A push to cut out concussions

Allen Champagne key cog of research project to make youth football safer

Champagne transferred to Queen’s last fall after a four-year football career at UNC.
Champagne transferred to Queen’s last fall after a four-year football career at UNC.
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Queen’s defensive end Allen Champagne has watched his fair share of friends recover from concussions, so he’s working to make sure it doesn’t happen to anyone else.

As a part of his research for his master’s degree in neurosciences, Champagne, along with the help of Professors D.J. Cook and Clarisse Mark launched the Concussion Education, Safety and Awareness Program (CESAP). 

CESAP is dedicated to concussion awareness, and teaches young football players how to play safely. Champagne’s average day begins at 5:30 a.m., and he’s often in the lab within an hour. He then spreads his time throughout the day looking at brain scans, studying for the MCAT, doing his football workouts.  

While many leaders in concussion research haven’t played a snap of football, Champagne offers a different side to field research. For him, a big focus is teaching proper tackling fundamentals and taking helmet-based tackles out of the game all together — as they’re the most direct source for head trauma.

“I understand what it feels like to be on the field and exposed to [concussions],” Champagne said. “I also understand that when you are injured you also want to go back because football is also kind of a lifestyle — it’s part of you.”

Champagne first combined his love of science with football in a first-year English class  at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), where he was on the Morehead-Cain scholarship. Students were instructed to write a paper on research being conducted at UNC. After reading multiple articles on concussions, Champagne decided to write on the subject. 

To get the best mark as possible, Champagne knew there was only one person to contact — UNC Professor Dr. Kevin Guskiewicz.

“I kept seeing Dr. Guskiewicz pop up on every single paper,” he said. “I wanted to hang out with the best and work with the best.”

From there, Champagne balanced his time at UNC between the gridiron and in Guskiewicz’s lab doing concussion-based research. Working under Guskiewicz’s supervision, Champagne studied behavioral modification programs and their potential impact on athletes.

By the end of his time at UNC, Champagne became one of the most coveted players for CIS programs as he was looking to pursue a graduate degree in Canada. 

It was Queen’s Dr. Mark’s work in the field of concussions that truly swayed him to come to Kingston.

“Dr. Mark brought in major funding opportunities, major grants to the program. She has worked very hard to get stuff going here. Queen’s seemed like the best fit.”

After talking to Dr. Mark and Dr. Cook, as well as head football coach Pat Sheahan, Champagne found that Queen’s matched his priorities — research first, football second.  

One of Champagne’s favourite field studies while at UNC involved going to a local high school to teach young football players about concussions and how to avoid them. Now, a part of CESAP’s work will be running a new and free one-day educational clinic for youth football teams.

“What we are trying to do is make the injury more recognizable so when the guys are in the huddle, they can take more care of each other,” Champagne said. 

In the first part of the camp, CESAP will provide an educational section on concussion symptoms, and how to identify the injury.

Then, athletes will head out to the field where they’ll learn how to properly tackle and work on technique — all without helmets. On offense, they stress how to properly block, and on defense they work on tackling. 

But what makes Champagne’s program different from most is the room it makes for parents to come and learn about concussions.

“I have had a lot of friends go through the process of a concussion, it is hard on the parents to see their kids in that position,” Champagne said. “They don’t really understand what is going on and they don’t understand what the injury is about. We offer to educate the parent on the sport and the injuries.”

While their research has received praise, they’ve heard some backlash.

“People have been telling me that one session would not be enough — well, that’s the idea,” Champagne said. “If I can be in there and teach them drills, then they have those sets of tools to repeat them over and over once I’m gone.”

By offering safer techniques, many think that concussion researchers are taking away from the game. For Champagne — someone who has dedicated his life to football — he believes he’s helping develop the sport. 

“We are not bad people. People that do concussion research are just passionate about the idea to help,” Champagne said. 

“Football is football, it’s a beautiful game and our program doesn’t want to impede the game. I want to give it to the kids and allow them to play a little safer and make better decisions once they are injured.”

Despite making great strides in the Canadian concussion community, Champagne knows there’s more work to do.

“It keeps me up at night. I wouldn’t want to do anything else,” Champagne said. “There are people doing greater things than I am, so I’m just trying to find my niche in the society and really give it all I can.”

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