Originally published on Page A1 of the Patriot-News on Sunday, June 10, 2010.
By LAUREN BOYER
It was all fun and games. Then Mackenzie Hilsinger got hurt.
In October 2006, the Mechanicsburg Area Senior High School graduate suffered a life-altering concussion during a freshman football “fifth quarter,” an after-game practice banned by the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association.
Most common in junior high football games, fifth quarters are postgame scrimmages intended to give field play to seventh- and eighth-graders who sit on the bench during regulation.
“As the saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions,” said Brad Cashman, the executive director of the PIAA. “Football is a collision sport. It’s dangerous in and of itself without squeezing in an extra quarter.”
These scrimmages have always been banned, Cashman said, but that ban hasn’t always been taken seriously. The PIAA hears about an illegal fifth quarter once a year at most, he said.
A decade ago, “just about everyone practiced” fifth quarters at the junior high level, said Randy Umberger, a retired Lower Dauphin athletic director who sat on the PIAA District 3 committee that investigated the 2006 scrimmage.
The fifth-quarter helmet-to-helmet collision with a Red Land High School player left Hilsinger with headaches, learning deficiencies and permanent concentration impairments, according to his family and his physician. It prompted PIAA officials to crack down on illegal scrimmages and emphasize the point at annual preseason rules meetings, Cashman said.
According to PIAA bylaws, the rules for school sports statewide, the fifth quarter is considered a scrimmage. Only two scrimmages are permitted per football season, and they usually occur before regular season.
PIAA handbooks don’t allow postgame play unless it’s overtime, which is limited to high school varsity games.
After the final regulation buzzer, the ambulances leave. The referees go home. So do most of the parents.
“I think the intention of coaches on both sides was to provide opportunities to student athletes,” said David Harris, the principal of Mechanicsburg Area Senior High School. “I don’t think they had any intention of doing something harmful to students. Yes, this fifth quarter shouldn’t have occurred, but the reality is, students can get hurt playing any sport.”
Students and parents sign waivers at the beginning of each sports season exempting the district from liability for injuries, Harris added.
One of six children, Hilsinger, 18, a student council president and homecoming king, graduated Monday and will start college this fall at Wingate University in North Carolina, where he wants to study physical therapy or become a physician’s assistant.
Though he lives with permanent effects of his injury, he’s ready to let bygones be bygones.
“It was just a hit,” he said. “It happens.”
But it’s the “what ifs” that keep his parents, David and Laurie Hilsinger, fighting the school district, prying for answers and validation for the pain their family went through. They are trying to convince the school district to pay for Mackenzie’s medical bills and punish the coaches.
A box of paperwork at the family’s Mechanicsburg home is filled with letters from the PIAA, medical reports and notes from personal-injury lawyers who say the school is protected from lawsuits under governmental immunity laws in Pennsylvania.
“This has beaten me up for the past four years,” David Hilsinger said. “It’s Mackenzie’s life, and they ruined a major part of it.”
Nearly unconscious, Mackenzie Hilsinger, then 15, was put on a school bus, his limbs twitching, while the scrimmage went on, he said.
No ambulance was ever called, but it wouldn’t have mattered anyway, said Dr. Harry Bramley, the medical director of the Penn State Concussion Program.
“The treatment for a concussion is rest,” Bramley said. “There was no harm because he was resting on the bus.”
But Bramley added that suspected concussion patients should receive medical attention to scan for brain bleeding, which can be fatal.
In recent years, there’s been increased awareness of concussions in high school sports.
Districts started implementing the computerized ImPACT test, which is taken before sports seasons to provide a baseline in an athlete’s cognitive abilities. If the player receives a concussion, he or she takes the test again, and the results are compared to the baseline to evaluate the severity of the injury.
Before his injury, Mackenzie Hilsinger never took that test.
The last thing the 6-foot-tall quarterback recalls is a Red Land player charging toward him at full speed during the game at Red Land’s field. After that, he said, everything went black.
Back at Mechanicsburg Middle School, freshmen’s parents, including Jill Johnston, waited for the bus to pull into the parking lot.
Johnston said she remembers seeing two coaches carry Mackenzie Hilsinger — his feet dragging and head rolling — to his father’s truck, where they propped his limp body against the hood.
“If they would have dragged my kid off the bus the way I saw Mackenzie, I’d be after them,” Johnston said.
David Hilsinger immediately rushed his son to Seidle Hospital in Mechanicsburg, where staff called for an ambulance to transport Mackenzie Hilsinger to Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. He spent the night in treatment at Hershey, David Hilsinger said.
After missing two weeks of school, Mackenzie Hilsinger attended partial days before getting back to full-time classes that February.
At first, he had trouble with name-face recognition, couldn’t understand lessons and forgot things that weren’t written.
He gave up playing saxophone, which, according to a letter from his doctor, would have aggravated his headaches.
Relatives said his motivation took a blow. Bramley said that symptom can be prompted by a brain chemical imbalance after a severe concussion like Hilsinger’s.
Then high school swimming coach Nancy Luley offered Hilsinger a spot on her team during his sophomore year to aid his athletic rehabilitation. The last two years, he’s played lacrosse and water polo.
“He’s just one of those kids who is just a true athlete and is going to excel at whatever he puts his mind to,” said Luley, now a swimming coach at Messiah College. “It’s a joy to have him around.”
While their son slowly recovered, Laurie and David Hilsinger hired a lawyer to help Mackenzie obtain an individualized education plan, which provided him a tutor and extra help with classes.
The accident his parents can’t forget is still hazy in Mackenzie Hilsinger’s mind. Meanwhile, Cashman said it’s a clear reminder that rules were meant to be followed.
That year, he ordered Red Land and Mechanicsburg to investigate the scrimmage and report findings to the PIAA’s committee for District 3, which encompasses 130 junior highs and 96 high schools between Franklin and Berks counties. The PIAA investigated only the rule violation, not the injury.
“It’s tragic that it happened, but the accident never really came to us,” Umberger said. “We knew a kid got injured, but it was never within our realm to decide anything based on that.”
District 3 determined that the schools adequately addressed the incident, and the issue was dropped, Cashman said. He said coaches were reminded not to initiate fifth quarters again, but he would not explain how else the incident was addressed.
Harris said any additional punishments of coaches are a personnel matter and cannot be divulged. It was unclear if the coaches were punished.
Those coaches, Jason Minnich and Rob Hartman, would not comment on the incident, said Andrea Teeter, Mechanicsburg’s athletic director. They are coaching freshman football.
The West Shore School District, which includes Red Land, denied a Patriot-News request seeking correspondence between the district and the PIAA, including the sanctions for the coaches. Mechanicsburg invoked a 30-day extension for legal review of the request.
Between their son’s medical co-payments and legal fees connected to obtaining an individualized education plan, the Hilsingers said they’ve spent close to $2,000.
Mackenzie Hilsinger remains at increased risk for seizures, chronic headaches and additional concussions, Bramley said. In class, he fights attention deficit problems.
But the laid-back self-proclaimed “pacifist kind of guy” doesn’t let the those things get him down.
After all, the recently crowned prom king is happy to be graduating, living and breathing.
“It’s just something that happened. I don’t want to blame anyone for it,” Mackenzie Hilsinger said. “I never wanted this to be an excuse. I’m a guy that’s going to forgive and forget.”