Spenser Rositano can’t pinpoint the play that brought his football career to an end. There was no jarring hit to blame for the Boston College safety’s throbbing headache as he sat in the visitor’s locker room during an Oct. 12 game against Clemson.
Initially, that pain was secondary to the blood bubbling up in his mouth because of lung contusions suffered in the first half, and Rositano’s focus was on returning to the field. But based on the scene his parents and two sisters had just witnessed from their seats just above the players’ tunnel at Clemson’s Memorial Stadium, there was greater cause for concern.
“As the trainer was leading him to the locker room, he walked right in front of us and he had this blank look on his face where you could tell something wasn’t right,” Rositano’s father, Wayne, said. “I don’t even know if he knew where he was at.”
Rositano had experienced this before — five times, in fact — while playing for Stone Bridge High in Ashburn and in his three seasons at Boston College. This time, the “usual” 24-hour stretch of headaches and dizziness dragged on for nearly three weeks, leaving him to fear what concussion number seven could bring.
A recent report from the Institute of Medicine, funded by the NFL, cited estimates that as many as 1.6 million to 3.8 million sports- and recreation-related traumatic brain injuries, including concussions, occur each year nationally, and football has the highest rate of any sport. The same report cited multiple studies that have found that someone suffering one concussion is more likely to have more, and people often require longer recovery times for subsequent concussions.
Rather than run those risks, Rositano, just 17 days shy of his 21st birthday, announced his retirement from football in a Nov. 4 message on his Facebook page, cutting short a promising career in an effort to better ensure his long-term health.
“It was obviously a tough decision because this was something I worked for my whole life and it’s not just something you can give up on just like that,” Rositano said during a visit home over Thanksgiving. “I had to think about what’s best for my future, and after consulting with the doctors and everyone, I realized that I didn’t want to have a seventh concussion — so I hung it up for good.”
Retirement isn’t something college students are supposed to consider, let alone act upon. Neither is life without football, at least for Rositano. Taking after his father, who played wide receiver at Bowling Green State, Rositano embodied the sport’s culture with his passion and work ethic.
In two years on the varsity team at Stone Bridge, Rositano played nearly every position on both sides of the ball, leading the Bulldogs to two Virginia state title game appearances and earning second-team All-Met honors as a senior safety.
“He was the best, as far as he knew how to give 100 percent on every rep and with every opportunity he had,” Stone Bridge Coach Mickey Thompson said. “He studied the game and understood it from every aspect, and that’s what made him one of a kind.”
Rositano said he suffered two concussions while at Stone Bridge, but because of the minor nature of the subsequent headache and dizziness he did not immediately alert the coaches or trainers. It wasn’t until the final preseason scrimmage of Rositano’s 2011 freshman season at Boston College that he experienced more apparent symptoms following a helmet-to-helmet hit.
“I was real dizzy, and I remember everything was a fog and it felt like I was in a dream-like state,” Rositano said. “I knew it felt like I had a concussion but I wasn’t really sure. Each concussion has brought different things.”
After running several tests, trainers concluded that he had suffered a concussion and would need to sit out the season opener. Rositano returned to play in the next game, beginning a run as a three-year starter at safety for the Eagles.
Perhaps Rositano’s most memorable game in a Boston College uniform is the one he can’t remember. In an October 2012 contest against Army, Rositano tallied a career-high 12 tackles and a forced fumble. But in the second half, as he moved in for a tackle, the opposing running back lowered the crown of his helmet into Rositano’s, sending him into a mid-air spiral. He landed in a sitting position.
As Wayne helplessly watched the replays from a bar, he remembers seeing his almost lifeless son tumble over with his eyes rolled back and remain unconscious for about 30 seconds.
Still, it wasn’t until the fifth concussion, which occurred this year after another helmet-to-helmet hit during a Sept. 28 game against Florida State, that Rositano began to worry about his long-term health and future.
“If I go out there and play trying not to get hurt, I’m going to get hit more often,” said Rositano, who played most of his sophomore season with a broken hand. “I asked the doctors what I could do to prevent this and they admitted there’s not much I could do. Once it happened, there was no looking back, because if you change the way you play, you might as well not play at all.”
Like most athletes battling injuries, balancing a fearless style of play with a cautious approach to recovery proved tough. Rositano had won his starting spot as a freshman when a teammate was injured. Now, the prospect of being sidelined and seen as injury-prone created the temptation to hide some of his symptoms from the trainers in hopes of returning to action.
“In football, the only time you’re 100 percent is at the start of the season,” Wayne said. “Once the season starts, you’ve got nagging injuries. So within the sport’s culture, sometimes the difference between a good and great player is seen as the ability to play when you’re only 40 percent or 60 percent.
“But it’s different with concussions. If you break an ankle or your arm, you can fix that. You can’t repair your head.”
The increased difficulty of the brain recovery process grew apparent when the sixth and final concussion came in the loss to Clemson. Rositano tried just about everything, including sleep, hydration and exercise, short stints at the infirmary and two visits with a specialist. But when the only relief he could find was sitting silently in his dark bedroom, away from the noise and light that irritated his already-pounding headaches and short-term memory loss, he found himself seeking wisdom from parents, friends and coaches. The time had come to make a decision about his football future.
“We never told him what to do because we knew it was him and not us that had to come to terms with his ultimate decision,” Rositano’s mother, Marcy, said. “I think he made a mature decision, and we’re thrilled.”
Retirement from football is still growing on Rositano, whose remaining education at Boston College will continue to be covered by the school (he is due to graduate in December 2014). He has kept his routine by rising early for meetings and practices with his teammates and serving as a volunteer coach. While the lingering symptoms from his last concussion have subsided, Rositano knows from the heartbreaking stories of former National Football League players that it could be 30 years before he knows the true extent of his head trauma.
More immediate for Rositano will be discovering the wide-ranging impact and potential of his unique football journey.
“One of the coolest things when all this was happening was seeing how much people cared, and even though football helped get me to Boston College, the impact I made on people’s lives came off the football field,” Rositano said. “Oftentimes you don’t realize that impact until you go through tough times. And that’s what lets me know this isn’t the end; it’s just the start of the next chapter in my life.”