If only I had told someone about the crack in my helmet, if only I had run around the defender, if only I didn’t play in the championship game, if only I did what I knew I should have done all along… if only.
I woke up at six in the morning. The game wasn’t until ten o’clock but I wanted to get there early. It’s not like I would have slept much later anyway because this was what I was thinking about all last night. After all, I was waiting for this the whole season. Just beat East River Middle and we would be guaranteed a spot in this year’s championship game. When I got to the frost-covered field it was deserted. Not many people would choose to sit outside in the early morning in November. I sat down in the corner of the bleachers and waited for the rest of my team to show up. It wasn’t long before other players wearing red-and-gold uniforms arrived at our home field. We started to gear up. I pulled my team helmet out of my bag and noticed the slightest little crack on the crown. I turned it around to look at the inside and noticed that one of the pads was out of position and half peeled away. It felt totally normal when it was buckled up so I jogged onto the field and didn’t give it a second thought.
I knew this was a big game for me because when you’re the star running back and it’s the semifinals, the whole team is counting on you to perform well. The first half our offense moved like clockwork and we had a good lead. It was the middle of the fourth quarter, just a normal draw play, just a normal run, just a normal hit. So I thought. He hit me right in the head. Instead of hitting the padding, my forehead hit plastic. I went down. Hard. I sat there dazed for a moment but then hustled to the sideline still dizzy. Now I knew something was wrong. I didn’t go back in for the rest of the game because we were already winning by so much. After the game I didn’t feel much better, still dizzy and tired, and I kept wondering to myself, Was my helmet still in good condition? Was I going to be able to play on Sunday? I have had hits to the head before, but none were as bad as that one.
There were only four days until the championship game and during that time things took a turn for the worse. I kept getting severe headaches and the first two days after the game I was sent home both days because I was throwing up at school. The night before the championship game, I sat alone in my room, wondering if I should play tomorrow. I remembered getting told over and over again that, if you get a bad hit to the head twice in a row, the consequences were severe. My parents asked me time and time again if I was OK to play the next day. I couldn’t tell anyone about the helmet because then they would connect the dots and think I had a head injury. I started to weigh my options but was so blinded by the fact that it was the final game of the season and our shot to win the title that I went against everything and decided to play. On the way to the game the next day I had that feeling in the pit of my stomach, like the one that you get when you know something is going to go wrong, and I kept wondering, Am I going to regret this decision?
I forgot about everything when we arrived at the stadium. There were tens of thousands of people there—well, not exactly, maybe a hundred at most, but in my eyes I was playing in the Super Bowl. I got so immersed in my surroundings that my common sense went away, and I thought I was going to be fine during the game, but that little pit in my stomach was saying otherwise. For the first half of the game I forgot about my headaches, I forgot about my broken helmet, and I forgot that I was still vulnerable to a severe hit. All was fine until the end of the third quarter when I was sandwiched by two giant linemen. I got up and went back to the huddle, but my symptoms returned. It was a tie game and my conscience was telling me to go to the sideline and tell coach that I couldn’t play. That pit in the bottom of my stomach was still there but I thought that if I stayed on the field I could score the winning touchdown, so once again I went against what I knew I should really have done and I stayed on the field. I kept thinking about one thing though: Will this be a decision that I will regret?
I managed to survive the whole fourth quarter and now we were down by six with only twenty seconds left. We were on the fifteen-yard line. First and ten was a pass play. Incomplete. Second down. Gain of two. A field goal wouldn’t tie the game. We needed a touchdown. Part of me wanted to be the star and score, but that uneasy feeling just kept getting worse and worse. Regret. Regret. Regret. I couldn’t get it to stop running through my head.
It was a simple run. A draw play down the middle. The same play where I got hit the first time, except this time the stakes were much higher. The gap opened perfectly, I got the ball and took off down field. At the two-yard line I lifted my head and saw a defender running straight at me. During that split second a million things ran through my mind: I should’ve told about my helmet, I should’ve sat out today, I should’ve just walked off the field, I should’ve listened to the pit in my stomach. And at that moment I was angry at myself and wished I could just stop time and run off the field, but it was too late. I collided with him helmet to helmet at the goal line and everything went black.
* * *
I woke up in a strange room. Immediately I could tell that it was a hospital room. White walls, plain sheets, and I was in a hospital gown. I looked around and saw something on the bedside table. It was a green-and-silver trophy that said first place. That means that I made it into the end zone and scored the winning touchdown. I smiled for a second but then saw my parents sitting in the corner of the room looking sorrowful. Sitting next to them was a man in a white lab coat who I assumed was the doctor. He explained what had happened to me and told me that I had a very severe concussion. And then he gave it to me straight, he didn’t sugarcoat it at all. “I’m sorry, but you may never be able to play football again.” I couldn’t believe what he was saying so I just stared. Never play football again... Those words were ringing like an alarm in the back of my head. So I scored the championship winning touchdown, but I may never be able to play the game again. Was it worth it?
I’d say not.