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High Schools | Eric Sondheimer

Living Pain-Staking Reality of Football

October 05, 2003|Eric Sondheimer

Ryan Leary, a two-way starter for the Laguna Hills football team, was feeling a bit euphoric after swallowing two Vicodin, a powerful pain-killing drug.

Lying in his bed last week, Leary was surprisingly alert one day after a three-hour surgery to repair a broken leg and a detached deltoid ligament in his ankle.

He'd already been restricted to his bed for more than a week, waiting for the swelling to reduce, giving him time to fill out college applications and work on solving a Rubik's Cube.

"I'm pretty darn close," he said.

One day later, Leary wasn't feeling so chipper. A fever had set in.

"He's miserable," his mother, Caroline, said.

Welcome to the consequences of sustaining a serious injury playing high school football.

Cracked bones. Torn ligaments. Excruciating pain. There's no denying the worst aspect of football.

"Football isn't a contact sport, it's a collision sport," Vince Lombardi once said.

With players becoming bigger, faster and stronger, no amount of technological advances in equipment or leaps in playing surfaces are going to make injuries disappear.

Some parents must think of their sons as zombies on Saturday morning as they rise from bed stiff, sore and aching.

"I couldn't even get out of bed after the Carson game," Woodland Hills Taft linebacker Wallace Bates said. "The back of my neck was killing me and my hip.... It's scary a little bit. I know football knocks eight to 10 years off your life."

Orthopedic offices are busy on Mondays in the fall, with injured football players lined up for evaluations and treatment.

Medical advances such as the magnetic resonance imaging machine help diagnose injuries more thoroughly and faster, but they don't provide a quick fix for broken bones and torn tendons.

The emotional toll can be far more damaging than the physical injury. Season-ending injuries in the opening two weeks have wiped out senior years.

"This was his year of glory," Caroline said of Ryan. "It's heartbreaking to see it all taken away in the first game."

Head and neck injuries are a parent's greatest fear. There were seven football-related fatalities in 2001 and eight permanent paralysis injuries, according to the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury. Last year, there were three deaths.

Two weeks ago, Reseda's Nick Zemke collapsed during his team's game against Woodland Hills El Camino Real. He underwent brain surgery and remains in a coma.

For all the misery associated with injuries, few express regret about choosing football. No matter how dangerous the sport might seem, they insist the thrills and satisfaction it provides far outweigh the risks.

Running back Tep Royster of North Hollywood Harvard-Westlake scored three touchdowns in the first 18 minutes of his season opener. Then he sustained a torn knee ligament.

"That's my senior year, one half," he said. "Injuries happen. What can you do?"

Standing on the sideline with the aid of crutches, Royster, the brother of former USC running back Mazio Royster, said he still has a positive attitude.

"In all sports, you have risks of getting hurt, but that shouldn't deter anyone," he said.

Tyler Hawkins, a sophomore starter at Canyon Country Canyon, had surgery for a broken leg and showed up the day he was released from the hospital in a wheelchair to watch his teammates play Etiwanda.

Despite having taken Demerol and Vicodin, Hawkins winced in pain as his father, Bill, gingerly tried to move him. As much as his father worried about injuries, he wasn't about to deny his son the opportunity to play football.

"He's a very driven boy and it's what he loves to do and he's in pain if he's not playing," he said.

Another Canyon player, Kevin Barto, broke his leg two weeks earlier in a scrimmage and was on crutches. He remembered how he felt twisting in agony.

"You felt sick to your stomach," he said. "I was more in pain because I couldn't play anymore. If it wasn't my leg, I'd tape it up and play. I just don't want to miss another game."

It's as if these players think of themselves as gladiators. They put on helmets, gloves, pads and mouthpieces, then engage in battle.

Sometimes injuries happen without contact. A player's cleat gets caught in the grass. A player's knee gives out after making a hard cut. But collisions between big and small players are worrisome.

Dr. Richard Ferkel, a Van Nuys-based orthopedic surgeon, said he envisions the day of a 400-pound, well-conditioned lineman in the NFL.

"And everything that happens in the pros works itself down to high school," he said. "When a collision occurs, it's like a collision between a Volkswagen and an Explorer. What's going to happen?"

Leary knows the answer. He's 5-foot-9, 180 pounds. He was trying to tackle a ballcarrier when he was struck in the left leg by a helmet in Laguna Hills' season opener. His leg was repaired with the help of a metal plate and eight screws.

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