Michael O’Donnell awakened the morning of Nov. 17, 2012, ready to play in one of the biggest football games of his varsity career. What he didn’t realize is that he had already played in that game the day before.
“I woke up with a hospital bracelet on,” said O’Donnell, then the quarterback for Sachem North. “My first thought was, ‘All right, game day.’ I didn’t remember the game or that day in school.”
O’Donnell didn’t remember the hits that sent him to the hospital with a concussion, he didn’t remember passing his driver’s test a few days before and he had no idea of the grueling months of recovery that were to come.
His teammates came over that morning. “They were like, ‘You can watch the play if you want, but this will probably be the last time you watch TV for a while.’ ” he said.
In the video, O’Donnell, then a junior starting in the county semifinal against William Floyd High School, drops back to pass, gets hit helmet to helmet and, as his body drops, he takes a knee to the head. Finally, his helmet rattles against the turf. He is near the 10-yard line and he’s not moving. He is unconscious for close to a minute.
“Whenever he released the ball, as the quarterback, the first thing we looked to see was where the ball went and then we’d always look back to see where he was,” said his mother, Pam O’Donnell. “We looked back and I didn’t see him and there was a player on the ground. . . . He wasn’t moving and I knew it was my kid and I didn’t know what had happened.
“It was the scariest moment of my life.”
When O’Donnell regained consciousness, he was unsteady on his feet, but adamant he could continue playing. He walked to the wrong sideline and forgot which team Sachem North was playing. He shouted at his coaches to be put back in, “because I didn’t know what happened,” he said.
Despite O’Donnell’s pleas to go back in, the team’s athletic trainer and coaching staff would not let him return.
“He was insisting that he could go back in the game,” Pam O’Donnell said, “but the trainer knew right away that wasn’t going to happen.”
Pam and her husband, Mike, took their son to St. Charles’ Hospital in Port Jefferson, where Michael was diagnosed with a concussion. There, he repeated the same questions: Where am I? What happened? Did I get hit? Who were we playing? Was it a run or a pass?
“This went on for hours, literally hours,” Mike O’Donnell said.
Though that night is a blank space in Michael’s memory, the concussion — the days of sensory deprivation, the school time missed and the endless doctor’s visits — would come to dominate his life for the five months it took him to recover. The headaches were constant, he said, and he had extreme sensitivity to light and noise. He was out of school for 3 1/2 to four months, according to his father.
Michael, 19, now plays baseball for a club team at SUNY-Binghamton, where he is studying neuroscience. He doesn’t remember the helmet he was wearing and neither he nor his parents believe that different equipment would have made much of a difference.
“I don’t know if a different helmet would have done anything,” Pam O’Donnell said.
Michael returned to football his senior year and played safety. He said he doesn’t regret playing football.
“You know the risk,” he said. “But it’s something you accept when you walk on the field and it’s nothing I had a problem doing.”