MAPLE VALLEY, Wash. – Inside the second-floor bedroom, the walls remain unchanged from five years ago: blue paint with a pasted wraparound border of footballs, baseballs, basketballs and soccer balls.
It speaks to the time when 18-year-old Zack Lystedt last lived a regular life, before a head injury made him the face of concussion awareness, even if the rest of his old room is dotted with reminders of how his life has changed.
Lystedt nearly died at age 13 when he returned to a middle school football game after suffering a concussion that went undetected. He was hurt while making a tackle on Oct. 12, 2006, and, after sitting out for a while, returned in the fourth quarter, collapsed after the game and needed two emergency brain surgeries to survive.
The injury led to the Lystedt Law, first passed in the state of Washington in 2009 and copied nearly two dozen times since. The Washington law keeps athletes high school age and younger from returning to the playing field without a doctor's authorization when a concussion is suspected.
On Friday night at the White River Amphitheater in nearby Auburn, Lystedt will step out of his wheelchair and walk with the assistance of a cane across the stage to collect his diploma from Tahoma High School.
"I'm both excited and nervous," Zack said. "I know it won't happen, but I have this fear of falling. But I'm getting over that fear by doing it more."
While still only a teenager, Lystedt might be the most influential figure in raising the focus on concussions in the U.S. While all sports, particularly the NFL and NHL, are paying more attention than ever to the safety of its players, it's this one-time middle school fullback/linebacker who has helped create the most action.
The Lystedt Law was a crusade for his parents — Victor and Mercedes — and physicians like Dr. Richard Ellenbogen and Dr. Stan Herring who treated Lystedt and vowed to prevent similar head injuries from happening to another young athlete.
And now NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has joined the charge.
"Zack's courage has inspired me on both a personal and professional level," Goodell said in an email. "His grace and dignity motivate us as a league to continue the push to protect youth athletes from head injuries."
Goodell and Lystedt first met last October at an event for the Brain Injury Association of Washington, where Goodell made the promise to help get a law similar to Washington's passed in at least 10 states in the next year. Even before that meeting, Goodell sent letters to state leaders asking for more focus on youth head injuries.
Since October, 15 states have adopted some type of youth concussion legislation, bringing the total to 23, with legislation in four more states awaiting a governor's signature. Twenty-one of the 23 follow the tenor of the Lystedt Law, with Idaho and Wyoming the only exceptions since their laws do not require removal from competition or medical clearance to return to play.
Goodell wants every state to adopt the Lystedt Law.
"Our challenge is to match Zack's determination and persistence," he wrote.
The importance of concussion education is spreading beyond lawmakers. The next version of EA Sports' hugely popular "Madden" franchise will include players suffering concussions and the announcers explaining the seriousness of the injury.
Lystedt's recovery is almost as remarkable as the impact of the law named after him.
He spent three months in the hospital immediately after his injury.
Another nine months passed before he could finally utter an "ohhh" and he spent another year at a neuro-rehabilitation center near Dallas. His mother — a former dental hygienist and now full-time caregiver — trucks Zack about 500 miles per week for 30 to 40 hours of therapy — physical, occupational and speech.
He still has his struggles. The right side of his body drags, his speech is slow and slightly slurred and he struggles remembering in the short term.
"His short-term memory has been affected so much from his brain injury that ... it's very difficult to learn," Victor Lystedt said. "You have to get it to his long-term. Once you get locked into his long-term he's good to go."
Zack returned to school for the 2009-10 school year, attending one class per week at Tahoma. It was a way to get back into the social aspects of school without overwhelming his recovering brain. This year he's taken additional classes and spent longer hours at school around his rehabilitation — including being voted Homecoming king in the fall. A peer educator worked with him.
"I really liked Wednesdays," Lystedt said of his longest day spent at school.
But while his school requirements have been altered, Lystedt completed two graduation requirements mandated by the state: he passed the Washington Assessment of Student Learning and completed a senior project based around public speaking. He plans to take a few classes at Bellevue College starting in the fall and will move into a new custom-built house that caters to the Lystedts' needs for caring for their son.
But first comes the challenge of Friday night. The goal all along was to be walking by graduation, but Goodell added a little more motivation, telling Lystedt he might have tickets for the 2012 Super Bowl — lockout pending — waiting for him if he was running by the end of the NFL season.
Running might still be a ways off, but Lystedt has gone nearly 200 steps at one time with his cane and can walk the length of the Lystedts' garage without assistance; his dad there ready to help if he stumbles.
Only in the last year have Victor and Zack become interested in football again. His relationship with Goodell and the NFL's interest in promoting the Lystedt Law have softened some of the initial resentment.
Goodell and the league sent a customized ball that read:
"Most Inspirational Player on Any Team. With Great Admiration, Roger Goodell and the NFL."
"He is really, really nice. A really, really good person," Zack said of Goodell. "You can tell he really cares."