After concussions, Virginia’s Connor McCartin confronts life without football

September 22, 2011

Eighteen days after he was told it was no longer safe for him to play the game he loved, Connor McCartin still looked the part of a football player. His shoulders broad, his paws meaty, McCartin sat down Tuesday on a bench outside the Virginia football team’s headquarters.

 McCartin, a 19-year-old junior, summoned memories of the two concussions he suffered playing high school football, as well as the two he’s received during his time with the Cavaliers. He did not respond well to the latest one, which occurred during the first week of the team’s training camp in August. The hit occurred on a kickoff, another chance for McCartin — a cog to Virginia’s special teams unit — to put a good lick on somebody.

After the concussion, Virginia’s medical staff ran a battery of tests on McCartin. On the day before Virginia’s season opener, he was told he would not be cleared to play football again. Ever.

  Now McCartin has moved on, embracing his situation the best he can. The Virginia coaches are keeping him involved with the team’s day-to-day activities, and that helps. But still . . .

“I mean, I guess it’s kind of still something I’m dealing with today, you know?” said McCartin, who is from Warrenton and was an honorable mention All-Met at Fauquier High. “I still come to practice, and I still go to games. I just can’t play anymore. I have a different role with the team now. It’s just something that, it’s a day-by-day process, week-by-week.”

Thanks in large part to a greater push to educate Virginia’s student-athletes on the symptoms and dangers of concussions, more players are reporting head injuries, which enables quicker treatment.

John MacKnight, Virginia’s co-medical director of sports medicine, said the football team’s medical staff has diagnosed 12 concussions since the start of training camp. Last year, 13 concussions were diagnosed all season.

“I think they’re becoming more comfortable with the sense that it’s important to report” concussions, MacKnight said. “We’re seeing more concussions at earlier stages now than we did before.”

McCartin suffered his first collegiate concussion Oct. 16, 2010, on a kickoff return against North Carolina.

“I just went and hit some guy,” McCartin said, “and I was just kind of out of it.”

McCartin said he experienced no enduring effects of the concussion and, after taking a number of tests to ensure his cognitive function had returned to preseason levels, he played in the final five games of the 2010 season.

Everything was fine until he went flying down the field during training camp last month. He collided with a teammate and suffered his second concussion in 10 months.

This time the headache lingered and McCartin’s cognitive scores took much longer to return to the baseline levels that were recorded before the season. Eventually, he was sent to the neurology department at the university’s hospital, where he underwent further diagnostic testing.

On Sept. 2, the day before Virginia’s season opener, McCartin met with MacKnight, Virginia’s top two athletic trainers and two doctors from the neurology department.

They told McCartin they would not clear him to play football again because he was still symptomatic three weeks after suffering the concussion; his cognitive testing had not returned to baseline levels; he has Attention Deficit Disorder, which complicates recovery from a concussion; and he had a history of suffering concussive blows that dated from high school.

 McCartin said he was “devastated.” He didn’t know what to think. He had played football since he was 6 years old. What now? 

Later that night, McCartin spoke to the entire team to explain why he no longer would be suiting up with them. Then he told them what the game meant to him, why he loved it so much and why he played it the way he had. When asked Tuesday for the answers to those questions, McCartin paused for 18 seconds.

“I mean, it’s a great game,” he finally said. “There’s no other sport like it out there, where you can just go run downfield full-speed and just run into somebody else. That’s why I love the game.” 

On the morning of Virginia’s season opener against William & Mary, Coach Mike London told McCartin he would lead the team out onto the field.

London later explained he wanted McCartin to have one more chance to charge onto the field because the player hadn’t known the previous time he’d done it would be his last. And so, in front of nearly 52,000 screaming fans, McCartin burst onto the Scott Stadium grass, dressed in a jersey but no pads and waving an American flag.

“That’s just what I needed right then,” McCartin said.

He has been a fixture at Virginia’s practices and games ever since. McCartin organizes the special teams scout squad and helps special teams coach Anthony Poindexter break down film afterward. He was in the coaches’ box for the Cavaliers’ game on Saturday at North Carolina. He wore a headset and communicated with Poindexter, who roamed the sideline.

The plan, McCartin said, is for him to continue to fill his new role in practices and games for the rest of this season, as well as during his senior year in 2012. He remains on scholarship.

“He’s going to be involved in football with us and for us,” London said. “It’s unfortunate that things happened from a physical nature that would cause him not to be able to participate this year. But he’s still one of us, and we’re going to support him every way we can.”

McCartin said he hasn’t yet found an outlet for the physical contact he still craves. It’s frustrating, he says, just waiting for time to pass. But he has different responsibilities to focus on these days, and he plans to attack them the same way he did his targets on all those kickoffs.

“What happened, it’s not going to define me,” McCartin said. “It’s not. It’s going to take some time for me to come to grips with it, but at the end of the day my health is most important. So that’s just how it has to be right now.”

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