College Football Week 10: Concussions still hazy

This week was dressed up as an action-packed weekend of pigskin, with the most top 25 matchups in college football history. My reaction was sort of, meh.  My squad, BC, was on a bye. Yes you read that right I am a fan of one of the hottest teams in college football who have, for a moment, left the dumspter fire of a program the last 5-6 years for the road to respectability, or so it seems.

But between that and the SEC being highly overrated the last two years, I wasn’t particularly thrilled. LSU CANNOT score to save their lives so the ‘Bama matchup meant absolutely nothing to me. The Big 10 is usually a field goal fest although they all put up pretty big scores today. And the Big 12 prides itself on arena league scores.

Either way I found myself watching the UMass-Missippi State game on ESPN3 on my laptop. Yes, I was that bored. And although I may not be a UMass fan per se, I like a good underdog story and it never hurts to have another college football power in my neck of the woods. Besides, they lose virtually every game by one score and I figured today would be no different.

I actually didn’t tune in until the second half, when UMass was leading 20-13 behind a pick six and a long TD pass by quarterback Ross Comis. After a few Nick Fitzgerald touchdown drives (135 yards rushing, 2 TD’s) the Minutemen found themselves with the ball after Isaih Rodgers second pick of the day. Down 27-20, they worked their way down into Bulldog territory and field goal range.

Then, with Comis dropped back to pass, Johnathan Abrams came for Comis like a heat-seeking missile, taking a brutal headshot at the quarterback, which sent him to the ground violently where he lay motionless for more than a quick glance. After regaining consciousness Comis looked for Abrams but instead found his nearest teammates, basically looking to tell someone that they were a bitch for taking such a cheapshot and their best player out of the game. Not to mention that a team gearing up for ‘Bama had to resort to such tactics late in the third quarter (or early fourth, who cares) against a 2-6 team that lost to Old Dominion.

Comis then made his way to the UMass sideline looking visibly shaken up. He was surprisingly alert and talking to teammates. Play resumed and Comis stayed out in favor of Andrew Ford for a grand total of ONE play. Comis returned and was visibly woozy getting to the huddle but looked like a walking liability when rolling out on the next play. The Minutemen were forced to take a field goal to make the game 27-23.

Comis was then hit hard again late in the fourth quarter, after the Bulldogs had put the game on ice with a long punt return for a touchdown. This time he required medical attention on the field, where you could say some type of hell broke loose. UMass coach Mark Whipple got into State coach Dan Mullen’s face, probably about his players headhunting and such. Meanwhile a fight broke out between two UMass players, possibly about protecting Comis.

Comis was then removed from the game, but by then the damage had long been done, both to Comis and the Minutemen football team. The decision was clear: our only chance at a program-defining win like beating an SEC team on the road is to have our best player on the field. Putting the Minutemen’s chances ahead of Comis’ safety and long-term well-being are shortsighted at best.

A 19 or 20 year-old kid should not simply be able to tell the coaching staff or medical personnel “I’m good.” That’s what they’re there for. To be the adults. Coaches constantly preach the main goal of their duty in the college ranks to be not wins and losses, but shaping young men. It’s safe to say that didn’t happen today. Instead, there was a coach and a program looking for a shot at a big win at the expense of a college student’s livelihood.

It is now clear that all of the safeguards in place at both the collegiate and professional level are not enough. If someone trained to spot concussion-like symptoms can’t remove a player who is clearly concussed from a game without fear of facing the coaching staff’s wrath, then what is the point? Plausible deniability is always the play here. “Well if we knew he was in such bad shape he wouldn’t have been out there. The safety of our student-athletes is always our number one concern.”

All too often something similar happens across the football landscape. Just last week, Tennessee offensive lineman Brett Kendrick played an entire game with an obvious concussion, only being removed after being seen vomiting on the sidelines. Players and coaches alike had acknowledged seeing him looking shaky.

However, when pressed for comment, no one had anything to say. Tennessee came out with a statement in the last few days, basically saying that nothing happened because it didn’t happen because we love and care about our student-athletes so much that we won’t even mention their name in the statement because it never happened and there is no student in question and also lawsuits are expensive.

In the most highly visible case in 2015, Case Keenum of the St. Louis Rams suffered an obvious concussion in a game. Keenum stumbled to the ground at one point getting back to the huddle and teammates and fans alike were probably wondering what the hell he was doing out there.

Which brings me to my next point. So clearly, in 2017, we are not in a stage in football where trainers have enough power to take athletes out of games due to concussion-like symptoms. If they have to go, they have to go. Regardless of the CTE research that came to light, linking the deaths of 110 of 111 former NFL players who had their brains donated to the degenerative brain disease.

But, aside from legitimately caring about people’s lives and not wanting someone to die on the field, which I am still convinced we are getting closer to seeing each and ever year, I must raise a question for high-level college and pro coaches.

Is a wobbly Case Keenum or Ross Comis better than a healthy back-up? No, no they are not. In fact, neither is even a proven starter and has had to fight for playing time.

I will go as far to say that even if Tom Brady had suffered a concussion in similar severity that he would be less effective than the back-up (even after Garoppolo’s departure, so long Jimmy).

It’s an issue I’ve always felt strongly about. And it doesn’t have to be just head injuries. Your point guard’s leg is basically broken? Yeah, no. Don’t care if you’re MJ or Lebron. And MJ played through a flu, not a brain-battering. No consideration at all should be given to how badly the athlete wants to play. They’re either healthy or they’re not. And yes, “healthy” in the NFL is a very pejorative term. The message should be clear, you can play on a sprained ankle, but a damaged ligament or a not-so-good brain are nothing to fuck with.

To get back to Comis, you also have to keep the perspective in mind. Comis plays for UMass, and like the vast majority of UMass players, has no NFL future. He is not a certified first-rounder, nor will he be a late-round pickup. One would surmise this is the type of thought that would find its way to coach Mark Whipple’s brain (unless similar repeated blows to the head render him uncapable of making decisions) who has worked with the Steelers and Browns as an offensive coordinator.

So surely, Whipple put on his thinking cap, and he did have a cap on, I think. But not his thinking cap, unfortunately. The sad reality is that not only was Comis’ long-term future in jeopardy, the Minutemen still didn’t stand a great chance to win the game.

Even down 27-23, that ship had sailed. The Minutemen D was gassed and had no answer for mobile QB Nick Fitzgerald in the second half. Then the punt return was taken to the house by Deddrick Thomas and that was all she wrote.

Now the Minutemen will fly back to the friendly confines of Amherst, where Comis will nurse his pulsating headache and lightheadedness and god-knows-what-else in the solace of his dorm room. Only then, in the following days, will the toll this game took on him become apparent. The medical staff will tend to him. Coaches will feign concern. All eyes will be on his recovery. But it is all for naught, as once Comis lines up inside the hashes again, his coaches will be ready to exploit his athletic ability at a moment’s notice. For the glory that comes with beating the Maine Black Bears.

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