|Damazo's Road to Recovery|
by Eric Hall, Beaver County Times Sports Staff
At least there was a television. But after five days of nothing but, even that began to mock D.J. Damazo. He was sentenced to his home's basement for nearly a week last spring, with no computer, no cell phone, no light save for the TV, imprisoned because of concussions suffered while playing basketball in January for the Geneva College men's team. "That was horrible," he said, trying to push up a smile. Though it was months ago, his darkest days are hardly a distant memory. He's playing again; he will tonight when the Golden Tornadoes visit Westminster. But he'll never forget those five days in captivity. Or, really, much of the past year.
Damazo rattles off the dates like he was reading them from journal entries.
January 26: Went up for a layup. Landed on my back. Got real bad whiplash when I hit my head. Didn't say anything because the adrenaline was kicking.
January 29: Going up for a layup. Some kid took a charge at me and some kid kicked me in the head. I didn't become unconscious but my left eye was foggy. Disoriented for about an hour. I was obviously done after that.
Damazo, a Blackhawk graduate, knew his body was telling him something. Geneva's trainers told him to see a neurologist. The neurologist told him to get a CT scan. But a diagnosis wasn't available.
Damazo continued to work out. More appropriately, he tried to work out.
"I felt horrible. I felt like I needed to throw up," after a jog, he said. "Basically, I felt like I was going to die."
Damazo was referred to Dr. Mickey Collins, the director of the UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion Program and the physician who has been linked to the continued care of Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby. Collins told Damazo he suffered two concussions, which Damazo was told was "like seven or eight times worse than one concussion." Colllins administered his Impact Test -- made famous thanks to Crosby -- and told Damazo he was in the fourth percentile.
Fourth percentile is not promising.
What followed was myriad doctor visits with more than a half-dozen experts and specialists, some of whom told Damazo he'd never play basketball again. He suffered from a sensitivity to light and loud noises. When he returned to classes in August, his eyes, as he said, couldn't keep up with his writing. A return to Collins directed him to a vision therapist -- which allowed him to continue his classwork -- but left him in limbo. Despite being cleared to play in July by another doctor, Collins told Damazo he couldn't continue. He would have to be cleared by Collins.
The waiting began.
In the meantime, those outside the program wondered why Damazo was on the sidelines. Outwardly, he appeared healthy. Few knew what was transpiring inside: Damazo couldn't shoot a basketball because the gymnasium's lights would cause instant pain. Even fewer understood that the decision to return to the Geneva basketball team was essentially not his own.
"People were calling me ‘baby,'" he said, shaking his head. "On Facebook, on Twitter. ‘Baby, suck it up.' They were making fun of me. My teammates always had my back, though."
On Dec. 18, Damazo was hopeful he was symptom-free, but Collins opted to wait. Last Wednesday, Geneva coaches were hopeful he could play in a game that night, but again he was forced to curtail his zeal as Collins wanted to be doubly sure.
The next day, Damazo was informed he was cleared to play. Less than 24 hours later, he practiced with his team for the first time in nearly a year. A day after that, he played 12 minutes, had three points, two assists and a steal.
Damazo had waited 12 months to play 12 minutes. His excitement, even two days later, was palpable. But his return was joined by doubt and suspicion. Could he be the same player, have the same skill, retain what he called "his edge?"
"I'm not really much of jump shooter. ... I bang. I'm a scrapper. But now, I'll settle for a pull-up (jumper) more," he said. "I've been playing this way my whole life, but maybe I won't dive for loose balls head-first, all crazy, but I'll still mix it up.
"I got to know my limits more than anything."
Another concussion could equal a premature end to this junior's basketball career. But had he continued to play immediately after the second concussion and suffered another, Damazo was told he would have been open to severe brain damage.
Damazo counts his faith among reasons why he has been able to sustain his basketball career, but what shouldn't be discounted is his passion. Despite a 4-11 record, he still believes his team has a good chance to make the NCAA Division III tournament ("We are in fourth place in the conference," he said, matter-of-factly). He's been running with both the first and second teams during practice, then running after practice. He expressed excitement to work out with his teammates, who include his younger brother Tyler, this summer.
"I was considering redshirting," he explained, "but I didn't want to let the seniors down."
More importantly, his imprisonment has been lifted. He can run and jump without fear of pain. He's part of the team.
He's whole again.
"It took over my whole life. It completely shuts you down," Damazo said.
He paused and looked up into the lights at Metheny Fieldhouse. He probably didn't realize the symbolism.
"I know its only D-3 basketball," he continued, "but I love basketball and I had the desire to get back and help the team."
Eric Hall can be reached at email@example.com
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