Believe it or not, we sports writers can sometimes make assumptions. From second guessing coaching decisions in the Monday paper to "interpreting" press conferences we may or may not have actually been at, most writers (including yours truly) are by no means above the criticisms that coaches and players have of your average armchair quarterback and fan.
Still, you'll have to excuse me for coming into a recent interview with reserve Navy cornerback John Angelo with a few assumptions lingering in the back of my mind. After all, the soft spoken but laid back California native had been the recipient of one of the most frightening helmet to helmet collisions seen anywhere in the country a season ago, suffering a concussion when Wake Forest special teamer Alex Frye rudely separated Angelo from the football on a second half kickoff return.
Angelo, who returned a kickoff 57 yards against Rutgers the previous week, was knocked momentarily unconscious on the play, effectively ending his season. Having seen the play run over and over again on game highlights and my own DVD copy, I felt it only natural to assume that the 5'9 Angelo would have second thoughts about getting back onto the field this spring as a punt returner and backup cornerback. I was wrong.
"Nope," said Angelo matter-of-factly.
Not even a little? No mental block or lingering fears of taking another helmet to helmet hit and risking further damage?
"No" he repeated, casually adding that he had asked the coaching staff later in the year for permission to go back to kickoff returner, only to be denied because of medical reasons.
Sufficed to say, this wasn't exactly the John Angelo I had expected. Weren't Navy football players supposed to practically breathe courage? Weren't they supposed to embody the very nature of terms like resiliency, toughness, and bravery? I had expected a little more from John. Perhaps a gut wrenching story about the decision to even lace up the cleats again, or an extended monologue about embodying the core values of the Academy by winning back his old job. Instead I received the humble, straightforward story. To John Angelo, returning to the field this spring was no big deal and shouldn't have to be, and there probably didn't seem like much point in romanticizing the incident just so some reporter could get his story.
Still, I was skeptical. After all, John had told me that he couldn't remember the period from in between when he received the hit and when he returned to the Academy after the game, saying that his only real memory of the play came from watching it on the internet when he got back to his room. And then there was Dr. Jeff Fair, the team trainer, filling me in on the litany of tests he and his staff perform when Navy football players suffer concussions.
"We test their recent memory," he had started, only to take a momentary break from our discussion of concussions in order to tend to a backup linebacker's dislocated finger. "We ask them the plays, ask them what the score is…what they did on that drive or something like that...If they are dizzy or sick to their stomach...It could indicate a loss of memory, and then we'll hold them out because what we've learned through the years is that a lot time it's the second blow that gets you in trouble."
Granted, I may not have my mother's medical background, but it doesn't take a registered nurse practitioner to realize that this concussion stuff is some serious business. Fortunately the Midshipmen are in good hands when it comes to keeping players safe, with team Dr. Jeffery Fair brining a wealth of experience and expertise to the Navy sideline. Fair - who spent some 25 years at Oklahoma State before coming to Navy in 1997 – told me that assuming concussions were always career threatening was a mistake a lot of fans make, but because head injuries effect different people differently they don't always equate to the shiver-down-your-back effect we get from seeing them on television.
"Concussions effect people differently. Being knocked out…people used to think that that would make it a bad concussion, but not necessarily," said Dr. Fair, who used the recent example of actress Natasha Richardson to demonstrate how sometimes seemingly mild head injuries could often be more dangerous than the helmet ratteling hits we see in games. "It's mainly how fast you recover from the symptoms…We're dealing with young and healthy people here and most of the time we are lucky and most everything turns out all right...[John] recovered just fine"
The key factor when evaluating concussions, says Dr. Fair, is to already have a relationship with the athlete who is unlucky enough to suffer one. That way the staff knows what to expect from the player, and can better identify just how severely the hit has affected them.
"I think the first thing, the most important thing, is to know each athlete, because everybody is different in how they act normally. If you don't know the athlete you won't know what normal is for them."
Ok, so it's good to know that Dr. Fair and his staff know exactly what they are doing when evaluating and treating concussions, but you would expect that right? What I wanted to know about was that whole resiliency dynamic, and whether or not it was normal for someone like John Angelo to shrug off the effects of the concussion and hit the field running again. I asked Dr. Fair what he thought about it, and whether or not it took a special kind of young man – dare I say and Academy man – to hop right back up on the horse after suffering such a potentially traumatic injury.
Saying that it was something most players show an interest in doing, he paused for a moment before chuckling and saying "but it does take a little guts."
As for John, he's moved from the infamous and unfortunate hit which landed him his fifteen seconds of Sports Center fame a year ago, and said he is more focused on his new job as a punt returner this spring, a job which he hopes will open the coaches eyes to the possibility of playing kickoff returner again. Not only that, but he hopes to be actively in the mix for playing time in Navy's thinning secondary, which recently learned it may have to play without rover Emmett Merchant in the lineup this season. If Angelo lacked a compelling story on his recovery from last season's concussion, he certainly wasn't without confidence when talking about the possibility of playing in 2009.
Adam Nettina can be reached at AdamNettina@gmail.com.