Sunday’s Best: Concussion protocol

Like most children, I fantasized of being an astronaut, ballplayer or dancing from goalline to goalline with a stick in my hands and a puck at my feet.

Addison Russell pulls a ball down the third base line and into my head. - AP

Like most children, I fantasized of being an astronaut, ballplayer or dancing from goalline to goalline with a stick in my hands and a puck at my feet.

The problem, though, like most children, I lacked the drive to become any type of astro-anything and the natural talent to be a pro athlete. I was good enough, and did have a chance and offers to play hockey or lacrosse at smaller schools, though — until I didn’t.

When I played hockey in high school, concussion diagnosis and treatment — and this is just a rough estimate — was a mere single percent of what it is today. I paid, and I still pay, the price for us knowing ‘nothing’ about the brain and the damage of impacts — hyperbole, of course (because we do know things).

Bear with me, because this Sunday’s Best is a little bit less about the photos and a little bit more about what led me to this career and my opportunity to share photos with you guys weekly.

My first concussion? I laid an open-ice check on an opponent at Mt. Lebanon Recreation Center. Ironically, most of my concussion life can be described in the same way:

  • Tall man checks smaller man.
  • Tall man can’t stay on skates after winning the battle against all three of Newton’s laws.
  • Tall man finds the ice with his head.

The thing that shouldn’t have happened with my first concussion, though, was that I was put back out on the ice. Not at first. At first, I was examined by the paramedic on hand, and she rubbed some kind of cream on the back of my head.

To put things in perspective, that’s probably not the proper fix when you watch someone (me) attempt to get off the ice, take a stride and collapse in Bambi-like fashion as each limb found a different angle to not be controlled by my brain.

I don’t remember much, I don’t remember anything, between the time when I crawled to the bench and when I was asked to skate again. I remember my head being rubbed at some point of the first period, and then I remember being asked, “Sunday, can you go?”

We were going in the same direction, so that meant that it was the third period, and I was slightly freaked out that I lost the last 30-minutes-plus of my life with no idea what happened, but I hit the ice and I scored a goal on a wrist shot while streaking down the left wing.

Those are my two memories from my first concussion: Having no memory until I scored a goal.

I attribute a lot of difficulties I’ve had in life to that concussion, because I don’t believe I was ever allowed to ‘heal’ properly from it. I had a coach who barely understood that I was to take a week off before ‘resuming skating.’ Then, when I wanted to hit the ice casually and without pads, I was told that I either practice fully or don’t participate. Those weren’t the right options, and I was rushed back.

From that point forward, any head contact felt different. I used to estimate that I had six concussions between my junior and senior — when I ultimately ‘retired’ from hockey and lacrosse — years. Now, I realize that I likely had two or three that never healed properly at the time and led to me having prolonged periods of aggravating my concussion symptoms.

When I had my ‘final’ — and we will get to the awkward use of that word in a second — concussion while playing against Armstrong County, I left the ice knowing that it was the last time I would play competitive hockey. My mind was made up on that.

I sat on the bench on the awkward second, raised bench tier that exists at Armstrong’s rink until the game ended. My parents weren’t able to be at this game due to my sister’s hockey game being played elsewhere, but long-time coach and friend, Dave Cole, comforted me on the bench and echoed my own sentiments to our head coach, Jim Reed, after telling me “you’re done.”

I don’t think he knew at the time that my mind was made up that I really was done, and that he just meant for the day. But, I was done.

In the locker room after the game, I was in no rush to do anything but drop my helmet and bury my head in my hands as I filled them with tears. I was in a room with a group of guys I’d played with for more than a year, and some for half of a decade or more. And I was in that room for the last time.

After that, it was easy for me to confuse the depression I faced in college, and still face, as my ‘dealing’ with no longer being an athlete for the first time in my life. That was the easy, less-damaged, less-permanent excuse for why I spent a year of my life struggling to get off of a couch that I slept on, ate Pita Pit on, and played a whole lot of World of Warcraft on.

But, maturity and doctors opened a door to my own self-healing when I learned about the impact of concussions, and particularly how they can impact you down the road from actual impact.

So, hockey-less me was the excuse, but a ‘new me’ born from the cocoon of multiple head traumas was the reality.

I changed schools, I took time off from school, I found my way back to West Virginia University and I found a camera.

Nothing helped until I found the camera.

When I returned to WVU, I needed to fill a course load. It was recommended that I take a class or two that interested me, thinking that could help pave a future path for me to walk along. That advice given by then Director of Undergraduate Advising Anita Mayer would prove pivotal as I would choose to take a class in Photojournalism.

