Family draws on son's suicide to teach concussion awareness

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YARDLEY, Pa. (AP) — Graham and Cathy Thomas really had two options.

They could let the tragedy of their son taking his own life consume them, or they could use it to help keep others from experiencing depression from brain injuries.

They chose the latter.

Their teenage son, Willy Alexander "Zander" Thomas, the oldest of four children, was a star hockey player.

He did everything he could to excel on the ice, both for Team Comcast in Pennsauken, New Jersey, and at Pennington School in Pennington, New Jersey, where he helped the school achieve one of its best seasons when he was just a freshman.

Hockey was his life.

Because of his skill level, he traveled across the country and to Canada, honing his craft with Team Comcast, a high-level, travel hockey club.

A hockey phenom since he was a child, he took a year off from playing before entering high school to work on becoming an elite athlete. He had trainers, including former NHL star Eric Brule and ex-Philadelphia Eagle Vaughn Hebron. They weren't interested in getting him to become a great hockey player, his dad said, but in helping him become a top-notch athlete.

When he entered high school, Zander took his strength and conditioning to the rink. He worked on his stickhandling and his shooting; he'd do his best to get stronger, faster, smarter, better.

No matter what team he was playing for, Zander starred on the ice during his freshman, sophomore and junior seasons, both for his high school and club teams.

Zander believed hockey was going to take him places.

"He loved it; he always had all the best equipment, the best shin guards, the best gloves, he had everything you could imagine," his dad said. "He always wanted to be better, but he always had fun."

Hockey is a high-impact sport. And while he wasn't in the National Hockey League, Zander played at a high level with the best players in the country since returning to the ice in high school. Because of that, the games moved at a fast clip. And that meant the impact was much greater when players collided.

"He wasn't diagnosed with a concussion, but there would be times when he'd come home and he'd have headaches, and we'd give him whatever we had, over-the-counter medicine," Graham said. "At the time, we thought he was just sore, just bumps and bruises."

When he was a sophomore in the 2012-13 school year, Zander also suffered a bit from depression, according to his dad, who said that was uncharacteristic for his son. Zander had always been an outgoing kid, popular and loved by his teammates and classmates. Still, Graham said, the depression was there.

"He was depressed, but it wasn't like he was always sad," Graham said. "He had a lot of friends, he was very outgoing. We didn't really understand it."

A few months later, Zander became a member of the national Tier I Elite Hockey League, the highest level of amateur youth hockey in the United States.

He was diagnosed with his first concussion in September 2013, when he was a high school junior. That didn't mean it was his first head injury, Graham noted; it was just the first time he received an official diagnosis.

A concussion is a traumatic brain injury that is caused by a violent blow or other trauma to the head and neck that jolts the brain inside the skull. It alters brain functions, according to the Mayo Clinic. The effects can include headaches and problems with concentration, memory, balance and coordination. While that's the medical definition, doctors and researchers are finding out there are still many unanswered questions about concussions and their long-term effects.

The National Football League, which recently reached a multibillion-dollar settlement with retired players who suffered repeated head trauma, and their families, has set strict tests for when players can return to play after a head injury. And new rules are popping up every few weeks because doctors are learning more every day. The NFL isn't alone. The NHL, Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, Ultimate Fighting Championship, boxing and professional wrestling have also undergone changes in policy due to concerns about concussions.

Meanwhile, the impact of childhood concussions is also being studied.

"At the time, we didn't know how dangerous concussions were," Zander's dad said. "A lot has come out recently, and continues to come out, but we didn't know how dangerous this was, and we didn't put the depression and the concussion together.

"He really wanted to get back to playing hockey; he kept asking to come back. He sat out three weeks, but he was ready to go back much quicker. The doctors were the ones who kept him out," Graham recalled.

The high school junior was given the green light to play three weeks after his first diagnosed concussion. His team headed to New Hampshire for a college showcase event, where Graham said Zander was his old play-making self and showed no signs of his injury.

"We came home late Saturday night and he was talking about going out when we got home," the dad said. "I told him it was too late. He fell asleep in the car, and when we got home, he helped unload the car, then went in and went to bed. No problems; he was himself."

But the next day, Zander was anything but himself.

On the surface, things seemed fine, but later in the day, Graham said, Zander's concussion caused him to make a decision that changed his life — and the life of his family — forever.

