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Original Issue

Hard Hit

Two deaths raise the curtain on players who suffered head injuries and felt the pain

OVER THANKSGIVING weekend the bodies of two 22-year-old males were discovered. Both were college football players and had suffered multiple concussions, although it's unclear whether their injuries were a proximate cause of their deaths.

The first tragedy occurred when Kosta Karageorge, a scholarship wrestler at Ohio State who walked on as a defensive lineman his senior year, was found in a dumpster, dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. Four days before he was found, Karageorge sent an apologetic text to his mother referring to his history of concussions. Perhaps because of the Buckeyes' prominence, Karageorge's disappearance and death were national news.

The second heartbreak, which received less coverage, was the death of Kurt Schmitz, a former Richmond offensive lineman who was found unresponsive by police on Nov. 30 in an apartment near campus. The cause of death is still unknown. I graduated from Richmond last spring, and Kurt was my friend. I remember him as the first to flash a smile as we entered the brick buildings that held our classrooms and the first to offer a hug after a big win.

I knew Kurt had struggled with concussions because we'd spoken about it last March. I was working on an article for The Collegian, and he agreed to tell me about his difficulties. We talked for close to an hour, and as we finished, I told him how much I appreciated his opening up. "Of course, anything to help," he said.

One way Kurt wanted to help was by exposing a little-explored reality: that athletes, especially football players, suppress evidence of their concussions for fear of being ridiculed by teammates or coaches or losing their spots on depth charts.

Kurt arrived at Richmond in 2010 as a 6'4", 270-pound offensive lineman and decorated wrestler from Don Bosco Prep, a football stronghold in Ramsey, N.J. A math whiz and statistics wonk, he was drawn to Richmond because it offered a high-level education and a top-flight FCS football program. It was a place where he could learn and still dream of the NFL.

He said he was on campus only a week before he suffered his first concussion. He sat out briefly, and upon his return he suffered a second. He hid the symptoms from coaches and trainers so he wouldn't lose playing time. Over the course of the season he played in six games, making five starts at guard, without another incident. During spring ball he suffered what felt like a third concussion. Again he said nothing.

Kurt's fourth concussion could not be ignored. It happened during camp in August 2011 and put him in the hospital overnight. He remained on the team, but out of action as he struggled with nausea, headaches and decreased appetite. As time passed, more disturbing symptoms emerged. Kurt became sensitive to light, struggled with memory loss, and often awoke frantic and confused, uncertain of where he was. He was tormented by mood swings that few noticed but that made him behave erratically.

Kurt attended informational sessions about concussions mandated by Richmond, but now he decided to further educate himself about head injuries and realized that he'd probably suffered more of them than had been diagnosed. Despite what he now knew and had been through, he clung to the idea that he would play again and might still make it to the NFL. It was only a postseason visit to a neurologist that brought a definite end to his football career, a slap of reality that made him sob. "It was just so hard [for him] to let go," his mother, Yvonne, says.

As a junior Kurt switched his major from finance to political science because he couldn't keep up, and he often told Yvonne, who had many times begged her son to quit football, that he felt he wasn't as intelligent as he had been. "I reminded him all the time that he was no dummy," she says, "but he felt like he was losing a little bit of everything."

Kurt remained on scholarship and became a student assistant coach. After years of protecting quarterbacks, he began guarding all his teammates. He'd pull on their facemasks and warn them if their helmets were too loose. According to Kurt, Richmond changed its medical policy after his last concussion and players must now sign forms requiring them to be honest about their symptoms. (Richmond has no comment on Kurt's death and declined to confirm the policy change.)

Yvonne Schmitz can never replace her son, but she wants to do whatever she can to help others. Kurt and his mom once had a conversation about Chargers linebacker Junior Seau, who shot himself in the chest instead of the head so that his brain could be studied. Following Kurt's death, she agreed to donate his brain to the Sports Legacy Institute Study in Waltham, Mass., where Dr. Robert Cantu and Chris Nowinski run a program that has done pioneering research on head trauma.

Yvonne is aware of the rule changes being made to keep players safer, but she believes more needs to be done to change the mentality. "I wish the boys would know that if [their careers end], there are other options in life," she says. "Their health has to come first."

Kurt felt the same way about his teammates, 99% of whom, he estimated, didn't come forward about their head injuries. His advice, he told me at school that day, was simple: "You aren't Superman. You might want to play through the days that you can't see straight, but it will catch up to you. From what I've experienced, it will catch up to you for sure."

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LIVE STRONG Schmitz won awards as a high school wrestler (above), but dreamed of a pro football future.