That class led me to a multiple-year job as a photographer and as the art director at The Daily Athenaeum, WVU’s acclaimed independent student newspaper. That job led me to opportunities as a photojournalist around West Virginia, and those jobs led me to DKPittsburghSports.com, a site I’d admired since conception, operated by a columnist I’d admired at his previous employers.

All of the photography jobs I’ve had were awarded to me because of the sports niche I found my way into and the name I’d made as a sports photographer. And, it was my return to sports which ultimately saved me.

I never felt ‘right’ at other jobs. I don’t like desks, I don’t like predetermined hours. I love writing about sports, I love photographing sports and I love my job.

We are two days away from June 20 — a day that I will always remember. My good friend and my favorite adult-league goaltender, Adam Marshalek, copied me in a tweet by Dejan Kovacevic asking for applications from photographers who wanted to join the team.

I was working a long day when I was tagged in it, but I stayed up that evening, wrote a cover letter to my updated resume, chose a selection of photos, and I sent my application at roughly 4 a.m. on June 21, 2016. Dejan responded almost instantly, and my continued happiness would head to Pittsburgh to work for the man and site I admired so deeply for the talented displays.

I know what you are thinking, “What prompted the concussion talk for this Sunday’s Best, anyway?”

Well, two nights ago at PNC Park, Addison Russell decided to give me my current ‘last’ concussion (I told you we’d get back to that).

Friday night, photographing the Pittsburgh Pirates Homestead Grays as they took on the World Series Champions, I was focused on a sure-thing celebration by Felipe Rivero when I heard a crack, started to move, saw a blur of a ball hit by Russell and felt it as ricocheted off of a padded post and punched me in the side of the head.

You can see that photo at the top of this article, the only time I can imagine a Sunday’s Best featuring someone else’s photograph at the top of the text. Gene Puskar of the Associated Press captured the swing, his eyes on us and the ball heading toward me.

Here it is in GIF form:

My glasses flew off, the left lens sailing into the Pirates’ dugout, the ball following it there on another bounce or two and I reached to the side of my head to make sure I wasn’t bleeding. I was, but not badly.

A team doctor offered me a towel to wipe the blood from my nose, presumably from my glasses, cleaned me up with an alcohol swab and then cauterized the wound with some type of brown vial. He suggested it would burn, but it did the job so I was thankful for it.

A few questions later, I offered a thumbs up and insisted I was ok. I should have probably known better then.

Fellow photographer and friend Charles LeClaire grabbed my glasses for me, I retrieved my lens from the police officer working the bench and popped it back into place, someone on the Pirates side cleaned up my glasses for me and I went back to business as usual.

Here’s a look at my glasses’ left lens being discovered. It’s also good to see that my man Jose Osuna looks concerned. He must know I’m an advocate for more Osuna bombs:

‘Chuck’ also informed me that Ivan Nova recovered the ball and tossed it into the stands. Not realizing that should have been enough of an indication that I was concussed. His doing so broke the golden rule: You wear one in the photo pit, you keep it. Of course, Nova doesn’t know that, and I’d rather a fan walk away happy with my concussion ball anyway.

By the end of the game, I had developed enough of a headache and dizziness to allow myself to be checked over by the team docs, and I’m glad. The second I was asked to close my eyes, put my hands on my hips and stand straight I started to sway. I could feel it — reminiscent of the feeling of drifting on a boat while the motor is shut down.

I’d be lying if I said it didn’t scare me a bit with my history. I tear up a bit when I think back to my 2001-02 high school season and think of my athletic life being cut off, even today as I wrote about it ‘while concussed.’

But, this isn’t a sob story, or a sad one. I’ll heal up after some time off from the ballpark this weekend and this week, and I’ll be just as happy to hit the diamond at my next opportunity.

If anything, this is a story about how incredibly special and rewarding it feels getting chance to be a part of a Stanley Cup presentation, an AFC Championship Game or your everyday baseball outing.

I think this thought a lot: Ever since I picked up a camera, every day I wake up and get to shoot baseball is a day I never expected, but always dreamed of.

Kind of ironic, huh? Concussions, in a way, paved my path to my career, and led me to the happiest I’ve ever been in life.

This is a Sunday’s Best, so I will leave you with an image from the game. It’s my favorite, by far, and I shot it on my iPhone. Sometimes you just use what you have in the moment you need it:

Andrew McCutchen takes the field in his Homestead Grays uniform under the setting sun. – MATT SUNDAY / DKPS