Grey takes winning approach to concussions

It was easy to see why Arie Grey was named the Class AA Coach of The Year at the end of the 2012 football season.

Grey led the Bulldogs to their first State championship in 21 years, and his team captured the heart and soul of Butte Rats past and present.

The reason Grey should have also been named the National Coach of The Year was standing on the sidelines as the Bulldogs won that championship in the most improbable fashion on that cold November night at Naranche Stadium.

Jake Eisenbarth was one of Butte High’s best players. He was a beast of a running back, putting up a 1,000-yard season the hard-nosed way. He was also a great defensive player.

When they Bozeman Hawks came to town for the title game, though, Eisenbarth wore jeans with his No. 8 jersey.

A couple of days after the Bulldogs beat CMR in the semifinal game, Eisenbarth told Grey that he was feeling symptoms of a concussion. The player knew this because he had dealt with it before.

Grey didn’t hesitate, he sent Eisenbarth to go see Butte High trainer Michelle Gardner, knowing that it almost certainly meant the Bulldogs would be down a difference maker in the biggest Butte High football game in a generation.

“He didn’t have major symptoms,” Gardner said of Eisenbarth. “He sent him to me knowing he would be out. Arie never questioned it. I think that’s very admirable. Most coaches wouldn’t have done that.”

Gardner told that to a handful of people wanting to learn more about concussions and how coaches should deal with them last night at the Butte High auditorium.

The presentation, dubbed, “Concussions and Coaching Strategies,” featured talks by Gardner, Grey, Butte Dr. Nick DiGiovine and Chris Heard of Montana Sports Medicine.

“Concussions are serious injuries,” DiGiovine told the crowd. “They need to be attended to.”

DiGiovine heads the St. James Healthcare Montana Sports Medicine program that contracts with Butte High, Butte Central, Twin Bridges High School, Anaconda High School and Montana Tech. He detailed the procedure players go through from the time they suffer a concussion until they return to the field or court.

DiGiovine pointed out that 90 percent of concussions don’t involve the athlete being knocked unconscious.

He directed the parents and coaches in the crowd to a website that has tools to help them identify and deal with concussions.

He warned of the dangers of players returning too soon after a concussion.

Did you know that high school athletes are at greater risk of suffering second impact syndrome because their brains are still developing? Did you know that second impact syndrome can kill young athletes?

“Fifty percent die and the other 50 percent have very serious life-long disabilities,” Dr. DiGiovine said.

After DiGiovine enlightened the crowd, Grey and Gardner talked about how Butte High greatly reduced the number of concussions at Butte High while the Bulldogs had great success on the field.

In 2010, the first year of the concussion program, Butte High’s football team saw 19 players suffer concussions, Gardner said. Of those,16 were suffered came in practice.

In 2012, the Bulldogs saw seven concussions, and only one came in practice.

“It’s hard for me to tell a parent their kid got hurt on a Monday or a Tuesday or a Wednesday,” Grey said. “I don’t want to make the phone call to say their son got hurt because of something we did.”

Grey, who said he spoke from experience of having concussions as a player, decided a few years ago to study how and when his Bulldogs were getting injured, and he did something about the results. Grey cut down his practices. He almost completely eliminated all-out tackling in practice.

“That doesn’t mean we don’t hit and we don’t wear pads,” Grey said. “We just don’t full-out hurt each other.”

Grey said they don’t take players to the ground because that is often when concussions occur. Butte High sometimes practices tackling on high jump mats.

Grey bought into the belief that his athletes don’t have to beat up on each other to be better football players.

Gardner had some proof to back up that philosophy.

She pointed out John Garliardi, the former football coach at Saint John’s University in Collegeville, Minn. Garliardi’s players hardly ever hit at practice, and the coach has won more games than any other college coach.

She pointed to Minnesota prep coach Mike Grant, a Missoula native who won seven State championships in Minnesota employing the same philosophy. She pointed to Grey, who embraces much of those same philosophies.

“You can do well without really hitting all the time,” Gardner said. “They want their best players on the field. If their best players are getting hurt n practice, you’re not going to win games.”

Grey, who outlined his weekly practice schedule for the audience, said his shorter practices rely on tempo. They have the added bonus of keeping players ready to go for Friday night.

“Friday night we can hit,” Grey said, pointing out he doesn’t follow the old-school, tough-guy approach. “When we play we are going to have our guys fresh and healthy.”

Monday’s presentation was filled with too much information to put in one story. The only downfall was that it was only presented to a room of about 25 people, and that included the staff from St. James Healthcare’s Montana Sports Medicine program, some Butte High coaches and officials and the media — me.

That’s not surprising since Senate Bill 112, the anti-concussion bill that basically makes the rest of the state start to follow in the footsteps of the Montana Sports Medicine program, goes to the governor’s desk this week with hardly a peep.

People are all ears when talking about the former NFL players who commit suicide after years of concussions. Some coaches, parents and fans just don’t want to believe that concussions are killing our kids, too.

The few coaches who were there asked some great questions and took a ton of life-saving knowledge home with them.

“When in doubt, hold them out,” DiGiovine told them. “If you have any doubt, error on the side of safety.”

DiGiovine, Grey, Gardner and Heard didn’t seem overly discouraged by the lack of turnout for their presentation. Even though they say there is a long way to go as far as concussion education is concerned, they say that concussion awareness is trickling down.

“We have players turning in other kids who are concussed,” DiGiovine said. “We have them concerned for the welfare of each other. That’s a sign that it’s working.”

Everyone in the auditorium seemed concerned that it is not working fast enough, though. The dangers of players in Little Guy Football and junior high football were brought up.

“We want it in Little Guy Football,” DiGiovine said of a concussion program. The doctor pointed out that young players who suffer concussions often end up leaving the sport.

“We don’t want them concussed,” the doctor said. “Of the 19 (Butte High) lost in our first year, I’m not sure we got some of them back.”

At the end of the nearly two-hour discussion, DiGiovine praised the coaches, players and parents who bought into the program.

“Everyone involved has acted appropriately and in the best interest of the athletes,” the doctor said. “I can’t be more pleased that the program was as well received by all parties.”

In particular, the doctor praised Grey.

“It’s paying dividends right now,” DiGiovine said Grey’s concussion approach at Butte High. “It affects how he practices, how he plays, how he wins.”

— Sportswriter Bill Foley writes a column that appears on on Tuesdays. Email him at Follow him at