Imagine an old television set with rabbit ears for an antenna. The television transmits a good picture—crisp color, clear images. But one afternoon you give it a good whack on the side. The picture turns fuzzy. The more you hit your set, the more messed up it becomes, and soon it’s junk.
Concussions are almost as simple—brain function gets interrupted by a force to the head. The more often it occurs, the worse things become. And you can’t replace the apparatus.
For decades, the concussion problem in professional sports, and in particular football, has been overlooked. No more. Now, it is one of the biggest issues facing the NFL, as a long line of former players and relatives of former players have lined up to sue the league for failing to prevent or diagnose these devastating head injuries.
“Head Games,” a recently released documentary by director Steve James (of “Hoop Dreams” fame), has raised the alarm level higher. Optioned from the 2006 book “Head Games: Football’s Concussion Crisis,” written by former Harvard football player and professional wrestler Chris Nowinski, the film takes a hard look at concussions’ grisly place in sports: the ignorance, the brain trauma, and the deaths.
What’s behind the scenes in the film, though, is every bit as fascinating—and might end up having even more impact on the world of sports at every level. The chief financier of “Head Games” is a brawny Chicago-area optometrist/entrepreneur/multi-millionaire named Steve Devick, a man whose larger-than-life personality would not be out of place in a roomful of executive producers, and whose achievements, both personal and professional, might make for great documentary fodder.
Devick became involved in the concussion issue because of a graduate school thesis he co-wrote in 1976 for which he received a “B.” That project—now known as the King-Devick Test—has emerged as one of the most promising tools for rapid sideline concussion diagnosis. What’s both beautiful and confounding about the test is its simplicity: it’s administered on three spiral-bound laminated cards, takes less than a minute to complete, and is simply pass/fail.
Nearly 100 high schools (including the Chicago Public Schools), colleges, professional sports teams, and clinics across the world use it. Devick believes the test is so important, and his hopes for its efficacy are so high, that he insisted it go unmentioned in the film. He didn’t want anyone to think the film was promoting a product.
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The King-Devick Test was not designed to detect a concussion.
Back in 1976, while students at the Illinois College of Optometry, Devick and Alan King collaborated on their graduation thesis paper. King, from Dickinson, N.D., and Devick, from Downers Grove, had met in the classroom and quickly became close friends, drawn together by their passion both for sleight-of-hand magic tricks and for the study of reading disabilities and their relation to saccadic eye movement (extremely fast voluntary movement of the eyes). The 76-page paper provided a quick test to measure saccadic eye movement and determine whether poor reading performance was related to one’s ability to move one’s eyes efficiently.
It is remarkably simple:
More than three decades passed before Devick took notice of the correlation between saccadic eye movement and concussions—a connection he made in 2009 when he happened upon a study by a group of New Zealand physicians who found that in a certain number of post-concussion syndrome cases, the only physical defect was in that type of eye movement. The physicians had used an electro-ocular graph, which wasn’t thought to be a practical field test. Devick thought the King-Devick Test could help.
“I started thinking, because of this whole map of your brain that these eye movement pathways cover, that maybe it would give you an indication of a concussion,” Devick says. “So I went to the University of Pennsylvania. Their neurologist program was the best in the country, I was told.”
That move neatly embodies the competitive athlete and savvy businessman in Devick, who has made a career of finding opportunities where others haven’t.
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Devick is a hard guy to categorize.
A son of two teachers, he grew up along the Mississippi River near Keokuk, Iowa, and moved to Illinois at age 10 when his father, Royce Devick, became chairman of the music department for the Proviso High Schools. Devick became a dedicated weightlifter, and graduated from optometry school in 1976, but he cultivated other interests along the way. During optometry school he subdivided his father’s lot into two and built a spec house on part of it, and later he was involved in a golf course subdivision in St. Charles.
