Crist Alrighty: Dayne Crist's Cranium Begs Questions
Whether the Notre Dame quarterback will suffer any repercussions from his non-concussion, the coaching staff will if indeed Crist's symptoms -- blurry vision and poor concentration ("Coach, I just don't remember this play") -- prove not to correspond with the official diagnosis, which was "not a concussion."
To review, on Notre Dame's opening drive against Michigan on Saturday, Crist, a sturdy 6-foot-4, 235-pound quarterback, was flushed from the pocket. He sprinted upfield for a 19-yard gain, absorbing a hard hit to the right side of his helmet and face mask from Wolverine safety Jordan Kovacs.
"After I initially took the hit, I tried to shake it off and just was getting hit and dazed a little bit," Crist said Wednesday. "But then physically I could not see. After that, we just pushed through it and tried to finish the drive. Then when everything was done, it all kind of hit me."
Incredibly, that drive lasted six more plays, one of them a crazy broken-field run by Crist that would defy any suggestion that he was anything but 100 percent lucid. Still, after that drive that put the Irish up 7-0 Crist did not return until after halftime. By then the score was 21-7. After the Irish lost 28-24, with Crist playing the entire second half and tossing touchdown passes of 53 and 95 yards, coach Brian Kelly insisted, "We didn't consider it to be a concussion at all or we wouldn't have brought him back in the game."
Crist's condition, whatever it is, raises many questions. Allow me to enumerate.
1. While sports writers are out of their league channeling Gregory House, M.D., in these matters, what questions do they have a right to ask?
On Wednesday's "Pardon the Fulmination" on ESPN, Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon were discussing the concussion of Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Kevin Kolb. Kornheiser initiated the discussion by stating that he did not have a medical degree and then asked Wilbon if he had one (no). With that information provided, Kornheiser then opined that it is above either of their pay grades (only metaphorically; most physicians would gladly trade salaries with these two) to recommend whether Kolb should play or remain sidelined.
They did note, though, that the NFL has come a long way (in fact, reversed itself) in recognizing the severity of concussions and in thoroughly examining players before clearing them to play again.
On Wednesday, Tim Prister of Irish Illustrated was less House and more Jack McCoy of "Law & Order" as he led Crist through a blunt direct examination that may have made the junior quarterback wistful for Jordan Kovacs. For background, let me say that Crist is universally regarded here as a first-class student-athlete and that Prister, with nearly three decades on the beat, is himself a former Notre Dame varsity athlete (baseball). For what it's worth, I respect Prister's work as much if not more than anyone else's on the beat.
Prister: You did suffer a pretty serious injury in high school, correct?
Did you at any point think or make a connection to that situation?
Crist: They were pretty different. In high school, the next thing I remembered was waking up in bed the next morning, so I don't have a lot of recollection of that one.
It was your right eye, correct?
It was blurry or you had no vision at all?
Crist: I mean, it was blurry to the point where I couldn't see anything out of my right eye.
And that was the case while you were still on the field finishing the drive?
What do you remember thinking, I think it was your 19-yard run where Kovacs hit you from the side? What are your first recollections after that hit?
Crist: Just getting up and being a little dazed, but just getting up and trying to shake it off and move on to the next play.
Coach Kelly mentioned something about you, indicating you didn't remember a play or two. You indicated that to him?
Crist: He was asking me more so about the conversations that I had with Coach Molnar on the phone after the drive. And you know whether it would be that I couldn't understand or it was going a little quickly. I think that's what he was referring to.
By the time Prister asked the fourth question, wide receiver Michael Floyd, seated at a table next to Crist, ducked his head so as not to show either his amusement or distaste for Prister's interrogation.
Prister did expose what was previously not widely known: that Crist had suffered a concussion before, albeit a few years ago. Notre Dame's back-up center, senior Dan Wenger, has suffered two concussions in practice just in the past month.
Kelly has said that whether Wenger will continue playing football is a "family decision" that should take place in the next week or two.
With the research that has been done on football-related concussions the past five years, the NFL and college football have become far more attuned to the gravity of this injury. Then again, if you have not actually suffered a concussion -- even if some of the symptoms suggest that may be the case -- then there is less cause to worry, right?
