Family of ex-Altoona athlete wants to spread word on the dangers of concussions

Joey Mummert was a football standout at Altoona Area High School.

He always had somewhere to go, something to do. The people who knew him or knew of him ran the gamut from football and baseball teammates to popular girls at school who knew him also for his ever-present smile, to people who were purely fans of the game and would recognize him by his helmet and No. 21 jersey at Mansion Park.

He was a young man with a full life ahead of him but one whose life had become eroded by football disappointment that his family and friends believe was magnified by multiple concussions that began well before his playing days at Altoona and then Shippensburg University.

Earlier this summer, on June 22, Mummert died when he “lost his fight with depression,” according to his older brother, P.J.

Joey Mummert was 24.

Concussion history

His obituary in the Mirror noted that memorial contributions could be made to the Penn State Center for Sport Concussion Research and Service. Mummert hadn’t been treated there, but his family thought perhaps their brother and son’s death could help save someone else and raise awareness on the dangers of concussions.

“I [initially] thought it [concussion] was a glorified headache,” Joey’s father, Paul, was saying quietly during an interview with the Mirror on a warm July morning under a pavilion at Valley View Park. “Knowing the circumstances and outcomes of head injuries as we know them today, I don’t think he would have stepped on the field in his high school years. Not a chance.”

Paul said he later learned from a neurologist who treated his son that concussions can cause depression.

Joey’s first concussion did not come on the football field. It came during a tubing accident when he was 11 or 12 years old at Blue Knob.

In total, he had four diagnosed concussions that resulted in hospital visits and days missed from school. Two were from skiing or tubing, and the two others came in football – one in eighth grade, during a game at Tyrone, the other during his junior year at Mansion Park.

In consenting to an interview, the Mummerts made it clear, “We aren’t trying to blame anybody” for Joey’s death and were supportive of the coaching and the care he received at Altoona Area High School.

“They kept him out of activities. We did what we had to,” older brother P.J., a former Mountain Lion player himself, said. “The thing with Joey is he was an athlete. He was a high school kid, and nothing was going to stop him. If he didn’t lose consciousness, he played through it. It was the undiagnosed ones that caused the most damage.”

Joey’s mother, Tina Brumbaugh, recalled a 2006 game in which Mummert was noticeably woozy and was diagnosed with a concussion.

“He ended up kneeling in the middle of the field between plays because he thought he was going to throw up,” she said. “After being taken out, Joey chased the trainer up and down the sidelines, begging the trainer to go back in.”

He sat the rest of that game and the next two as a precaution.

A running back and defensive back, Joey was on a team with several Mountain Lion players who made their marks in college and beyond. One of them, Neal Huynh, is beginning his first season in the National Football League with the Atlanta Falcons.

Huynh (pronounced Winn) felt Mummert’s style of play may have contributed to potential head injuries.

“He was a great player, a great friend,” Huynh, a defensive tackle who signed a free-agent contract in May, said. “He played fast and hard; he was one of the more aggressive players. Some of the concussions resulted from his aggressive play, but he wouldn’t have had it any other way.”

Joey was not a great student, and his brother said he sometimes fell asleep in class.

“He’d doze off here and there,” Huynh said. “In retrospect, I

didn’t know if it was because he wasn’t liking school so much or if it was a symptom.”

P.J. believes his brother had more concussions that went undiagnosed, and as a freshman at Shippensburg, where he received a partial scholarship, Joey told P.J., and only P.J., that he suffered a concussion at training camp.

That’s when his football career ended, but Mummert never stopped envisioning himself, realistically or not, playing at a higher level.

When he was being treated for depression, doctors asked him what his life goals were.

“To get drafted,” P.J. said, repeating Joey’s often-discussed vision. “The doctor couldn’t get it off him. He felt like he was letting us down because he wasn’t going pro.”

Can lead to depression and worse

From 2001 to 2008 – spanning Joey’s football career from junior high school to being a first-year player at Shippensburg – the number of annual traumatic brain injury-related emergency room visits increased from 153,375 to 248,418, with the highest rates among males ages 10-19 years, according to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Other studies show the repercussions of concussions sustained by people of all walks of life.

