The doctor whose opinion a district court judge cited as a key basis for his decision to allow Cleveland running back Shawn Nieto to play in the Class 6A state championship football game, despite suffering a blow to the head a week earlier, rescinded her initial recommendation on the morning of the game, the Journal has learned.
Dr. Karen Ortiz said in a letter sent to Rio Rancho Public Schools and the New Mexico Activities Association – dated Dec. 5 – that she would never have cleared the first-team tailback to play had she known he had lost consciousness a week earlier after suffering a blow to the head.
That letter was dated one day after Judge Alan Malott ruled that Nieto could participate in the Storm’s title game against Eldorado.
Cleveland’s team physician, Dr. Laurence Laudicina, also wrote a letter to school officials, dated the day of the game, setting out the possibility of dire consequences should Nieto be allowed to play.
“Allowing Mr. Shawn Nieto to return to play at this time may result in a wide range of long-term neuropsychologic disorders as well as possible catastrophic brain injury, unfortunately,” the letter concludes.
Nieto was allowed to suit up and was inserted for one play, despite the new letters concerning medical risk.
RRPS Athletic Director Bruce Carver said district officials were concerned about the conflict posed by Malott’s order and the doctors’ opinions.
“My superintendent (Dr. V. Sue Cleveland) and I felt like a court order supersedes everything,” Carver said. “We’re in a real tough pickle here.”
Ortiz evaluated Nieto, Cleveland’s starting junior tailback, on Tuesday, Dec. 1. This was three days after Nieto suffered a severe hit to the head during the Storm’s semifinal win at Mayfield on Nov. 28.
Cleveland’s veteran trainer, Jeff Archuleta, said Nieto was knocked unconscious and had suffered a concussion.
Ortiz did not come to the same conclusion in her evaluation three days later, based on an examination and discussions with Nieto and his father.
Laudicina spoke with Ortiz on Friday, Dec. 4, and that conversation apparently convinced Ortiz to change course.
Ortiz in her Dec. 5 letter said Nieto and his father, Peter, insisted the player had not lost consciousness.
“Had I understood that there was a loss of consciousness, I would have never provided medical clearance,” Ortiz wrote to RRPS and the NMAA.
That letter was received in the NMAA office, at Rio Rancho Public Schools, and at Cleveland, at 9 a.m. Saturday. NMAA executive director Sally Marquez and Cleveland athletic director Larry Chavez both confirmed this.
Carver said he became aware of the letter soon thereafter.
In the letter, Ortiz writes that she was told by Laudicina – via Archuleta, who was on site for the Mayfield game and rendered medical aid to Nieto – that Nieto had a “significant loss of consciousness.”
“Shawn is 100 percent adamant that he never lost consciousness,” countered Nieto family attorney Jake Vallejos on Friday. “He (said he) lost his air, couldn’t breathe – but he certainly was stunned by the hit. He was aware of what was going on.”
AD Chavez said he informed Cleveland head coach Heath Ridenour of Ortiz’s Dec. 5 letter as soon as it was discovered. This was about four hours before kickoff on that Saturday. Ridenour last week told the Journal that he had made the decision to keep Nieto on the sideline and not have him run the ball for safety reasons.
The Storm did insert Nieto into the game for one play, a kickoff late in the fourth quarter. It is unknown if Nieto had any major contact on that play.
Ortiz’s initial recommendation from Dec. 1, which said she found no proof of concussion, was cited specifically by Malott, who in essence said he accepted her opinion over Archuleta’s, despite the trainer’s being the one who attended to Nieto in the stadium.
The Journal left a phone message on Friday with Malott, who earlier defended his decision in a letter he submitted last week to the Journal for publication. The call was not returned.
In his letter to RRPS and the NMAA on Dec. 5, Laudicina said Ortiz’s initial decision on Dec. 1 to clear Nieto “reflects inaccurate history and evaluation.”
There is a third letter the Journal has obtained, dated Dec. 4 from Archuleta and addressed to officials at Cleveland High, RRPS and the NMAA.
“While attending to (Nieto on Nov. 28),” Archuleta wrote, “I observed him displaying numerous signs and symptoms of a concussion including an extended period of unconsciousness. Due to this, he was removed from participation, his helmet was taken to prevent him from playing, and he was evaluated numerous times.”
Cleveland, following Archuleta’s and Laudicina’s lead, told Nieto he would not be allowed to play against Eldorado, as he would have to sit out a week per the state’s concussion law, which was created in 2010 to protect athletes from competing again too soon, and also before they have cleared protocols.
As she rescinded her first opinion, and in what seems to be a nod to Archuleta’s first-hand observation, Ortiz said the athlete should “follow the policies and protocols set by the Sports Medicine Team.”
Archuleta’s letter said both he and Laudicina felt it was “highly ill advised” that Nieto play in the game.
The Journal also gained a copy of the concussion evaluation form from this injury, filled out by Archuleta. Contained within that document is mention that Nieto already had a concussion history (one occurrence) even before this episode.
Vallejos said Nieto did not learn that he would be unable to play against Eldorado until Monday, Nov. 30. Vallejos further said that no one from the family was told anything about an evaluation that the player was unconscious before they went to see Ortiz.
“Nobody told the family anything,” Vallejos said. “Prior to seeing the doctor (Ortiz), the family was not informed by anyone at Cleveland.”
Vallejos said the family did not have an issue with Nieto getting into the game for only one play. “They were fine with it,” Vallejos said. Their larger concern, he said, was “making sure there was adequate process.”
As Cleveland said it would keep Nieto out of action, the player and his family went to court to get a temporary restraining order, saying the junior would be irreparably harmed and his college scholarship chances diminished if he wasn’t allowed to compete in the state final.
Nieto, a 5-foot-4, 135-pound running back, ran for 931 yards and 18 touchdowns during the season, which culminated in a 48-35 victory over visiting Eldorado in the 6A final. Cleveland senior running back Landry Hayes ran for 203 yards and four touchdowns in that contest.
The NMAA, Marquez has said, intends to appeal Malott’s ruling, using the aforementioned three letters to help present their case. The NMAA wants the temporary restraining order overturned to dissuade others from taking the same recourse as did the Nietos.