ST. PETERSBURG -- For Admiral Farragut senior Payton Wright, football is a way of life.
"When I progressed through high school and got to high school, it started to attach to me like family,” Payton said.
Soon, he’ll be taking that passion to college. Payton recently signed with West Texas A&M.
Throughout his football career, his dad has played a vital role -- first, as his coach and now, as his biggest fan.
"He has always been there for me and always been my coach from day one,” Payton said.
Just like his son, Vincent played football from a young boy through college.
"When he plays you know, it’s an honor to watch your son go out there and do what you love, see that he loves it and the passion,” Vincent Wright said.
However, he believes undiagnosed concussions led him to develop early on-set Parkinson’s.
"I don’t have any of the markers for Parkinson’s so the only thing we can attribute it to is concussions,” Wright added.
But it hasn’t stopped him from showing up in full force to support his son.
"When I wake up at 6:30 in the morning I’m doubling my medication,” Wright said. "I get emotional talking about it right now. The medication doesn’t work because when the emotions run, you know, Parkinson’s kicks in real heavy. So I take double the amounts of medication all day long just getting ready for game day.”
Vincent hasn’t missed any of his son’s games.
"It just makes me emotional that he has been there every single game,” Payton Wright said. “He has not missed one game and he wants to see me strive to be the better him.”
And part of being better includes playing safer.
"It makes me feel heartbroken because they could have stopped it and my dad probably today could be normal and not have Parkinson’s,” Payton said.
It’s the reason why he wanted to learn more about how football could impact the brain. Payton is one of 92 athletes taking part in a major study at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital. Sports medicine physician Dr. Patrick Mularoni is leading the study — which measures the effects of sports on the brains of youth athletes.
"We’re doing several things in this study to try to look at the athletes, we’re monitoring impacts in football players, and in soccer players,” Mularoni explained. “With football players, we’re doing it with a mouthguard with soccer players, with a sensor that’s on their head.”
The study involves athletes wearing a sensor that records data on each hit — including the speed, direction and force.
"We’re testing them before the season, finding out things about their cognitive function, the way their brain functions — looking at their balance, doing other types of testing on them and then, testing them after the season, and then yearly to see if those things change based upon their participation in sports,” Mularoni said.
Concussions are something we’re aware of now more than ever.
"Physicians in the past 20 years have seen a complete difference in the way concussion management has changed,” Mularoni said.
But there’s a lot we still don’t know about football and how it affects the brain.
"As a physician who runs a concussion clinic, I see these kids coming in every day with concussions and the way we’re treating them has evolved a little bit, but some of the knowledge that we have about them has not evolved,” Mularoni explained.
But thanks to Payton and other high school athletes, that is changing.
"This could help for the future and my kids and their kids, so hopefully, if I get into this it could better our future and see what could come out of it.” Payton said.
Every time he took the field this season, he helped researchers gather valuable data.
"We’re looking at where the impacts are coming from, how many impacts are there, what type of head movement happens with that. And then looking at that cumulatively across the season,” Mularoni said.
The goal is that this information will help identify hits that are more likely to affect the brain.
"The hope, looking at sensor technology, is that at some point in the future, we may know how hard of a hit or a type of a hit that may require you to pull a player out of a game to evaluate them,” Mularoni said.
While there’s still a lot unknown about the impact sports can have on the brain. We do know one thing — awareness is changing the game.
"Out of this study, we hope to find that maybe it’s just not concussion, but wondering if those lesser hits are causing any problems for those athletes,” Mularoni said.
And for athletes and their families, that knowledge is power.