The Lower Makefield family — which also includes children Culley, now 16, Elias, now 14, and Maddie, now 10 — woke up and went to a family gathering in Flemington, New Jersey. Zander decided to sit out the function. Instead, he told his folks he planned to spend time with his girlfriend until she had soccer practice.

After his girlfriend left for practice, Zander was alone.

"We got a text that said 'Mom and dad, this isn't your fault, but we have to end the cycle of madness,' and we really didn't know what it meant," Graham said. "His girlfriend got a similar text and we didn't know what to make of it, but we knew something was wrong."

The cryptic text left him scared, so Graham called around.

"We were 45 minutes away, so I called his friend and asked him to run over to the house because I didn't know what to expect. I was worried he was doing something in the house," Graham said. "We also called his girlfriend and she said she had received the same text, but didn't know what to think. None of us did."

They tried calling and texting him. Nothing. Finally, they got the idea to track his iPhone.

"We got onto the computer and we could see his phone was up in New York," Graham said. "But it was moving around. We figured he was in New York, so we called police, described the car and told them to be on the lookout for him. We figured we'd just have to find them."

Unfortunately, it was too late.

The iPhone was in motion because Zander's car had been towed.

Zander — the happy teen from a close family, who had lots of friends, earned good grades and was crafting a successful hockey career — parked his car near the George Washington Bridge and plunged to his death in the Hudson River.

Zander died on Oct. 27, 2013 — just three months after his first diagnosed concussion.

"It was a complete and utter shock," Graham said. "At first, we were asking the usual questions. 'Why? Why? Why?' "

It didn't take long, he said, for the pieces to fall into place.

Dr. Christina Master, a pediatric sports medicine specialist at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and Team Comcast's unofficial doctor, told Zander's parents their son's brain injuries had fouled his normal thinking and he really didn't intend to take his own life, Graham said. While it was impossible to study his brain because it wasn't available right away, doctors used their medical expertise to surmise what happened.

"We were sad and upset, but we started hearing tons of stories about NFL players doing identical things," Graham said. "It didn't make it easier, but when we found out that his frontal lobe was damaged, (we learned) he wasn't making conscious decisions. We talked to Dr. Master a few days later and she suggested we donate Zander's brain to the Sports Legacy Institute."

The institute, founded by former Harvard football player and World Wrestling Entertainment star Chris Nowinski, is a nonprofit organization in Massachusetts that is dedicated to resolving the sports concussion situation through education, policy and research. The institute has worked with all levels of football, for example, to create a concussion protocol.

The family agreed, but Zander's brain wasn't eligible for donation because it took so long to recover his body from the river. That didn't stop his parents from trying to help.

"When he died, people called and said they wanted to donate money," Graham said. "But we were thinking 'donate to what?' So we started a fund in his memory and after doing some research, we came up with something."

The family founded the UNTOLD Foundation, a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization that teaches children and adults about the dangers of concussions. The group sponsors workshops, speaking engagements at national seminars and other events.

On May 16, the UNTOLD Foundation will hold its second annual Zander Fest 5K run and walk in Washington Crossing. The event includes food, entertainment and activities and the money raised will go toward concussion education.

"This is something Zander would have loved," Graham said. "He loved being around people and he loved planning get-togethers."

Graham also works with Nowinski's institute to share Zander's story.

"Chris is so good and his foundation is great," Graham said of the Sports Legacy Institute. "He knows so much and he goes out and shares his message. He's a great speaker and he is so knowledgeable."

Speaking about the Thomas family, Master said, "I have to say they're a tremendous and remarkable family. I've been at CHOP for 23 years and I've met so many great people who want to help, and they certainly are helping."

Master, who does baseline concussion testing for Team Comcast, where her 16-year-old son plays, added: "We've learned so much in the past 10 years, so much in the past five years, and while we're learning a lot about concussions, we're now learning so much about pediatric concussions."

"We haven't even scratched the tip of the iceberg, so to speak, and we're learning more and more every day," she added. "And we're not trying to take kids out of the game. We love football, we love hockey, my sons love hockey. We just want them to play it safe."

"Zander, with his parents' help, is leaving quite a legacy of concussion awareness," Master said. "They are using their experience to help others, and people will listen because of that. They're amazing people."




Information from: Bucks County Courier Times,

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