Every day brings new victories for Zackery Lystedt.
Every achievement helps conquer the horrors inflicted on someone so young.
Zackery’s life became every parent’s nightmare in 2006 after he suffered multiple concussions during a junior high school football game, resulting in severe brain trauma.
In and out of a coma for three months and unable to move for more than a year, Zackery had to re-learn how to speak, move, eat, drink – all the things most take for granted.
Now, every sentence, every gesture and – yes – every step he takes put him closer to a recovery that most thought unreachable.
His story would be remarkable if only for the courage and determination that pushes him onward.
His legacy, though, already is felt by millions of young athletes across the nation who are now protected by laws inspired by Zackery’s cause and designed to help prevent others from suffering the same tragedy.
Washington state passed the Lystedt Law on May 16, 2009, in which athletes under the age of 18 who are suspected of having sustained a concussion are removed from practice or a game and not allowed to return until cleared by a medical professional. The law also requires athletes, parents and coaches to be educated each year about the dangers of concussion.
The law has served as the foundation for similar laws since passed in 33 other states and Washington, D.C.
As Zackery strives each day to overcome his past and regain his future, he and his family also continue to work so that every state educates its parents, players and coaches while protecting children from a similar fate.
“Just looking at the last three years, there’s been so much movement, so much education when it comes to concussion management,” said Victor Lystedt, Zackery’s father. “It’s been like a runaway train in some ways. Eventually, the rest of the states have to climb aboard. They just have to.”
Zackery’s 2006 injury stemmed from returning to a game too soon after suffering a concussion.
Late in the first half, he struggled to get up after hitting his head on the ground. He made it back to the sideline but returned to the field after just 15 minutes of rest.
Another hit in the same game resulted in a brain hemorrhage and left Zackery hospitalized for nearly two years.
Led by the Lystedts and supported by organizations including the NFL, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and USA Football, concussions are now being treated as the serious injuries they are.
“At all levels of sport, it’s being acknowledged that concussions are brain injuries, and all brain injuries are potentially serious,” said Dr. Stanley Herring, team physician for the Seattle Seahawks, a member of the NFL Head, Neck and Spine Committee and a member of USA Football’s Football and Wellness Committee.
“And the great news is that it’s working. Before the Lystedt Law, at least one youth athlete had a subdural hematoma requiring surgery in Washington state each of the last eight years. Since the law went into effect, there have been none.”
The Lystedt Law was drafted by Seattle lawyer Richard Adler and introduced by state representative Jay Rodne.
At the time, Adler served as president of the Brain Injury Association of Washington and already was thinking about the value of a concussion bill. After Zackery’s injury, Adler began representing the family and the pieces started falling into place.
“Sitting at Zackery’s bedside, you couldn’t help but think, ‘How did this happen? How come we didn’t know this could happen?’ ” said Adler, a partner in Adler-Giersch Professional Services Corp.
“It’s something that seems obvious now that when we have kids with a concussion you have to take them out. That there is no quick fix but rest.”
Adler visited with Zackery and his family during the day, then dedicated his nights to crafting the bill.
The Seahawks came on board to help distribute CDC posters and clipboards as well as serve as a vehicle for spreading the word. Mike Holmgren, then the Seahawks’ head coach, wrote a letter to all Washington high school coaches stressing the need to remove players from the field who appear to have suffered a concussion.
Zackery, meanwhile, recovered in a hospital bed. For the first nine months, he couldn’t speak. For 20 months, he was on a feeding tube.
“You couldn’t look at Zackery and not see how serious an issue this was,” Adler said.
Soon, Herring was on board. So were the University of Washington Medical Center, Seattle Children’s Hospital and Harborview Medical Center among others.
Rodne first met Zackery in 2008 at Adler’s and the family’s request. He walked out of that initial visit determined to make concussion law his No. 1 priority.
“Concussions were always viewed as something you had to tough it out, suck it up,” Rodne said. “Coaches were in a difficult position where they suspected something might be wrong but they wanted to keep the player in, and the player wanted to go back in. Now, the law takes that decision out of the coach’s hand and gives it to medical professionals.”
The bill passed the house unanimously, then quickly made it through the Washington senate before being signed into law.
After passage, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell met with the Lystedts to pledge his support. Legislators in other states reached out to Rodne for information. Zackery and his family began speaking to legislators, doctors, athletic trainers and school officials about the importance of educating the public. Adler and Herring continued to lead the charge for Lystedt Laws as well, and a strong coalition led by the NFL and ACSM developed
The ripple effect had begun. A change swept the nation.
“Before the end of that first year, there were six states with similar laws,” Victor Lystedt said. “Commissioner Goodell vowed to make it 20 before 2010 was over. It soon became 30 and more are being added.
“The culture of football is changing in a positive way, and it’s still more popular than ever. People say this law is nothing more than common sense, but common sense isn’t so common in the heat of a game.”
Now 19 years old, Zackery takes a class at a local college, works with a home tutor and still undergoes 40 hours of therapy each week in order to improve mobility.
He recently surprised his parents by getting out of his wheelchair to walk a few steps to the dinner table. He now walks regularly with a cane. His record is “386 feet,” according to his father, “and he’ll keep working to break that.”
The Lystedts don’t take anything for granted. They know that setbacks often follow recovery. For every two steps forward there always remains the chance for some steps back.
It’s the same approach they take with lobbying for similar laws in every state.
“When you think about what my son has been through, what a monumental change to his life he’s been through, it’s breathtaking to me,” Victor Lystedt said. “My son has endured so much sacrifice but continues to deliver a message that nobody should have to go through the same thing. It’s overwhelming.
“We have been told that Zack’s injury could have been prevented if he would have been taken out of the game. We know that now. So it’s our obligation to deliver as much information as possible to prevent this from ever happening again.
“We won’t rest until every coach, parent and player realize that one game isn’t worth the rest of your life. We will continue on until this law is passed in all 50 states and Congress unifies it at the federal level.”