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TELANDER: A concussion tale to shake your head over

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Updated: October 9, 2013 5:25PM

It was the moment wrestler Cody Minnick had trained years for, had sacrificed so much for.

He was in the 2013 Illinois high school state finals in the 106-pound weight class in February, going up against Anthony Luis, a tough nut from Harvard. They had wrestled twice the year before, splitting their matches, but they had not met this season. The shorter, stouter Luis carried a record of 39-6, but Minnick, taller and as lean as a lightweight can be, had progressed and nearly reached the pinnacle. He was 47-0, and he felt this was his big chance, his day for reward.

Then, just 19 seconds into the match, Luis grabbed Minnick and slammed him to the mat. The front of Minnick’s head hit first, then Luis’ chin hit him from behind.

Minnick signaled to the ref that he was hurt, and he lay motionless for a long time on the mat as trainers and referees circled about him, giving him assistance. He had a cut on the back of his head, but to any close observer, that wasn’t the issue. He clearly had been knocked out, however briefly.

‘‘I was out for a little bit, not very long,’’ he told me Tuesday from Coal City High School, where he is a junior. ‘‘I don’t recall very much. Maybe 30 seconds. I don’t even really know.’’

The day after the match, Feb. 17, he tweeted: ‘‘#thatawkwardmoment when you wake up and ask yourself why there is a huge gash on your head.’’ The cut was from Luis’ chin or front tooth going into the back of Minnick’s head.

But blood was not the issue, even though Minnick was given what is called ‘‘blood time’’ — several minutes to have trainers clean the wound and wrap a large gauze strip around the young man’s head.

No, the problem was brain trauma. A concussion received in the heat of battle. In the biggest match of the little tough guy’s life. You can see the match for yourself on the IHSA’s YouTube video of the state tourney. It is, in its quiet way, terrifying.

‘‘Boy, he still doesn’t look with it,’’ the announcer says, five minutes after the blow. There are, at one point, seven adults on the mat encircling Minnick, who seems to have little sense of where he is, even after rising.

Minnick is given a balance test, and when the trainer releases his shoulders, the boy stumbles backward. The announcer sounds shocked. Then he states what he sees before him: ‘‘He’s going to give it a go, though.’’

And, yes, the match is resumed. A clearly concussed elite high school athlete is sent back into fierce competition. Even laypeople know now that a second concussion on top of a first can be devastating, even crippling. The news has been out for months, years.

A wrestling coach in the stands at Assembly Hall in Champaign, Jon Minnis, who had two of his own wrestlers from West Hancock Co-Op High School in the tournament, could not believe what he was seeing.

‘‘I’ve seen and had a lot of concussions myself,’’ says Minnis, 33, a former Navy combat rescue worker, mixed-martial-arts fighter and hands-on coach. ‘‘I was like, ‘Oh, my God! They’re fixing him up so he can wrestle!’ ’’

So stunned was Minnis that to this day he is embarrassed he did not run onto the mat, as a mere spectator, and stop the match.

‘‘You don’t get a second try at the balance test,’’ he says. ‘‘He was unconscious.’’

Minnick’s coach, Mark Masters, does not see it as being that simple.

‘‘I can look at my guys and say, ‘He can’t go,’ ’’ says Masters, who also coaches Coal City football. ‘‘I have stopped things, even when the ref didn’t. Cody was talking to us. We had communication. He said, ‘I got dropped on my head.’ I said, ‘I know that.’ ’’

Minnick doesn’t recall much of the match, which went the distance, with him losing 11-3. During the match, he is a shell of the star wrestler he had been.

‘‘I wasn’t myself wrestling out there’’ is how he puts it. In the video you can see him holding his head, wobbling, at one point seemingly nearly unconscious again.

But this was his moment, remember.

‘‘If they would have stopped the match, I would have been really mad,’’ he says, the warrior in him coming out.

And wrestlers always play hurt. But the brain is not the knee or shoulder or hip. It is you. It is your essence. Your humanity.

Minnis got nowhere with his complaints online and to other wrestling coaches about the match being allowed to go on.

‘‘There’s a fine line between being tough and stupid,’’ he says. ‘‘There’s so much macho and denial in wrestling. It’s a head injury. Something’s got to be done!’’

Chris Nowinski, the leader of a group trying desperately to get concussion information to all high school coaches in every sport, saw the video of Minnick’s match and said it’s the worst case he has seen this year.

‘‘It’s been years since I’ve seen an athlete with so many clear signs of concussion be allowed to continue,’’ Nowinski says. ‘‘The adults there failed him.’’

It’s tough, all of this.

‘‘I don’t know too much about concussions,’’ says Minnick, the hardcore jock.

It’s past time for all of us to learn.

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