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After another head injury, David Ash must be tough enough to walk away

After another head injury, David Ash must be tough enough to walk away Photo:

AUSTIN, Texas -- David Ash paused before he answered the question. The Texas quarterback wanted to make sure he was understood because he knew it was a thorny issue. I asked him 13 days ago if he had doubts about whether he’d play again after concussions ended his 2013 season after three games. This is what he said.

“Last year is kind of over and gone,” said Ash, who was cleared by team doctors to play this past spring. “My family and I are people of faith. So I’m looking to the future. My mentality is to have faith that God is in control, and whatever happens is going to happen. I’m not worried about it. I can’t go living my life in fear.”

Whatever happens happened on the first play of the Longhorns’ second series Saturday against North Texas. Ash picked up a fumbled snap and got hit in the crown of his helmet by Mean Green defensive end Jarrian Roberts. Ash didn’t linger on the turf. He popped right up and kept on playing. If Ash noticed any ill effects from the hit, he didn’t tell anyone. None of the Longhorns’ coaches noticed anything off about the redshirt junior from Belton, Texas. Ash finished the game, completing 19 of 34 passes for 190 yards and a touchdown in a 38-7 Texas win. “He was OK when he left here,” Texas coach Charlie Strong said Monday. “We got a call, and we were able to get him with the trainers.” A few hours after the game, Ash called to tell trainers that he was experiencing dizziness and a headache. Ash told trainers he believed the first-quarter hit caused the injury.

Strong announced Monday that Ash wouldn’t play Saturday against BYU. The coach would not speculate on Ash’s football future beyond that, but given how Texas has handled concussions in recent years, it’s doubtful he plays another snap as a Longhorn. Strong did make one thing clear. “You have to be concerned any time you have that number of concussions,” Strong said. “You’re always concerned about the young man’s health. You would never jeopardize the young man’s health just for your football team.”

Ash’s situation encapsulates the complexity of the concussion issue in football. The game teaches a lot of qualities that serve players well on and off the field. It teaches them to persevere through discomfort, to sacrifice for teammates, to mentally push through physical obstacles. Unfortunately, these same traits work against players when it comes to concussions. A player can see a bone sticking through his skin. He knows to stop trying to get up and play. He can’t see a bruise on his brain. He’s trained to alert coaches and trainers of serious injuries and play through the aches and pains. But if the symptoms don’t show up until hours after the game, how can the player alert the trainer during the game?

Concussion research has shown some of the most serious damage is done when the brain has an injury that hasn’t healed. That’s one way boxers die in the ring. Ash, who in the weeks after concussion No. 2 last year wasn’t allowed by doctors to stand on the sidelines during games because of the brightness of the lights, took more hits to the head Saturday after the one he believes injured him.

Hopefully, Ash hasn’t suffered any permanent damage. Hopefully, this won’t cause him problems later in life. Hopefully, he decides no game is worth his long-term health.

Anyone who has played football understands Ash’s mentality. You want to play. You don’t want to let down your teammates. You want to be tough. And when the pain comes from nagging muscle soreness from a hit or a tough practice, that’s exactly the correct attitude to have. Learning to push through in football helps players learn to push through the day-to-day difficulties the world throws at them later as working, tax-paying, child-rearing adults. Unfortunately, this is precisely the wrong attitude to have when dealing with a head injury. Pushing through only endangers the player more. Everything he has been taught works against him.

No player wants to be labeled as soft, and the current research on concussions is so new that we have yet to see a generation of players reared with a healthy fear of brain injuries. So they want to just keep playing, no matter what. For an example, consider a statement from Texas receiver John Harris on Monday. A reporter asked Harris about the offseason suggestions by some that Ash quit football. “If I had to tell David, I would tell him don’t ever let anybody tell you to quit. Quitting is not an option,” Harris said. “That’s the easiest thing you can do. Somebody told me one time that if you walk away from it, you’ll walk away from anything else the rest of your life. So he shouldn’t quit. That’s that last thing he should do.” Harris was not being insensitive. He wasn’t disregarding the health of his teammate. He was parroting what he’s been told his entire career. When the subject is almost anything other than brain trauma, it’s great advice.

So I asked Harris this: “What if the doctor tells him it might kill him?” Harris’ tone changed immediately. “Well,” Harris said, “he needs to listen to the doctor.” This is football’s dilemma. The mentality that makes the game great entertainment and a great teaching tool for youngsters makes it dangerous in this one critical area. Most players know no game is worth their lives or their long-term mental health, but it’s especially tough to make them understand the risk in the heat of the moment. 

Texas will move on without Ash. Sophomore Tyrone Swoopes will start, and freshman Jerrod Heard will be the backup. Strong said Ash, Swoopes and Heard split reps evenly in camp, which suggests Texas coaches were preparing for the likelihood that Ash would miss time. During the offseason, Strong showed Ash a video cut-up of the big hits Ash took his first three years and pleaded with the quarterback to avoid contact whenever possible. “I don’t need to see how tough you are,” Strong said in August.

We know Ash is tough. We know he cares about his teammates. Now we’ll see if he can take his own health into account. During that interview two weeks ago, Ash elaborated more on his choice to return to the field. “I’m not going to live my life going, ‘Man, I wish I would have tried again,’” he said. “I’m going to live my life going, ‘Hey, I tried.’ And it either worked out or it didn’t.”

He tried. Now it’s time to consider the long life ahead.

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