Whenever Bobby McComas steps on the field for Vicksburg High, he hears the jeers from opposing fans. But the words don’t hurt. He’s already felt plenty of pain.
Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 19, 2000
McComas, a senior goalkeeper for VHS, has had five concussions since eighth grade, including one that broke a bone in his face and another that split his skull. The injuries have left him with occasional memory loss, forced him to wear a helmet whenever he plays which often draws catcalls from opposing fans and to be cautious in his playing style.
But he still plays, in large part because he loves the game too much to quit, or to listen to people who say he should give up.
“(The doctor) pretty much told me not to play, but it’s just hard. I love soccer, and soccer is about the only outlet I have right now for energy, and I don’t know what I’d do if I had to give it up,” said McComas, who is also a budding Eagle Scout whose project is an 8-by-20-foot kick wall at the Bovina Soccer Complex.
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McComas is able to rattle off his injuries like a grocery list. In addition to the concussions, he is currently nursing a cracked rib suffered during a 1-0 win over Warren Central on Dec. 7, and he once broke a finger during swimming when he hit it on a lane marker.
But it’s the concussions that have left the deepest scars.
He suffered the first one during a rec league game in eighth grade, when he was kicked in the face while diving to make a save. The kick broke a bone near his eye, but the second concussion was even more serious.
While playing a pickup basketball game his freshman year, McComas fell while trying to dunk on a low goal and hit the pavement, breaking his pinkie and splitting the back of his skull.
“It was a pretty nice crack, from what the doctor said. My brother told me I had the shakes from that one, but I don’t remember that one,” McComas said.
Nor did he remember much about the third concussion, suffered last season against Madison Central. The concussion sent him to a neurologist, who told him to sit out for a couple of months. McComas did, but his return was short-lived.
Playing against Warren Central in January, he was kicked in the face again, then hit his head on the post. He had to be helped off the field and didn’t play again that season.
“The one that scared me was the one against Warren Central,” said McComas’ mother, Dinah. “But when you go at something with gusto the way he does, you’re going to bonk yourself.”
By that time, however, the effects of repeated concussions had already begun to show. He had mood swings and began having trouble remembering basic skills. He had to postpone taking a nine-weeks test because he couldn’t remember enough of what he’d learned.
“It’s not a very manly thing to say, but I’ve been in tears over it,” he said. “Algebra is my favorite subject and I’d look at my algebra notes and I’d forget how to subtract sometimes. It’s real scary.”
Dinah McComas said it was difficult to watch her son struggling to deal with the effects of the concussions.
“It think it was more scary for him, but it was hard to watch him tell me something, then come back and tell me the same thing five minutes later like it was brand new,” she said.
Teachers and classmates helped him work through the academic trouble, but the mood swings were another issue.
He would sometimes lash out for no apparent reason, and finally had what he called a “temper tantrum” during a class. An argument with an ex-girlfriend led to a shouting match with a teacher and the principal, and the incident nearly got him expelled.
“I’m very appreciative of the way the school worked with him and handled that situation,” Dinah McComas said. “It could have been a lot worse, but they handled it very well and I really appreciate that.”
McComas visited several doctors, who said he should give up soccer. He did for several months before being cleared to play.
Everyone involved was concerned he would get another concussion, but McComas’ love of the game convinced them to let him play in a controlled atmosphere.
“I’ve always let him make his own decisions. We’ve talked about the pros and cons and he knows the consequences,” Dinah McComas said. “If I told him he could not play, he’d probably play in a backyard somewhere. I’d rather be there.”
Harper said the same reasoning convinced him to let McComas play for the Gators again.
“I worry about him all the time. But I’d worry about him even more if I let him go …. I’m not going to put him in any danger,” Harper said.
Although Harper allowed him to play again, there were certain restrictions. McComas would have to agree to certain guidelines on how he could play and follow them to the letter. Harper declined to elaborate on the exact guidelines, citing strategy, but did say they deal with the style of play McComas can use and what teams he will play against. For example, when the Gators face more aggressive, hard-charging teams, he will be on the bench.
“He’s going to play soccer either way. He’s going to go and be with some rec league or some select team that probably won’t care enough about him to set these guidelines,” Harper said. “I think we’re playing this very smart. If Bobby is to play soccer, I’m glad he’s playing for me and not anyone else.”
The guidelines were designed specifically to protect McComas, but another measure of protection came about entirely by accident.
While eating at Burger King for lunch, the McComas family ran into an old friend from the rec leagues who told them about a player with a similar problem to Bobby’s. It was solved by the use of a helmet, similar to the kind used in hockey.
The McComases checked it out, and since the beginning of the season, he has worn a helmet in every game he’s been in. He says it’s been a lifesaver literally on several occasions.
“I really think every goalie should wear the helmet. I’ve gone through some memory loss and I’ve got some permanent memory loss … Even to be preventive of not having any head injuries would be worth it to me,” he said. “You’re more prone to them after you get them once, and that’s another good reason if you’ve gotten one to get the helmet. Once you’re more prone to them, somebody elbowing you in the head could knock you out.”
He has been hit hard several times this season, including one against Madison Central that broke the strap on his helmet. The hit left Bobby woozy, but he said he was hesitant to go to the doctor.
“I’m sort of counting that one as my sixth, because that one hurt bad,” he said with a laugh. “I haven’t gone to the doctor because I don’t want to know that I can’t play anymore.”
The injuries have made him more hesitant in certain situations, he admitted, but he continues to play, and play well. The Dec. 7 win against Warren Central was his first career shutout. He made 17 saves and earned a steak dinner from Harper, but more importantly, it served as a silent payback to the fans who made fun of him for his headgear.
“I had some guys sitting over there in the stands when we played Warren Central, telling me The guy in the helmet stinks.’ They didn’t score any, so I guess I don’t stink that bad,” he said with a smile.
Even if he shuts out the rest of his opponents, Dinah McComas said she was glad this is her son’s last season of soccer.
“I guess that’s the one thing that’s keeping me going, is he’s a senior,” she said with a laugh.
For his part, Bobby said he’d take up gentler sports after soccer ends.
“I’ll probably play golf after this,” he said with a laugh. “And not hear somebody say fore’ and get hit in the head with the ball or something.”