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Unbeaten but Not Invincible : Brain Injuries to 2 Players Have Had Sobering Effect on Ventura

October 29, 1987|MIKE HISERMAN | Times Staff Writer

Not many football teams would mind swapping records with Ventura High.

The Cougars are 7-0, the only undefeated team in the Coastal Conference. They have outscored opponents by 102 points. There has been only one close game.

Without a doubt, Ventura is having a memorable season. It's just that part of it will be remembered for the wrong reason.

Jayson Webb is standing on the Ventura sideline, feet spread, hands on knees. He is wearing jeans, football jersey No. 79 and a black and yellow "Cougars" cap.

Barely noticeable below the rim of the cap is a scar running along his hairline. It is the only visible evidence that explains why Webb is cheerleading instead of jamming his shoulder pads into the gut of a Rio Mesa linebacker.

Webb, a senior, was projected to start at offensive guard for the Cougars until Aug. 28, only two weeks before the start of the season.

It was his last day as a football player.

During contact drills that day, Webb delivered a hard hit. And he had a headache to show for it.

Later, during another blocking drill, he got sick to his stomach.

He was taken to the team's field house, but his condition worsened. The next thing Webb remembers is waking up in the intensive care unit of the Ventura County Medical Center.

Hours before, doctors had completed surgery to remove a blot clot from his brain.

Webb's teammates were stunned.

"A lot of things went through my mind," said Tran Sanders, who has filled Webb's position on the offensive line. "but you can't play scared because that's when you get hurt."

The Ventura players convinced themselves of that. They talked about it, prayed about it, and all the while tried not to worry about it ever happening again.

Then it did.

On Oct. 6, one day after Webb returned to school, Jason Bennett, a senior nose tackle, suffered a similar injury.

He made a hard tackle during a contact drill and felt so good about it he was bragging a little after practice. He felt just fine except for a slight headache, which quickly worsened when he got home.

"I was talking to my girlfriend on the phone," Bennett said, "when my head started pounding." A short time later, he got sick in his backyard. "I started thinking, 'This is what happened to Jayson,' " he said.

Bennett was taken to the hospital for tests, but by time he arrived he was already convinced that he had an injury similar to Webb's. The tests confirmed it.

"I never thought it would happen to me," he said. "The thought of it never crossed my mind. Not even after what happened to Jayson."

Bennett had two operations. The first time on the night of his injury and six days later when he went into convulsions. Another blood clot was found and removed, forcing a lengthier hospital stay.

But Bennett had a friend--more than one, actually--to help him through.

"Jayson was there every day," Bennett said. "He even made me cookies."

There is not a player on the Ventura roster who has not considered the possibility of serious injury by now.

Never mind that the manufacturer of the team's helmets was called out to double-check the safety of each and every piece of equipment. The Cougars have been reminded that they are mortal even if they are undefeated.

"It's an abstract stress point," Coach Harvey Kochel said. "It keeps you from feeling the full excitement of our accomplishments. This season should be a real happy one, but I think the players and coaches have been more worried about the health of our two guys.

"Some things are more important."

Surprisingly, neither injury adversely affected the team's performance. Kochel attributes this businesslike attitude to the players being as sound of mind as they are of body.

"We are fortunate to have extremely high-caliber players and people on this team," Kochel said. "We have a lot of fairly religious boys, which has helped, I think. When Jayson Webb got hurt, the whole team was on their knees in a pack saying a prayer for him. We prayed for Jason Bennett in a team meeting.

"It depends on what you think of the religious aspects of life, but I think it's helped this team a lot. Life goes on. Neither one of those guys wants us to go out and lose or not play well because we're worried about them."

The team has dedicated the season to the injured teammates. And, although they won't again be able to play, Webb and Bennett already can be credited with an assist.

Ventura's only close game this season was against Hueneme, a Channel League rival. The game took place four days after Bennett's injury.

Ventura trailed, 24-6, at the half.

"We were getting killed," Sanders said. "We kept saying, 'We can't lose. We have to make sure we win for Jason.' "

After Kochel gave his halftime instructions to the team, Webb got up and gave a little speech. "I mainly told them that they had to want it in their hearts and minds," Webb said.

Ventura won, 29-24.

Since his return to school, Webb has attended football practice each day and helped coach the offensive line.

His football playing days are over, as are Bennett's, but his athletic career may continue this spring. An outfielder on the varsity baseball team last season, Webb has been cleared to try out again.

Coaching, he says, helps take some of the frustration away from not being able to play football.

"It gets me down sometimes to think that I can't play," he said. "It meant so much. But I'm lucky to be here. I know that. There's more to life than playing football."

Bennett came home from the hospital Oct. 17, and will attend Ventura's homecoming game against Dos Pueblos on Friday night. He should be back to school in two weeks.

And he can hardly wait.

"Everybody sent me cards and a lot of stuff that helped me get better," Bennett said. "I never knew that many people cared about me. I miss school right now. And I never missed school before in my life."

The proverbial silver lining?

"No," Bennett said. "I think it's been more like a golden lining."

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