People in the military who suffer more than one mild traumatic brain injury face a significantly higher risk of suicide, according to research released this year by the National Center for Veterans Studies at the University of Utah.

In that study, a survey of 161 military personnel evaluated for a possible traumatic brain injury showed that the risk for suicidal thoughts or behaviors increased not only over a 12-month period but during the individual’s lifetime. And the risk of suicidal thoughts increased significantly with the number of TBIs, a summary of the study states.

Another study published this year states depression symptoms most strongly linked to concussions were feelings of sadness, guilt and critical self-evaluation. That’s according to the Center for BrainHealth at The University of Texas at Dallas.

Though Joey developed other interests such as music and rapping, he never lost the dream of playing professional football – even five years after his career ended and despite consistent confirmation from his family that it was unrealistic and unimportant.

“We never expected that from him,” P.J. said.

Raising awareness

Media attention of how concussions have debilitated NFL players and drove them to suicide, such as San Diego star Junior Seau, as well as studies on the effects of head injuries have led to more careful treatment of concussion symptoms that have trickled down to youth leagues.

The CDC study suggests increasing awareness of traumatic brain injury risks from sports and recreation, employing proper technique and protective equipment, and quickly responding to injuries, the incidence, severity and long-term negative health effects of TBIs among children and adolescents can be reduced.

Though the Mummert family hopes that Joey’s death brings a local awareness that the dangers of concussions are real, small crowds are drawn to concussion management seminars, athletic trainer Dan Picarella of Drayer Physical Therapy said.

Only about 10 parents and students attended the most recent seminar in March, he said.

He said education for parents and players is important because aside from being knocked unconscious, people responsible for diagnosing concussions can’t always tell what a player is suffering.

“There are symptoms like eye-squinting or slurring words,” Picarella said. “The more we teach them about underlying symptoms, the better the chances that they come to the sidelines to report them.”

Low attendance for concussion management seminars may be disappointing, but since last school year, parents and athletes have been required to be educated as a result of a new state law.

Effective last season, the Safety in Youth Sports Act of 2012 began requiring student-athletes and their guardians to annually sign a document stating they reviewed a concussion and traumatic brain injury information sheet developed by the state.

The multiple concussions Joey received started in his Hollidaysburg Area Youth Football days, his father believes. Last football season, 10 Hollidaysburg Area seventh-graders were treated for concussions, school athletic trainer Amy Smearman said.

Smearman said the number of concussions was higher than past years – most likely, she said, because players are becoming more informed of symptoms and are reporting them.

“Concussions are tricky because they can be subjective,” she said. “Staggering or loss of consciousness is an obvious sign of a concussion. They’ll say, ‘I got hit in the head, and now I have a headache.’ It relies heavily on the individual. Then, I’ve had players with concussions who don’t know they are showing the symptoms and brush it off. It can go both ways.”

Helmet inspection vital

While trainers and coaches say helmets are designed to prevent concussions, their inspection is crucial.

All of the helmets worn by the seventh-graders who were injured by concussions did not pass inspection by Riddell and were disposed, Hollidaysburg Superintendent Robert Gildea said.

The school board purchased a combination of new helmets that are touted as top of the line – some from the maker Schutt and others from Riddell including Revolution and Revolution Speed models.

But speaking from 15 years of experience as a certified athletic trainer, Dan McCallister of Drayer said there have been “a lot more cases of concussions in the past five to 10 years even though helmets have improved.”

He said a reason for the increase in concussions that he sees could be a byproduct of strength and conditioning programs that have become more effective at producing bigger, faster athletes over the past 20 years. “We’ve created bigger athletes, so we have bigger collisions,” he said.

McCallister, a veteran trainer of Altoona athletes, sees more rule changes to the game coming in the future to help prevent concussions.

“As much as we enjoy the game the way it is, 10 years from now, it will change,” he said. “I don’t know how, but it will definitely change.”

Law spreads responsibility

As a trainer, Picarella is on the field during games when concussions might happen. He said a state law that has been active since 2012 helps trainers do their job by spreading responsibility for concussion management to the coaches.

