Nearly two years after Jonathan Hardegree’s football- ending concussion, the pain of walking away from the game is still raw. What he considered a good defensive hit turned out to be so severe that he had to withdraw from school. Though the gifted quarterback wrestled with accepting life without football, he knew a fourth concussion could have long-term implications. Thankful for the team of Memorial Hermann caregivers who helped him recover, he wants others to learn from his story.

A Lasting Blow

Hardegree still remembers the draw play that changed his life. As he carried the ball up the middle during the Monday JV practice at Cinco Ranch High School (CRHS), a defensive lineman grabbed his foot. Hardegree’s helmet crashed into the free safety’s helmet. Then his head hit the ground.

The 5-foot-11 inch freshman kept playing. By lunchtime, he had a migraine. Despite the throbbing, he recalled the concussion awareness seminar at the Manning Passing Academy he had attended just nine weeks earlier in August 2011. He asked to see the school nurse.

For the remainder of the week, Hardegree lingered in his darkened bedroom waiting for the headaches and other symptoms to subside. It didn’t happen. In fact, he saw double when throwing the football to his dad on Sunday.

The next morning his mother scheduled him to see the sports concussion specialists affiliated with the Memorial Hermann IRONMAN Sports Medicine Institute. The team confirmed a concussion and advised cognitive rest since brain-stimulating activities can worsen symptoms.

“I couldn’t do anything that required visual stimulation for longer than 20 minutes,” said Hardegree.

The team also ordered a weekly ImPACT® (Immediate Post-Concussion Assessment and Cognitive Testing) to compare against Hardegree’s baseline test performed before the season started. ImPACT measures subtle changes in brain function, helping track recovery after a concussion.

By mid-November, Hardegree returned to school, but only for half-days. Teachers made accommodations to help the straight-A student. By Christmas, all seemed well.

Physical and Emotional Healing

Returning to school full-time in January 2012, Hardegree struggled academically, even with tutoring. He also had problems preparing for his school’s baseball tryouts for the spring 2012 season.

“I couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn,” said Hardegree who had played baseball since age 5. “I went to my mom in tears and told her I didn’t remember how to throw. It was very frustrating.”

Together with school administrators, the family made the agonizing decision to withdraw Hardegree from CRHS. He began taking online courses and playing weekend club baseball, but felt isolated without daily peer interaction.

When the long-time catcher couldn’t track the ball and pop-ups caused severe dizziness during club play, he was diagnosed with a vestibular injury, helping explain the problems with balance and spatial orientation.

For the next six months, Hardegree underwent vestibular rehabilitation therapy at TIRR Memorial Hermann. Ultimately, he talked through the emotional loss of football with neuropsychologists, including Summer Ott, Psy.D., concussion program director at the Memorial Hermann IRONMAN Sports Medicine Institute.

“When an athlete like Jonathan is unable to play the sport that he has given so much to, it’s like losing a family member,” said Dr. Ott. “It can be traumatic for everyone.”

Returning to School, Missing Football

In August 2012, nearly a year after his concussion, Hardegree re-enrolled at CRHS. Although he tried, he just couldn’t watch a school football game.

“It was very difficult because the team was running the same plays they’d run the previous year,” said Hardegree. “I knew the plays being called so I was running them in my mind and making my checks.”

Thirty minutes into the game, Hardegree had a headache. He called his mother to go home.

“When I got in the car, I broke down and told her I missed football,” he said.

With encouragement from his family and his strength and conditioning coach at the Institute, Hardegree turned his focus to CRHS’s 2013 school baseball tryouts.

The determined athlete threw to his dad for an hour every day before school. The catcher engineered an imaginary pitcher from a ladder and net to perfect the height of his throws. He taught himself how to bat again. The hard work paid off when Hardegree was named to the CRHS JV baseball team.

Though the journey has been challenging, the soft- spoken scholar-athlete has achieved a balance that enables him to play baseball, but also protect himself from another blow to the head. He clearly exhibited this when his team won the district 5A JV championship. As his teammates stormed into the customary dogpile, Hardegree stepped out of the way and smiled, happy to have contributed to the victory.

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