2. Isn't student-athlete privacy a double-edged sword?
In Notre Dame's third game of 2009 against Michigan State, quarterback Jimmy Clausen was sacked for the first time all season (although not by contact; he fell avoiding a blitzing linebacker Eric Gordon) and left the game for a few plays. Crist replaced him.
In the wake of that Irish win, then-Irish coach Charlie Weis told the media that Clausen had a banged-up right big toe, sort of a turf toe situation. The right toe is Clausen's plant toe when he throws. Clausen missed parts of Notre Dame's next game at Purdue, but played the rest of the season. He was never as mobile as before, but then Clausen never was very mobile to begin with. Curiously, on Notre Dame's final three plays versus USC, all from inside the Trojans' five-yard line, where ordinarily a quarterback might have rolled out to buy time or make something out of nothing, Clausen tossed three incomplete passes from the pocket, barely moving.
The season ended and, according to ESPN's Tom Friend, who is a good friend of Gary Wichard, who just happens to be Clausen's agent, Clausen felt lingering pain in his right big toe. Wichard suggested Clausen undergo an MRI and -- voila! -- it was revealed that Clausen had two torn ligaments in that toe. Are we to believe that Notre Dame's medical staff never performed an MRI on the school's most valuable athlete? Or that they did and failed to discover the torn ligaments? And honestly, if we do actually swallow that, then aren't we justified in wondering just how accurately they've diagnosed Crist's head injury?
Student-athlete privacy protects the player in most cases and you'd have to be a troglodyte -- or a degenerate gambler, or both -- not to appreciate that college athletes deserve this. However, it also protects coaching staffs from being completely transparent as to the nature of the player's injury.
Steve Beuerlein, a former Notre Dame quarterback, went home to southern California after the 1984 season to seek a second opinion when he was not satisfied with the school's diagnosis of his shoulder injury. Beuerlein had a mildly torn rotator cuff, but he played the 1985 season anyway. As he explained to me once, "There was nobody behind me on the depth chart they wanted to use."
Tim Brown dislocated his thumb in the midst of the 1987 season, his Heisman season, but Notre Dame never revealed it. One can argue that Lou Holtz & Co. were respecting Brown's privacy, but they were also being careful not to provide opposing defenses with a key to the Achilles heel of the nation's most dynamic player.
3. In terms of head injuries, should an independent medical staff examine the injured player?
Under NFL guidelines, rules that were implemented at the behest of the NFL Players Association, players who have been diagnosed with a concussion must be cleared by an independent neurologist before resuming practice or playing in another game.
Guess what? There is no College Football Players Association.
There is no reason to impugn the integrity of Brian Kelly or that of Notre Dame's medical staff. And again, sports writers are not diagnosticians much less neuroligical experts. However, there are also 119 other FBS programs. All you need to do is assess the gridiron situation for the Fighting Irish to realize that the seeds for a conflict-of-interest predicament are waiting to be sown.
Consider: Crist played nine series on Saturday and led the Irish to three touchdowns and one field goal. On a fifth series Crist was leading the Irish to a game-winning touchdown when time ran out. That's nine series, only three punts and one interception for Crist in only his second career start.
While Crist sat in the first and second quarters, his understudies (Tommy Rees and Nate Montana) led the Irish on eight drives, five of which ended in punts, two in interceptions, and one in an expired clock at the half. Rees and Montana had never thrown a pass in a four-year college game before that moment.
Without Crist, the Irish would certainly not be favored in any of their next four games. Kelly has said that he has no plans to play true freshmen quarterbacks Andrew Hendrix or Luke Massa this season. Rees, a freshman, and Montana, a juco transfer who was on the Irish roster in 2008, were both with the team for spring football. Hendrix and Massa joined for fall camp.
Kelly has no shortage of available backups for Crist, but rather a dearth of viable ones.
"Next man in" may work for the roster's other 21 positions, but for quarterback at Notre Dame in 2010, the mantra is "Crist Alrighty."
Because of that, Crist's cranium will be a continued matter of discussion. The headaches for Dayne Crist may not be present, but for Brian Kelly they may be just beginning.