It was just a normal midseason practice. No full contact allowed, per school rules, so the players hit dummies to practice their tackling.
It was just a normal hit. The player dove toward the dummy, like he had countless times before. But he fell awkwardly, hitting the ground head-first. He got up a bit dazed, and he moved on with the drill.
It’s normal to play through injuries on Penn sprint football, that player — and many of his teammates — said. He continued on to finish the week of practice, and he played a full game that weekend against Chestnut Hill. The Quakers triumphed over the Griffins on the day, 20-7.
But at the end of the game, Kevin Lajeunesse couldn’t tell his athletic trainers and medical staff what month it was.
Lajeunesse had suffered a concussion earlier that week and played on, exacerbating its symptoms and leaving him in a state of unforeseen impairment. He was not medically cleared to play for the rest of the season, and he limped through his classes for the rest of the semester.
For Lajeunesse, and at least two of his teammates during the 2017 season, playing through concussions forced them to suffer serious consequences. Not only did they have to walk away from the sport they loved all their lives, but they also had to consider whether to continue on at school.
What follows is an account of the journeys of Lajeunesse, Matt Gorman, and Connor Ashton as they faced the dark potential consequences of playing sprint football for Penn, struggled to recover from their injuries, and came to terms with life after college athletics.
As they looked back on their time on sprint football, however, none had regrets about how they spent their time or about the decisions they made. They said they would do it all again.
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“I Paid For It Dearly”
When Lajeunesse, a College junior, got up dazed, he didn’t know he would be feeling the effects one year later. But as he sat down to chat with a coffee in his trembling hand and special light-reducing sunglasses hooked over his Penn Athletics shirt, he was just glad the worst was behind him.
In the weeks following his concussion, he had a hard time sleeping, and he suffered from raging headaches and extreme sensitivity to light. He struggled to keep up with classes, having suffered the injury not even halfway through the semester.
This was his first diagnosed concussion. “I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t seen stars before,” he noted, however. Previously, the symptoms had gone away. Most concussion symptoms clear within two or three weeks, but he was diagnosed with Post-Concussion Syndrome, meaning his symptoms could last for much longer.
Everyday life became more difficult for him, especially when it came to exerting cognitive energy.
“I strongly considered the possibility [of taking a leave of absence] given how I was finishing out my first semester,” Lajeunesse said. “I took my chemistry final exam because I was locked into that class that semester, and after I finished the final, I went home and laid in bed for three days.”
Resting over winter break didn’t alleviate his symptoms. He still suffered from the headaches, ocular migraines — which he described as like lightning bolts shooting across his field of vision — poor balance, and more. Nonetheless, he chose to return to campus rather than take a medical leave of absence.
Lajeunesse studies neuroscience as a BBB major. (“It’s painfully ironic,” he quipped.)
The following semester, however, he avoided a tough STEM course load, electing instead to knock out general education requirements and limp through the year as he waited for his brain to heal. He got through the next few months by attending lectures with his eyes closed, by going home in between his classes — strategically scheduled an hour apart — to lie down for 15 minutes, and by listening to audiobooks rather than reading.
Even still, he said, “I felt like I was trying to win a boxing match with an arm tied behind my back.”
He made it through the semester, took summer classes to get back on track, and said he even felt good enough for a full course load this fall. Halfway through the semester, Lajeunesse said he is even beating the curve in all of his premed classes.
But he still wakes up in the middle of the night with the tingly feeling of needles sticking in his face. His doctors can’t explain the phenomenon. For periods during the day, he feels dazed, and he still has a tremor in his hand. He has recently made a slow return to basic exercise, but has had to give up his long-time hobbies of skiing and weightlifting for good.
A year on, he wonders what might have been different if he hadn’t played on after getting up dazed.
“I can’t help but wonder, if I had said, ‘Hey, Kevin, something’s not right,’ and stopped after that day I got dinged in practice instead of playing through it. Would I have been able to recover in a week or two as most people do, instead of suffering for a year? That’s something I have to live with. I might still be playing sports.”
“I shook mine off, and I paid for it dearly.”
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“It Got Worse Before It Got Better”
In the face of their own concussions, College sophomore Connor Ashton and Engineering sophomore Matt Gorman decided that they needed time off from school.
Their concussions came just a week apart — in games on Oct. 20 and 27, respectively. Ashton can’t remember exactly what happened, instead recalling that he started to feel worse as the first half against Post went on.
“I could feel it coming on: decreased peripheral vision, loss of coordination, and by halftime just walking around, I could feel that I had one,” he said. He pulled himself from the game at halftime, and the trainers diagnosed him with a concussion.
Gorman played through his. After a nasty hit against Navy the following weekend left him getting up dazed, he declined to seek medical treatment and continued playing through the rest of the game, before missing the team's final two contests. For his outstanding performances, he was named the Collegiate Sprint Football League’s Co-Newcomer of the Year.
“All my career, I’ve been playing through injuries like nothing,” Gorman said. “I tore my ACL in junior year of high school, and I played five games on it. I’ve gotten countless concussions that I’ve played through. It was always, ‘Can I keep going? Can I play through it?’
“I get through the season, and things go downhill from there,” he continued. “I can’t study, I can’t focus, I can’t sleep. I was used to, at the end of the season, if I had a head injury, it would usually just go away, but it just got worse. That’s when I realized I was gonna have to take some time off school.”
By Gorman’s estimation, this was roughly his eighth to 10th concussion. The effects were catching up with him. He consulted with doctors and administrators at Penn and decided to take a medical leave of absence and leave the team.
Ashton did the same. This was his fifth diagnosed concussion — there were probably a couple more, he admits — and he could feel the weight of all of them catch up to him. Five was enough: he announced his retirement from the sport, and a subsequent leave of absence after the semester.
