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Harrison City teen turns setback to strength in bodybuilding

Mary Pickels
| Monday, May 14, 2007

When Mark Nicassio's helmet connected hard with another player's on the first day of football camp last August, he took a five-minute breather before getting back to practice.

After a second hit, and a severe concussion, his football days were over.

"All that summer I'd been running, getting ready for camp," said Nicassio, 17, a junior at Penn-Trafford High School. "It was like all your hard work went down the tubes."

His mother, Jennie Nicassio, took him to the UPMC Center for Sports Medicine's concussion program. After testing, he was advised to rest to allow the concussion to heal.

He also was told: "Don't get hit again." So he hit the gym instead.

On May 5, he entered his first bodybuilding competition at Soldiers & Sailors Military Museum and Memorial in Oakland. He competed in the teen men's division of the Muscletech 2007 National Physique Committee Pittsburgh Body Building Fitness and Figure Championship, and came in sixth out of 11 participants.

He didn't take home a trophy. But he's hooked.

"It was so surreal on stage," Nicassio said last week. "It was the best day of my life. It was amazing. I got to meet a lot of professional bodybuilders."

That elation was a big turnaround from his feelings in the weeks after his concussion. Jennie Nicassio said her son was depressed.

"I told him something's going to happen," she said. "You'll find something you really like and you're supposed to do."

A 2006 UPMC study showed nearly 7 percent of high school football players in Western Pennsylvania suffer a concussion each season, according to Dr. Michael Collins, assistant director of the concussion program.

"Recovery is highly variable," he said. "Sometimes it takes a few days, sometimes a few weeks or months to recover."

Avoiding more hits and getting rest are important, Collins said.

"The big problem with high school kids is they're in school," he said. Their academic requirements can further exhaust them and slow down recovery.

Computerized evaluation and individual counseling help determine when or if a student is able to get back in the game.

"I specialize in return-to-play," Collins said.

But every week, doctors in the program recommend that athletes stop playing.

Penn-Trafford Football coach Art Tragesser wanted Nicassio to know that even if he couldn't play he could be part of the team and attend practices and games.

"I didn't want to sit there," Nicassio said. "I would want to go in, but I couldn't."

Since he loved lifting weights, he said he started pumping iron in his basement gym. Then his father, Mark Buccilli of Tarentum, told him that Nicassio's uncle used to compete. Stephen Buccilli, 37, of Penn Hills, soon became his nephew's trainer.

"He told me, 'I'm going to be in a competition, Mom, you watch,'" Jennie Nicassio said.

The preparation included months of early-morning cardio on the treadmill, followed by lifting for an hour or more each night. Nicassio and his uncle traveled to the Iron Pit in Leechburg, Armstrong County, to see serious bodybuilders.

"My uncle taught me everything," Nicassio said. "If it wasn't for him I wouldn't be in the shape I'm in."

For 18 weeks, Nicassio ate scrambled egg whites for breakfast. His diet also included oatmeal, chicken, tuna, brown rice and protein shakes.

He admitted missing his grandparents' Italian cooking. "But I never broke my diet," he said.

Around Christmas, the boy had 250 pounds on his 6-foot frame. He's now a lean 195 pounds.

Both Nicassio and his uncle are now planning to train together for the same competition next year.

"We'll take it as far as we can," said Buccilli, who entered more than 30 bodybuilding competitions from 1986-1994. "As long as he wants me in his corner, I'll be there."

Nicassio also is training for two competitions in June, in York and Elizabethtown.

"I want to do this my whole life," he said. "I'm done with football. This is my sport."

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