Originally printed in the Columbia Missourian on May 1, 2013.
Matt Markley, Columbia Youth Football League president, holds a helmet each athlete receives to protect his or her head from concussions at the Cosmo Park equipment shed. Markley is responsible for overseeing equipment distribution from the shed in August before the start of each season. ¦ HARRY KATZ
COLUMBIA — The land was hard and dry where the fifth-grade football player wearing No. 63 fell and hit his head.
Phil Rumbaoa stood 10 yards away along the sideline and saw how the back of the boy’s helmet recoiled off the firm field at Cosmo Park. Hardened by the October wind chill, the ground guided the three distinct reactions Rumbaoa experienced in the next moment.
First, he diagnosed. Phil Rumbaoa is Doc Rumbaoa, a physician. He knew the force of the boy’s fall was enough to cause harm. Then the Boonville youth football player rolled over onto his elbows, so Rumbaoa knew he had not transected his spinal cord. But this child, who wore No. 63 because it was his father’s number in high school and that of brutal Hall of Fame linebacker Willie “Contact” Lanier, usually bounced off the ground after a hard hit. In fact, Rumbaoa admired his resilience. That the player stayed down meant he was hurt.
But in the moment, a second reaction — disappointment — followed his snap diagnosis. Doc Rumbaoa was also Coach Rumbaoa, and No. 63 was his best player. At the very least, he would have to miss the rest of this game as well as the next. It didn’t matter that the Boonville fifth-graders were stomping their Columbia opponent. This child’s absence jeopardized the squad’s competence Rumbaoa had so carefully coordinated.
Rumbaoa’s third and final reaction to the player’s concussion took over as he emerged from the moment. Approaching the hurt child on the field, Rumbaoa looked back and scanned for his wife in the bleachers. He thought, “I’m going to have to tell Beth.”
Then the doctor, football coach and father helped 11-year-old Gabe Rumbaoa off the ground and looked into the boy’s soggy and scared eyes. He said, “Son, you’ve had a concussion. You’re going to have to rest. But everything is going to be OK.”