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Former Bear, Hunter Hillenmeyer, Talks Concussions

Former Vanderbilt and Chicago Bears linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer had his NFL career cut short by concussions. Now a concussion safety advocate, Hillenmeyer previewed his three upcoming, open-to-the-public seminars in the Chicago area in coming weeks in an exclusive interview with NCSA.

Hillenmeyer will be joined by certified athletic trainers and orthopedic surgeons/sports injury specialists from Midwest Orthopedics at Rush, who are also team physicians for the Chicago Bulls and Chicago White Sox.

Hillenmeyer’s career ended hen he was placed on injured reserve on Sept. 14, 2010, while still feeling the effects of a concussion suffered during the preseason. He has since educated young athletes and their parents about the potentially devastating effects of concussions and the importance of treatment and recognizing symptoms while also pursuing his MBA at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University

The Centers for Disease Control reports that up to 3.8 million athletes will sustain a concussion every year. Emergency department visits for concussions increased 62 percent nationwide between 2001 and 2009. As a result, many states are implementing laws to reduce the long-term impact of concussions on the brains of young athletes. For example, one year ago, Illinois enacted its student-athlete concussion bill, requiring baseline screenings, parent-consent-to-play forms and concussion education for all coaches.

Hillenmeyer’s seminars, dubbed “Youth Sports Injury Prevention is the Name of the Game,” are free and open to the public, although seating is limited. For more information, visit: Dates and times are as follows:

  • Tuesday, Sept. 18, 7 p.m., Oak Park River Forest High School
  • Wednesday, Sept. 26, 7 p.m., Naperville North High School
  • Tuesday, Oct. 2, 7 p.m., Hinsdale Central High School

NCSA: What have you learned through your own experience with concussions that you didn’t know before?

HILLENMEYER: Concussions are such a tricky injury. There are dozens of symptoms, a lack of consensus, even amongst experts, about what a concussion is, and when you have one, you are usually not in the proper condition to self-report or make decisions about your own welfare. I had one in high school, one in college, and several with the Bears. I saw the pendulum swing from a total lack of understanding about the injury to a tidal wave of awareness and information about the risks of head injury, even just in my 8 years in the NFL.

I sat on the NFLPA Traumatic Brain Injury Committee and the Player Safety and Welfare committee, and even I didn’t feel fully equipped to handle that sort of injury in the right way. The culture around football’s “play at any cost” mentality has to change to make football a sustainable game for the next generation. Until that happens, participation rates will decline and it will only be a matter of time until football is relegated to sideshow status for a niche audience like UFC or boxing.

There’s no one easy solution, or it would be done already. It takes leadership from the NFL, but also buy-in from coaches, parents and administrators all the way down to the youth sport level.  Without that kind of buy-in, all the awareness being generated right now will serve to scare people away from football, rather than help to drive change within the game to make it more sustainable.

NCSA: What are the symptoms of a concussion?


  • Headache or ‘pressure’ in the head
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Balance problems or dizziness
  • Double or blurred vision
  • Sensitivity to light and noise
  • Feeling sluggish and/or groggy
  • Trouble concentrating or remembering
  • Confusion
  • Feeling down or ‘not right’

NCSA: What are the keys to preventing concussions?

HILLENMEYER: Wear appropriate protective gear during sports and other recreational activities.  An approved helmet for sports such as hockey and football is a must to prevent serious head injuries such as a skull fracture or a brain bleed.

At this time, however, a helmet that will prevent concussions does not exist. Mouth guards, head bands and straps have also not been shown to decrease concussion risk.

  • Make sure the equipment fits properly, is well maintained and worn correctly.
  • Avoid using the head as the point of contact. Football players should be instructed in proper tackling techniques. They should lead with the shoulder, rather than the head.
  • Participate in concussion education programs.
  • Ensure your school has a concussion policy and action plan in place.
  • Ensure you and your teammates follow the rules of the game and practice fair play.
  • Do not play if you are having symptoms of a concussion.
  • Do not let your teammates play if they have signs of a concussion or you suspect they may have a head injury.
  • Report your symptoms to your coach, athletic trainer, parents or team doctor.
  • Wait until all your symptoms have resolved before starting to work out again, and receive medical clearance before returning to sport (this is also the law in 39 states)

NCSA: How does an athlete know when it’s safe to resume competition?

HILLENMEYER: In 39 states, by law, an athlete may not return to play until he or she is cleared by a physician. Each case should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Some athletes can be cleared to play just weeks after a concussion, but some may take up to several months to be ready to go back to play.


Click here to create a recruiting profile in the NCSA Network and get the opportunity to connect with college coaches across the country , or call 866-579-6272 to speak to an NCAA-certified recruiting expert.

About the author
Aaron Sorenson