WHEN PLAYERS INJURED, FAMILIES FEEL PAIN

JENNIFER GISH
Section: Sports,  Page: B1

Date: Thursday, October 6, 2011

Every time Natalie Mooney walked into her son's bedroom that night to call his name and gently shake him -- every two hours, just like the doctor had said -- she hoped he'd wake up.


Hours before, she'd been in the emergency room poking at Brandon's legs, asking if he could feel her touch. The doctor had explained the 17-year-old's brain was swollen but not bleeding. His concussion was moderate to severe.


It would be weeks before he'd be back on a football field, if that.


Natalie and her husband, Michael, have sat wrapped in blankets in the bleachers for years. Raising athletic boys, they've paid for sports camps and travel teams and laughed from the sidelines while 6-year-olds scrambled on the field in flag football, chasing the ball like puppies.


Those boys would grow up in a sport where pep talks carry the same theme: Give your heart to the game. Leave it all on the field.


But they're not the only ones who do.


Natalie wasn't there with her cowbell Saturday during Brandon's game at Glens Falls. A former cheerleader, she's usually tucked into the student section with her bell, rattling it for every Burnt Hills touchdown. She never misses her boys' games, even though Brandon's a backup running back who has spent most of his senior season on special teams. But Saturday, she wasn't feeling well and decided not to make the trip. Michael, a referee, had a Pop Warner game to officiate later that afternoon, so they sent their son Cody, a member of Burnt Hills' JV team, in their place.


They weren't there to see it. And that's probably best.


In the fourth quarter, Brandon was yards away from scoring when he fumbled switching the ball to his outside arm. When he got the handoff again, he was determined to barrel through tacklers and finally score. A Glens Falls player wrapped him up and whipped him to the turf. Brandon's head hit the field so hard it bounced at least 6 inches before landing again.


He laid stretched out on the turf facing skyward, but he couldn't see the sky. His pupils were the size of pinheads. Everything was blurry.


Burnt Hills coach Matt Shell heard the hit from the sidelines. He saw Brandon's head crash against the turf, and knew as he rushed to the field that it was probably a severe concussion. He saw Brandon's legs move and had already ruled out a spinal cord or neck injury.


Cody headed onto the field and called his parents. Michael took in the bits of information Cody was getting from the people gathered around his brother. Brandon had blacked out. He was having trouble seeing. His head was throbbing. His arms were numb.


Officials ended the game with four minutes left. As the paramedics lifted Brandon into the ambulance, another player's mother sobbed.


Standing in the kitchen of their Charlton home, Michael didn't tell Natalie everything. She and her parents, who live next door, headed to Glens Falls. Michael followed, stopping to tell his officiating crew he wouldn't be there. He talked to Shell from the car, asking for every detail, from the moment before the critical play to the moment the ambulance pulled into Glens Falls Hospital. Michael drives the same roads every day, but he was making wrong turns trying to get onto the Northway. He wrestled the worst thoughts while he heaped prayers on God for the best.


Natalie rushed into the emergency room and found Brandon -- the kid who never complained about early morning weight-lifting sessions and loved being part of the team -- in a neck brace. His lips were swollen. He talked about the searing pain in his skull.


It was the one moment she'd ask herself if this was all worth it, and if she'd ever allow him to take the field again.


In elementary school, Brandon caught his hand in another kid's facemask trying to make a tackle. The kid kept running, and Brandon broke his wrist. She was by his side in the emergency room then, his tears eventually eased by a kid's excitement over having the team sign his cast.


He'd injured his elbow playing baseball. And broke his arm last football season. Natalie has watched him hobble on crutches for ankle breaks and sprains.


When her first son, now 28, wanted to play football, she made him wait a couple years. It was an easier decision by the second and third son, and for years she has made food for pasta parties on the eve of games and listened to them recount locker-room speeches by their coaches, tears forming in her eyes over some of the stories. Her boys found a fraternity in football that kept them focused and on track, and she was grateful.


She has never wanted to take that away, except in that one moment.


"When I saw him laying there (in the hospital), I'm thinking there's no way. This is it. And as soon as they took that neck brace off of him, and they sat him up a little bit and he had the medication. ... He started talking to the doctor about wanting to go back," she says. "I'm alright with it. Kind of. But I told him, 'You get another one, you're done.' I don't think I could go through that again."


There's a price you pay in parenthood, when you realize you can't protect your child from everything and that risk is part of life.


And whether it's for the final games of Brandon's senior season or the years ahead with Cody, Natalie will be back in the stands. She'll ring her cowbell with every touchdown. And she'll leave her heart on the field.


Reach Jennifer Gish at 454-5089 or jgish@timesunion.com.





Watch a break-down of the play on video and the Mooney family discussing it. Go to http://timesunion.com/sports.