At first, Nick Daugherty was woozy, but he looked okay. He stood on the sideline next to Charlo (Montana) football coach Mike Krahn and said he was ready to go back into the Vikings’ third game of the year.
“No, you need to come with me,” the team’s athletic trainer told him.
Minutes later, she was hollering loud enough to make Daugherty’s teammates turn around.
“Open your eyes!” she shouted.
Instead, he just swayed limply on the bench. School administrators called for an ambulance and the player’s mother.
His first thought when he regained consciousness on Sept. 11, 2017, in intensive care at Kalispell Regional Medical Center: “Can I play football next year?”
“That’s clearly not an option,” he told The Washington Post recently. “Now, maybe not ever.”
Nick doesn’t remember any of the night after the flash of a red football helmet in front of his face right before the hit that’s held him out of school for almost two months.
It has slowed his speech, toyed with his balance — he walks with the help of a field hockey stick as a cane — and left him sensitive to light and sound.
“I’ve heard stories about how bad some hits could be, but I never thought it could ever be me,” he said.
Doctors have told Lauren Daugherty, Nick’s mom, they’re treating her son as if he’d suffered a stroke, not a sports injury.
Some of the specialists Nick sees ask her if he’d sustained another concussion earlier in the game or the season. This looks like second-impact syndrome, they tell her, the sometimes fatal condition when a brain sustains a second concussion while still recovering from a first.
Neither Nick, the school trainer nor coaches had reported a previous head injury, but during the previous game Nick said he recalls feeling nauseous in the second half.
On the bus ride home, he felt “fuzzy,” he said, and struggled with his attention span the next week in school.
But the upcoming game against Arlee High was too big to miss, he told himself. “I didn’t want to hurt the team in any way. I thought it was better to keep playing.”
He was playing defensive line toward the end of the Vikings’ win when an Arlee ball carrier cut back across the field. Daugherty turned to chase the play and had his head down sprinting toward the running back.
An offensive lineman hit him square on the crown of his helmet with his forearms. Daugherty, No. 42 in the clip below, went limp and crumpled to the ground. Doctors told his mother he was likely momentarily unconscious on the field.
As football hits go, this one was not eye-popping, Krahn said. It was flagged on the field as an illegal “blindside block,” but the offensive lineman couldn’t do much to avoid it. He just caught Daugherty in an especially vulnerable position.
“I feel as though I’ve had bigger hits in practice and haven’t had as tough a time,” Nick said.
But it’s made this football-crazy town — school district superintendent and former football coach Steve Love can’t remember the last time the Vikings missed the state playoffs — reconsider the game’s significance, how it’s played and how players are cared for.
“It’s sobering to sit there with the parents who have a boy who is seriously injured,” Krahn said, “and not have second thoughts about the game and safety.
“You try to process this and see why. I wonder if somewhere in the game earlier he might have gotten hit in the head and this was the second [concussion]. I don’t think he can remember it, and I certainly don’t. But on the line [of scrimmage], the heads are hitting. You’re so close together. You just can’t know sometimes. It makes you wonder.”
Doctors say it will take six months for Daugherty to be “back to normal” without the balance or speech difficulty. It will be another six months after that, barring any setbacks, until he can return to full activity, but not contact sports.
He says he’ll jump back into football team activities as soon as he’s allowed, even if he’ll never be allowed to play again. He could be a manager, his mother suggests, or a student coach. Nick says he doesn’t care what he does. He misses his friends. They came to visit him in the hospital and brought him a football to have in his room.
When he was discharged, a group of teammates took him to a Harley-Davidson store in Missoula to look around. Lauren made them promise they’d take care of Nick, who was then in a neck brace.
Most of all, he misses the game. The Vikings are the favorites win a state championship this season after losing the 2016 title game in overtime. Nick has dreamed of winning a title since he started playing football as a 10-year-old.
If he has children someday, he says he’ll still let them play football, and hopefully play for a state title for Charlo.
“We’ll just get a better helmet,” he said.