AUSTIN, Texas -- Where will David Ash be on Saturday? Not at the Cotton Bowl.
The crowd will be too loud. The lights too bright. The rivalry game atmosphere too stimulating. He can’t attend the biggest game of Texas’ season because doctors fear it could make his current predicament worse.
The junior quarterback spent two years trying to burnish a reputation as a leader. For the third time this season, he can’t be on the sidelines with his fellow Longhorns.
He won’t make the trip to Dallas to watch Texas take on No. 12 Oklahoma. He isn’t attending practices. For a while, he even had to miss classes.
All because Ash suffered a concussion on Sept. 7 and hasn’t been the same since.
The difficult road back
We don’t know all Ash has gone through in the past month, and he hasn’t spoken with reporters since going down against BYU.
We don’t know when that concussion occurred -- he could’ve taken a hit in the second quarter and kept playing -- nor what specifically prompted Texas trainers to pull him at halftime against Kansas State two weeks later.
Texas coach Mack Brown says he doesn’t either. He’s trying to steer clear and do the right thing: Ash’s recovery is 100 percent in the hands of the school’s doctors and trainers.
“I think that’s happening across the country,” Brown said. “I think more than ever before, doctors and trainers are more aware, more sensitive to it and being much more careful.
“When people say that a coach plays a young man that’s hurt and he shouldn’t, that doesn’t happen anymore. It’s totally up to doctors and trainers. There’s not a coach in America that’s allowed to make that decision. I think that’s the way it should be.”
What’s at issue now is not when Ash will come back in 2013, but whether he will at all. What began as a two-week setback has developed into the most puzzling issue facing the Longhorns this season.
Texas is proceeding with caution. Brown said Ash had a reoccurrence of symptoms last Friday -- which could be a simple as dizziness -- and because of that, doctors decided he must go a full seven days without symptoms before he starts thinking about playing football again.
That’s just the first hurdle. Then he’ll then need to pass rigorous testing before getting eased back into practice. Then, eventually, he could return to the lineup. If he isn’t cleared before the season ends, he’ll receive a medical redshirt.
That might be the least of Ash’s concerns right now.
“David is a great player and he has more football, I think, left in him,” Texas running back Johnathan Gray said. “You never want to see him go out and this be his last game of his career. We’re praying for him to get back and hopefully he has a great return.”
Experts applaud Texas’ efforts
Dr. Robert Cantu, co-director of Boston University's Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, has emerged as a major voice on the issue of concussions in football.
He’s treated thousands of brain trauma patients, including pro athletes. When briefed on the situation Ash is facing, Cantu said he believes Texas is taking the correct approach to recovery.
“I think that’s certainly wise to hold him out,” Cantu said. “I don’t think anybody can predict whether it’s going to be a week or two weeks or three. The important thing is, when he is asymptomatic, that over the course of the next week he be progressed through a progressively more strenuous program, starting with light aerobic and resistance exercises and going on to sport-specific drills before scrimmage.
“And then, if all that goes well without provoking any symptoms, then he’s allowed to go back to playing.”
Cantu, the author of “Concussions and Our Kids,” said his recommendations are based on uniform best practices for concussions. The NCAA has yet to adopt standard guidelines for treatment and only addresses the topic with a two-page appendix in its 2013-14 rulebook.
“Right now, it’s a pretty uneven thing,” Cantu said. “The NCAA allows schools to do their own thing. Some of them are doing it well, but others aren’t.”
Dr. David Crumbie Jr. agreed. An orthopedic surgeon at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, Crumbie played defensive back at East Carolina in the 1990s and admits he suffered several concussions.
He knows the lack of consistent protocol among universities remains an issue, but he’s encouraged to hear Texas is taking its time with Ash.
“Kudos to the coaches out there that take that same approach, which is a transition from the old-school thought process,” Crumbie said. “It makes the discussion with the athlete and their family easier when you have the full support of the coaches to let this thing play out the way it needs to play out. That makes it easier to do the right thing.”
More to life than football
Texas has been through this difficult ordeal before, just a few years ago.
On Nov. 15, 2010, Texas running back Tre’ Newton decided to end his career, just 10 months after starting for the Longhorns in the BCS national championship against Alabama. In fairness, he had no choice.
Newton suffered four concussions in high school. He suffered concussions in each of his first two seasons at Texas. He’d started having issues with memory loss after the final one, late in the 2010 season, and to this day doesn’t remember the play it occurred on.
“For me, it was obviously a tough decision,” Newton said. “A lot of thought went into it. When it first occurred, I approached it like any football player would. I thought I’d go through the recovery period, take all the tests, make sure everything was back to normal and then I’d play again.
“But the trainers, thankfully, were thinking about my future even though I was just thinking about the present at the time.”
He’s working for the Longhorn Foundation now and has no regrets about his decision. When team doctors started fearing for his long-term health, Newton understood. It started to sink in when his father, former Dallas Cowboys lineman Nate Newton, told him frankly, “When is enough enough?”
Newton didn’t play with Ash but said, in his experience, the best thing any student-athlete can do after a concussion is remain patient. And missing games is a must.
“With a concussion, it’s always better to get away,” Newton said. “If your brain is thinking, it’s not really recovering. If you’re around and you’re still trying to watch plays or workouts, you’re actually slowing the healing process.”
Newton said he felt no pressure from Brown and the Texas staff. He appreciated that they didn’t force him back onto the field.
“If it was up to me, I’d be back at practice the next Monday. That’s just the football mentality most players have,” Newton said. “It’s good to have people tell you to settle down and that you need to go through the process. It’s good to have that constant reminder that your life is bigger than just right now.”
As much as Ash might be hurting right now, no matter how disappointing watching (or not watching) the Red River Rivalry from home may be, that’s all that matters right now. There’s more to life than one game.