," he said.
"We absolutely have to eliminate the idea of someone having their bell rung or getting a little dinged. We have to raise the awareness of the severity of concussions, and this law does that."
Concussions, which are traumatic brain injuries, can be difficult to assess. They are caused when the brain is shaken inside the skull. The trauma causes a change in the way the brain works. Electrical and chemical processes are altered.
Ashlee Pentony, an Apex High graduate whose college soccer career at Wingate was ended by a series of concussions, said the law will help people understand concussions better.
She was knocked unconscious during a high school soccer game in April 2008. She sat out two weeks to heal but suffered another concussion when she returned to play. She suffered another concussion while playing at Wingate and eventually had to give up soccer and temporarily drop classes because of the effects of the repeated concussions.
"I like that the bill will help people understand concussions more," said Pentony, who still has some concussion effects such as headaches. "My grades fell, and it was pretty bad. We really have to educate people."
Markiest Waller said he misses his younger brother every day. Markiest still goes to the gravesite regularly.
"I just sit there and talk just like I am to you," he said.
Thursday, he had some good news to share.
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