Left down and out

Brain injuries end careers of Cesa, Waddell

Concussion consequences

December 24, 2007|By Heather A. Dinich and Ken Murray | Heather A. Dinich and Ken Murray,Sun Reporters

His brain felt like a ripe melon "ready to blow up."

Former Maryland fullback Tim Cesa switched helmets four times during the 2006 season in search of one that would protect his head from additional concussions.

None of them helped.

After a series of five or six concussions over almost two seasons, Cesa's career ended with a final hit on the first play against Florida State on Oct. 28, 2006. Now, as a manager at R.J. Bentley's Filling Station, Cesa's only tie to the football program is through fans who pack the popular downtown bar.

It's the only connection he can handle while he finishes school.

Adam Waddell's football career at Johns Hopkins came to a screeching halt when he dived for a pass in practice last summer and didn't get up. What appeared to be insignificant contact with the artificial turf at Homewood Field became, by Waddell's estimate, the 10th concussion he suffered since seventh-grade flag football.

Cesa and Waddell serve as sobering reminders of the risk inherent in multiple head traumas. It's a lesson not lost on Maryland quarterback Jordan Steffy, who suffered his latest in a series of concussions Sept. 29 against Rutgers and has not started since. Steffy won't start in Friday's Emerald Bowl against Oregon State but has appeared in the Terps' past two games.

The medical community is still trying to understand the lingering aftereffects and long-term implications of mild traumatic brain injury. Players of all age groups - from peewee leagues to the NFL - are finally realizing the hazards of an injury that has been misdiagnosed and underreported for years.

In the interest of returning to the field, players are quick to dismiss symptoms that should set off alarms. Too often, they risk more trauma because of misperception or stubbornness.

Waddell, a quarterback who moved to wide receiver his junior year, came to the realization that each concussion he endured made him more vulnerable to the next. He says at least four of his concussions have been significant.

"I thought this was just something that happened in football, and I thought other kids were having it just as much," he said. "It wasn't until I came to Hopkins and had two decently strong concussions that they actually gave me some tests. Then I realized normal kids aren't going through what I'm going through. Normal kids aren't getting knocked out in a play, coming to real quick and continuing to play."

`You just can't stop it'

Steffy has had four concussions - two at Maryland, and two in high school. He was cleared to play four weeks after the last one but didn't get on the field for three more weeks.

"Everything we've always been taught as football players is to stretch it to the limits," Cesa said. "But this is one thing you just can't stretch to the limits. You have to get out while you can, or you're looking at a poor quality of life later down the road."

Why is it worth the risk for Steffy?

"Good question," Steffy said. "I don't know. There's such a fine line between fighting through something and being stupid. At this point, obviously yes, I've had several concussions and there's a risk, but I have faith in God. I've been praying, and I haven't felt that it's my time to stop yet."

He also has no way to decrease the chances of another one.

Said Cesa: "He can wear an army tank on his head. I wore every helmet we could buy. You just can't stop it. It's always going to be there."

Cesa won't go near the stadium and can't bear to watch the games. He lost interest in the sport, lost the direction in his life and fears some former teammates are facing the same downward spiral.

"In the end, the doctors don't know. [Maryland coach] Ralph Friedgen doesn't know. Even your teammates don't know," Cesa said. "You're the only one that knows how you feel. When I was telling everybody I was OK and I could play, I was the only one that knew I really probably shouldn't be playing."

The agenda of an injured player is to get back on the field as soon as possible. In Altoona, Pa., where Waddell grew up, he was no different. When he suffered a severe concussion in 11th grade, he had to pass prescribed tests to play again. One test was to run 800 yards without getting dizzy or nauseated.

"I was just trying to find a way to run the 800," Waddell said. "When you're young, you don't even realize what a concussion really is. You don't understand the implications of how severe a concussion can really be."

It wasn't until Waddell went to Hopkins that he got the message. In 2006, his sophomore season, he suffered concussions two weeks apart. The first time, he was knocked unconscious by a thrown ball while sitting out practice. The second came on helmet-to-helmet contact in a game and left him with blurred vision.

Both times, he was sent to the hospital for tests by Matt Bussman, Hopkins' associate athletic trainer.

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