Devick was a founding investor in 1987 of the software company Platinum Technology, which eventually sold for $3.8 billion, and he followed that with the founding of Platinum Entertainment, which became the world’s largest publicly traded record label. Then there was Blue Rhino, the propane cylinder exchange company that eventually sold for $450 million in 2004. By the time he left optometry in the early 1990s, he was seeing patients only once a month.
The walls inside the modest first-floor office of Concert Hot Spot, Devick’s latest enterprise, located off I-38 West in Oak Brook Terrace, are covered in memorabilia from all his ventures: mounted record plaques from the likes of Billy Idol and the Blues Brothers, DVDs, the “Head Games” movie poster, and cardboard signage for the King-Devick Test.
At 60 years old, Devick hasn’t slowed down. In July he became the World Natural Powerlifting Federation bench press champion for men older than 60 who weigh less than 275 pounds. He competed in the championships at 40, when he got second place. At 50, he placed fifth, scratching on his last three lifts. He set a national record this summer.
“He’s just a real energetic man and very bright,” King says. “I’ve always had a lot of respect for his intelligence and integrity. That’s one of the reasons why we became really good friends because we were a lot alike in a lot of ways, except he has a lot more energy than I do.”
Devick owns 80 percent of the rights to “Head Games” and is listed as executive producer. He has been on the film festival circuit, but he says he has been hesitant to call attention to himself or the King-Devick Test, which is also used for dyslexia, ADHD and multiple sclerosis.
That doesn’t mean his hopes for the test are not high.
“What I think could happen with this and what I think should happen with this, not because I want to make a bunch of money, is that it ends up being like a thermometer,” Devick said. “When you go to the ER and a kid falls down the stairs, they can’t tell you he has a concussion…. So if you have your baseline result of your kid at home and they fall off their bike—which is the most common concussion in the country—you can tell if they had a concussion. There’s some things you need to do.”
Douglas Smith, director of the Center for Brain Injury and Repair at the University of Pennsylvania, has been working in traumatic brain injury for 20 years. In a recent interview, he stressed the importance of a remove-from-play protocol in youth sports and the need to have a diagnostic test that can be administered by coaches and administrators who lack extensive medical training. Devick has directed a consultant in Ireland to develop the King-Devick Concussion Screening Test iPad app and an online system, so schools will have the option of using that or the laminated cards.
“We need something akin to a pregnancy test: something that’s easy to do, obvious right away,” Smith says. “We are working on biomarkers for traumatic brain injury, but I don’t know if you’d see them on the sideline. You might have to wait a certain number of hours (for results). So you really need something that’s objective to screen people. Part of the problem is there’s a lot of competition out there. Hopefully the best method will prevail. The key is you have to balance what’s easy with what’s accurate with what people will comply with.”
Experts have been lining up behind the test. Two of Smith’s colleagues at Penn, neuro-ophthalmologists Steve Galetta and Laura Balcer, have authored papers on the test, including one on boxers and mixed martial arts fighters. Another team of New Zealand physicians used it on a team of rugby players, concluding that the test was not only helpful in identifying players with witnessed head trauma but also in players with an un-witnessed suspected concussion.
In his upcoming book, Robert Cantu, a neurologist and co-director at the Center of the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, also endorses the use of the King-Devick Test as a viable option for youth organizations. Even Ralph Nader’s League of Fans organization has pushed for the mandatory implementation of the King-Devick Test in all youth sports. Colleges like the University of Pennsylvania and University of Florida, as well as the Philadelphia Flyers and the U.S. military, have started using the test.
“We’ve been super-duper conservative about the rollout. It’s been scientifically done and peer-reviewed and all that stuff,” Devick says. “We didn’t want it to look like snake oil.”
Devick has kept in contact with King throughout the years and calls him regularly with updates on how their test is being used for concussion diagnosis. This business venture is unlike anything Devick has attempted before. It’s about more than making money, he says. It’s about safety, and it has the chance to save lives.
Whether it’s widely embraced remains to be seen, Devick says. But already it’s safe to say that the project has done pretty well for a college thesis that received a “B.”