The Safety in Youth Sports Act requires coaches to be trained in concussion management, and this season coaches will face a season-long suspension if they fail to immediately sideline a player exhibiting concussion symptoms determined by a game official, coach or licensed athletic trainer.

The same penalty is dispensed to a coach who returns a player to participation without written clearance from medical professionals. Second violations equal a two-season suspension, and a third violation leads a coach to permanent suspension from coaching any athletic activity.

The CDC’s “Heads Up: Concussion in Youth Sports” online training course taken by coaches states that supporting a student recovering from a concussion requires a collaborative approach among school professionals, healthcare professionals, parents and students.

The Hollidaysburg Area school board this year is urging parents to contact school nurses so that the child can be accommodated as they recover from concussions. Altoona Area High School Athletic Director Phil Riccio said Altoona is formulating a similar policy.

“It’s always good to have a coach on your side,” Picarella said. “Instead of putting all the weight on the doctor and the trainer, it puts responsibility on the coach.”

Riccio, Altoona’s coach when Mummert played for the Lions, sees “more mandates coming” to improve safety, noting the NCAA’s new “targeting” rule that will eject players if they unleash high hits.

“The way it’s played will be mandated a little, but it will still be a tough, physical game,” he said.

Altoona coaches tiptoe around terms such as “smash-mouth” football, a term meaning relentless running and hard-nosed defense as opposed to spread offenses and soft defenses.

“Our coaches are coached up on terms and how to look at things,” Riccio said. “They’ve become cautious of words and that what they are expressing promotes both sportsmanship and safety.”

Picarella said school districts have also improved their medical equipment.

While CT and MRI scans are helpful in identifying serious brain injuries, they are ineffective at identifying the functional effects of concussions, he said.

In recent years, school districts have purchased computer software designed to administer sophisticated tests of cognitive abilities to help clinicians evaluate an individual’s recovery following a concussion.

“A lot of schools are realizing the potential, but it is still just a tool used by doctors,” Picarella said.

“Once a doctor clears a student to transition back to play, the athlete begins a five-day ‘return to play protocol’ with phases ranging from light physical exercise to full sport participation.”

If symptoms repeat, the athlete must go back to the previous phase.

‘A special individual’

After his days at Shippensburg, Joey returned home and worked some odd jobs while trying to find himself. He continued to work out. His family did not suspect him of doing drugs or abusing alcohol.

“It’s hard for me to register it,” Huynh said.

A framed photo of five players in uniform from Altoona’s 2007 team walking out of the Mansion Park locker room for a game including No. 21 hangs above Riccio’s desk.

“I have a lot of respect for Joey – the way he worked hard and the type of outgoing young man that he [was],” Riccio said. “He [was] a special individual.”

Riccio isn’t alone in his sentiments.

Paul said he’s been “overwhelmed” by the support his family has received.

People lined out the doors and around the back of the Good Funeral Home in Altoona to pay their last respects, and two of Mummert’s closest friends, former football teammate D.J. Patterson and former baseball teammate Steve St. John, organized a fundraiser at Pellegrine’s Lounge to help the family cover funeral costs.

The event included musical acts including rap performances by St. John and Patterson. More than 200 people attended.

Prior to the event, held July 26, Patterson, St. John and Mummert’s cousin, Justin Heidler, who designed T-shirts for the fundraiser, talked fondly about Mummert’s good-natured troublemaking, athletic ability and his friendly personality.

“If you needed a penny and all he had to give was a penny, he’d give it to you,” Heidler said.

Patterson and St. John nodded in agreement.

For Paul’s 47th birthday, which was also Father’s Day, Joey offered a prayer during dinner to thank God for the kind of man his father is. “[It made me feel] blessed to have a kid like him,” Paul said.

The next week, Joey was found dead.

“Every day, there is that …,” Paul said, stopping abruptly and looking away as tears welled. “Empty.” He composed himself.

“No matter how you get there, concussions or whatever,” Paul Mummert said, “It [depression] is a deep, dark disease that needs a lot more attention.”

Mirror Staff Writer Russ O’Reilly is at 946-7435.