Ice baths are as much a part of high-level football as in-depth scouting reports. Former Illinois running back Kevin Jackson (1991-94) routinely took said cold dips, and on more than one occasion, he probably did so with his nose buried in one of those scouting reports.
Somewhere along the way, years after his final trip to the tub, Jackson came to a realization: “As a player, we’d do whole body icing in the ice tubs,” he said. “We never iced anything above our necks. We’d get to our neck and stop.”
Well, Jackson is determined to change that routine. A senior research scientist at the Beckman Institute at the University of Illinois, Jackson and his team are designing a post-practice head-and-neck cooling helmet that reduces secondary effects and improves the long-term outlook of head trauma victims through repetitive cooling and lowering of brain temperature.
“We know that cooling helps the body, but we never see anything done to the head,” said Jackson, who majored in animal sciences and received his PhD in 2003. “We want to see if it can help, if it can help prevent the onset of problems down the road.
“You can’t stop a concussion, it’s going to happen. But what about people who don’t show any clinical signs of concussion? How do you assess those people? That’s what we’re hoping to figure out.”
Since 2001, the Beckman Institute has been investigating the potential clinical use of the cooling helmet, created by NASA scientist William Elkins. At first, the study was devoted to finding ways to help soldiers who suffered head trauma — that is, until Jackson entered the fray nearly four years ago.
“My boss, he’s not a big sports nut,” Jackson said. “Being a former football player and knowing how frequently players get hit in the head and how big of an issue it has become, I wanted to extend the study.”
Jackson said he’s in discussions with Illinois AD Mike Thomas and the school’s new medical staff about the concept, and he hopes to start the study before the 2013 season. It’s not a guarantee, though: “Funding has been our biggest hurdle to date, but we hope to get some preliminary data to validate our studies,” Jackson said.
If it happens, Jackson will conduct a four-year longitudinal study of 10-15 freshmen, who will use the cooling helmet four times a week, and then he’ll compare the preseason and postseason MRI brain results of the sample group versus freshmen who didn’t use the cooling helmet over the same span.
“We want to see what effects cooling has on the brain over a four-year period versus the effect no cooling has on the brain, neurocognitively and neuroimaging-wise,” Jackson said.
If the study’s early results are any indication, the Beckman Institute could be on to something. According to its research, “hypothermia is by far the most potent method of neuroprotection in animal studies and has the greatest therapeutic potential.”
And for Jackson and his team, it’s all about ensuring every brain injury, especially the ones that don’t cause any concussion-like symptoms — think Muhammad Ali — gets diagnosed and treated.
“We’re not trying to pull these players off the field,” Jackson said. “We’re trying to prolong careers. These kids have life forever. Football isn’t forever. We want them to be able to come back 40 years later and talk about their football careers.”
The Kevin Jackson File
Occupation: Senior Research Scientist at Beckman Institute
Illini Highlights: Compiled 904 total yards, including 752 rushing yards, ran for a career-best 125 yards against Purdue on Oct.2, 1993, and registered team’s longest run from scrimmage in 1992 (47 yards, vs. Northwestern) and 1993 (36, vs. Purdue)
Best memory at Illinois: “To be honest, it was watching Howard Griffith score eight touchdowns [in a game]. I was a freshman and I didn’t know it was the record at the time. To see that in person, it was pretty amazing.”
Favorite player growing up: “I was a big Eric Dickerson fan. I loved the way he ran. I was actually a big Magic Johnson fan, and that’s why I wore No. 32.”
One rule change you’d like to see in football: “I think players should get some sort of stipend in addition to what they get from scholarship. We all struggle with college bills, I know, but we don’t get to work in order to get that extra money for the water bill, the cell phone bill and all those things.”
Biggest hidden talent: “Everybody knows what I can do. Um, I can play the piano. How’s that?”