Gorman: A parent's worst nightmare
Kim Bocella watched in horror as her son Dylan absorbed a vicious hit that popped off his helmet, bloodied his face and left the Seton-La Salle senior receiver lying motionless, with the haunting image of his left arm extended and frozen in the air.
As moments turned into minutes of unconsciousness, Kim kept asking her sister if Dylan was going to wake up. Shannon Higgins didn't know what to say. It was a parent's worst nightmare, watching their child get seriously injured and feeling completely helpless.
So it was understandable that Kim and Virgil Bocella were anxious Friday night at Glassport Stadium when Dylan returned to play his first game, six weeks after suffering that concussion in a scrimmage against South Park.
"I want him to play because that's what he wants and he's worked so hard for it," Kim said last week, while waiting for Dylan's appointment at the UPMC Sports Medicine Center on the South Side. "I have a feeling I'm going to be sick when he goes across the middle • because he's fearless. I'll be a nervous wreck, I know that.
"As long as I get myself through the first game, I'll be all right."
Concussion has become a hot-button topic in sports, especially those in a violent game like football in which helmet-to-helmet contact has become increasingly prevalent. South Park coach Tom Loughran called the hit on Bocella "frightening." What is scariest about concussion in youth sports is when they are not properly treated.
"Concussion, you used to be out for a week because that's when the next game was," Loughran said. "Now we're more careful about it."
UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion Program director Michael Collins • part of the concussion team treating Penguins captain Sidney Crosby • estimates 2,500 to 3,000 of patient visits are from Western Pennsylvania high school football players.
Collins called Dylan Bocella a "rare case" because the 6-foot, 156-pounder lost consciousness for more than three minutes, adding that 90 percent are knocked out for less than a minute.
"A kid that looks like that on the field scares everyone," Collins said. "Those are the ones that get treated with kid gloves. Those get better fastest."
Nonetheless, it was a long road for Dylan, who had to watch the first five games from the sidelines after that brutal blow. The last thing Dylan remembers is taking the third step of his slant route and planting his left foot. He caught the pass and was tackled at the legs by a cornerback and hit high by a safety who lowered his right shoulder into Dylan's helmet. The collision opened a gash on Dylan's right cheek that required 25 stitches to close.
Dylan hesitates to call it a dirty hit • although he admits he was defenseless • while showing a video replay of the hit on his cell phone.
"That was more like a freak thing that doesn't happen too often," he said. "He was trying to clean up the hit."
Not only did Kim Bocella notice that Dylan wasn't the same, happy kid but the stress caused her to suffer her own symptoms. Every time she closed her eyes, she would see the hit in her mind's eye. When she opened them, she couldn't see anything. That temporary blindness lasted 10 days, and went away as quickly as it came.
Virgil Bocella is thankful he didn't see his son get hurt.
"I was scared," Virgil said. "After seeing (video of) that hit, I didn't think I'd ever want him to play again."
While Seton-La Salle coach Greg Perry wants only what's best for Dylan's health, he also didn't want his last impression of playing organized sports to end so abruptly and violently.
"This kid has waited until senior year to play football and gets hurt in the first organized scrimmage. Do we want this to be his last call?" Perry said. "If the doctors say he can't go, it's a no-brainer. But if he gets clearance, would we want to take that away from a 17-year-old boy• Kids these days work so hard 10, 11 months a year to play Friday night football in Western Pennsylvania. Are we going to be someone to say, ‘No, you're not playing,' and then for the next 25 years of his life, he's going to regret not playing again or has to live with his high school career ending that way?"
Collins says he works in sports medicine for a reason: It's all about trying to get athletes back to playing. But he treated Dylan with extreme caution, carefully checking his vision and balance by making him stand on a foam pad before comparing scores on his baseline test. Collins cleared Dylan for contact in practice Sept. 28 but made him prove to be symptom-free for a week before allowing him to play in a game.
"Let me be very clear: If you even have a sniff of a headache at all, you're off the field," Collins told Dylan. "I wouldn't be clearing you if I wasn't as confident as I can be. I just want to make sure I'm doing this the right way."
It was the correct call, as far as the Bocellas were concerned. Sitting eight rows behind the Seton-La Salle sideline, the Kim and Virgil held their breaths when the Rebels threw a pass to Dylan on fourth-and-4. He caught it for a 19-yard gain, then sealed a block on Kevin Hart's 4-yard touchdown run. Dylan made a catch along the Seton sideline for another first down. He finished as the game's leading receiver, with four catches for 58 yards in the 38-14 victory.
Because of the way his concussion was handled, Dylan Bocella got to play again. He gets to write his own ending to his high school football career. Until then, with every catch, his parents will continue to hold their breath.