“I probably could have pushed to get to six, as some people do, but at that point I didn’t want to chance it,” Ashton said.
During their spring semesters off, their conditions did not improve as much as they had hoped. Gorman developed a lazy eye and suffered intense headaches and focus issues, while Ashton felt fatigued, had continuous headaches, and felt overly sensitive to light.
“It got worse before it got better,” Ashton said.
Gorman’s symptoms started to clear around six months after the injury. Ashton’s improved over the course of the summer, but he is still on leave at his home in New Jersey.
All three of the sprint football players who suffered diagnosed concussions still feel the physical effects today. But at the very least, they’re still alive and improving every week.
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“They Didn’t Want Me To Be The Next Football Tragedy”
Head injuries have played part in a dark past at Penn.
Two Penn football players died by suicide within five years of each other in 2005 and 2010.
In the latter case, team captain Owen Thomas’ brain was studied by the Concussion Legacy Foundation at Boston University, and he was deemed to have suffered from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy — a long-term disease incurred by repeated subconcussive blows to the head over a player’s career. And while Kyle Ambrogi’s death in 2005 was never examined to look for brain damage, contemporary reports of his condition indicate he could have suffered a similar fate.
As a result, protecting players’ heads has been a priority for Penn in recent years. The school and the Ivy League have both made strides to make the game safer, including eliminating full-contact practices in-season and, as of this year, requiring players to wear a protective outer shell around their helmets during practice year-round.
Although preventative measures were not enough to protect Lajeunesse, Gorman, or Ashton, all three spoke highly of Penn’s medical staff in working on their recovery.
“They’ve been very good throughout the course of this,” Lajeunesse said. “They know I’ve lost what used to be a big part of what used to be my identity here, and they’ve been very supportive and vigilant, watching out for my mental health.”
In the spring of this year, the semester after he suffered his head injury, something new began to happen to Lajeunesse. He had never had any mental health issues before, but he suddenly found himself dealing with “crushing anxiety.” He had panic attacks that left him unable to leave his room.
He spoke with his doctor, who prescribed him medication and suggested he go to Counseling and Psychological Services. After many “productive sessions” with Penn’s psychologists, he said he no longer suffers from that aspect of his injury.
“Penn has been phenomenal from a mental health perspective,” Lajeunesse said. “They didn’t want me to be the next football tragedy.”
One man he also praised throughout it all was his coach, whom he called “The Man, the Myth, the Legend,” Bill Wagner. “[He] has been phenomenal...he’s never rushed me back to play, and he’s been extremely understanding throughout this process.”
Wagner, the coaching staff, and the training staff were so helpful to Lajeunesse that he decided he would end up staying on the team as a manager — the team was his family, he said.
Penn Athletics declined to make Wagner available to comment for this story. The sprint football team's athletic trainers were also made unavailable for comment.
All three ex-players spoke of the difficulties of losing a huge portion of their identities by walking away from football. It was a painful decision to make, they said.
All three also said they wouldn't change much if they were to do it over again.
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“We Know The Risks. I Knew The Risks”
Ask any football player why they love the game, and there are a few answers one can immediately expect. Above all for Lajeunesse, Gorman, and Ashton, the game gave them a family and taught them discipline.
For them, any potential costs of playing pale in comparison to the game’s benefits — especially when they consider that being recruited for the sport might have gotten them into a school like Penn in the first place.
“Football has basically been my life,” Gorman said. “All my friends are from playing football. Probably one of the reasons I got into Penn was that I was good at football...I maybe didn’t have the best grades to get in, but I got in.”
Playing the game had considerable consequences for the trio, but none was unaware of such a possibility. Even Lajeunesse, who feels the effects a year later, regrets little of his college career.
“It’s not something me or my teammates are oblivious to. We’re student-athletes at an Ivy League university. We’re aware of the risks we’re taking,” the junior said. “I’m not gonna lie — I’m pretty conflicted. I love the life experiences it’s given me, but it’s come at a pretty steep cost.
“We make decisions, and we have to live with them,” Lajeunesse continued. “I wouldn’t change anything I’ve done.”
Nor would Gorman. In fact, he argued that concussions are a necessary byproduct of the sport: because the game’s goal is “to attack and create high speed collisions,” the most successful players have to be “warriors” who disregard their own well-being in order to push on and win.
“Is it harmful? Yes. But that’s the price you pay for the euphoria that it brings,” he said.
“We know the risks. I knew the risks,” Gorman continued. “I heard the stories, internalized them and continued to play. Without football, my life would be a hollow shell of what it is now … It is a fraternity of warriors who share the same mindset and will to compete. For me, it is no different than enlisting into the military knowing the ultimate price. As long as the consequences are fully understood, I see no problem in it.”
Gorman’s views reflect the stark contrast between people playing the sport and those seeking to administer or supervise it. Penn and the Ivy League have been striving to make progress preventing head injuries for the better part of a decade now. The Quakers’ training staff says it has worked relentlessly to increase education on head injuries and to encourage self-reporting for diagnosis and treatment.
Yet head injuries continue to occur as an inevitable part of the sport. On Oct. 12 of this year, in a game at West Point, senior linebacker James Juliano took a hit during a freak play that left him unconscious for several seconds and had him unable to tell where he was after getting up. After the game, he had to go to the hospital to determine whether he was safe to go home, multiple players on the team said. At publishing time, it is unclear whether he will play again in his final season.
Such injuries come with the territory, Lajeunesse, Gorman, and Ashton previously said. And it's something they will continue to wrestle with.
Editor's Note: The following story is the first of a two-part series on brain injuries and Penn sprint football. Part I follows the stories of three players who suffered brain injuries in fall 2017 and have struggled to deal with the consequences. Part II, a look at the team's culture of dealing with brain injuries, will be released in the coming weeks.
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