Heading into just another junior varsity football game two years ago, Zack Sanderson had no reason to believe his life would deviate from its well-worn path, a script followed by countless American teens, his older brother Nick among them.
Like Nick, a star football and baseball player whose prowess on the baseball diamond earned him a college scholarship, Zack was a gifted athlete capable of astounding physical feats. And like his brother, Zack was a fearless and fierce competitor, willing to throw his body into harm’s way if it meant a key tackle, a forced fumble or, in the case of his final play — the one that significantly altered the course of his high school life — a blocked field goal.
Since that day, the persistence that once proved so valuable on the gridiron has served Sanderson well in other ways, as he’s overcome a gauntlet of migraine headaches, insomnia, memory lapses and concentration struggles to earn his GED. Now, as the boys and girls he assumed he would graduate with continue their senior year at Ashland High School, Sanderson, 17, is enrolled at Rogue Community College and working toward his associate’s degree.
“I was actually really happy,” Sanderson said of earning his GED. “I felt like I was done with this whole high school thing that wasn’t really the easiest thing in the world. It just felt nice to be done with it and it felt really good that I was going to be able to go to junior college and start a whole different thing.”
Sanderson didn’t get to the kicker that Friday in the fall of 2015, and few who witnessed the play live would have thought much of his collision with an opposing lineman, another thud from which Sanderson appeared to quickly recover as he walked back to the Ashland sideline without aid. But what those in the stands, Sanderson’s parents Nicolle and Larry Sanderson included, could not see or appreciate were the two successive collisions that immediately followed the first blow to the head. Relaying an account shared by one of his teammates who was next to Sanderson on the play in question (Sanderson has no memory of the day), Sanderson, playing linebacker, says he took a hard hit to the side of the head by an opposing player on his way to the kicker, absorbed a glancing kick to the head by the placekicker himself then finally crashed to the turf head first.
It’s possible that most high school sophomores would have recovered from the bang-bang-bang play and played again eventually, but Sanderson represented a unique case. He had already sustained three previous concussions — one after tumbling at the Ashland ice skating rink, one “rough housing” and another playing football. Still, from the stands at Walter A. Phillips Field, Nicolle and Larry Sanderson saw nothing, from Zack Sanderson’s behavior to the reactions of the Ashland trainer and coaches, to indicate their son had just sustained a serious head injury.
“He walked off the field and they sat him down,” Nicolle Sanderson said. “My husband and I both looked at each other because he didn’t go back into the game and we were like, ‘Why is he not going back in the game?’ And everybody acted like it was no big deal, so I thought, 'OK, he’s fine.'”
That night, as the Sandersons hosted “three or four” players who also sustained concussions in the game, they began to notice the symptoms associated with head injuries. Sanderson became extremely sensitive to light and sound, his head throbbed with a particularly nasty migraine, he was unbalanced and felt noxious and lethargic.
“He literally could do nothing. Nothing,” Nicolle Sanderson said. “The lights bothered him, the room had to be dark, he couldn’t use his computer, he couldn’t read.”
At first, Zach Sanderson tried to deal with the symptoms, distressing as they were, the same way he dealt with other sports-related injuries, by simply enduring the pain and playing — or in this case, schooling — through it. He showed up at AHS the following Monday knowing it would be a challenge but hoping that, as with his previous concussions, he would snap out of it. After all, what choice did he have? Giving up sports for a while was one thing. But school?
Then Sanderson walked into a classroom, sat down and quickly realized his optimism wasn’t based in reality.
“It was about the worst thing I’ve ever done,” he said, chuckling at the memory of his brief, initial attempt at continuing his education. “I got into class and I could not do anything. Everything I did was just the worst pain to my head, worse than anything ever before. Lights, people talking, reading, all those things were just (painful).”
He estimates he lasted about 30 to 45 minutes before calling his mom for a ride home.
The next 10 days were hell for Sanderson. Formerly an active teenager with a healthy social life, he suddenly found himself stuck inside with the shades drawn, bored to tears and alone. The following Friday, exactly two weeks after his brain rebounded off the inside of his skull, Sanderson sat in an emergency room as a doctor explained to his parents the most disconcerting possibility: that their son had suffered brain bleeding. An emergency CAT scan ruled out that possibility, but a sit-down with a pediatric neurologist in Medford three days later did little to quell Nicolle Sanderson’s concerns.
The initial testing included one exercise in which the neurologist voiced three words and asked Zack Sanderson to simply repeat the words.
“And he’d look at her with a blank stare on his face,” Nicolle Sanderson said. “He couldn’t remember the words, he didn’t know the words, he didn’t even remember that she’d said words to him.”
Based on her examination, the neurologist recommended Sanderson stop going to school and eliminate all visual stimulation, including TV, computers and books, in order to let his brain heal. The next month or so was a struggle for Sanderson. His grades slipped as he made cameo appearances at school for the sole purpose of avoiding de-registration, but he couldn’t concentrate, let alone retain information, and his memory was still fuzzy — once, after having left for school toting a backpack, he returned home empty-handed and later couldn’t even tell his mom where to look for the bag. They never saw it again.
Eventually, a tutor began making trips to the Sanderson home in Talent, and it was then that Zack Sanderson’s hobbled memory finally began showing signs of recovery. He attacked his studies much like a linebacker firing through a tackling dummy, in short, focused bursts, only long enough to just avoid the debilitating headaches that were still dogging him. His classes were necessarily modified, but miraculously he managed to pass all of his classes.
Things were finally looking up, until the next logical step — returning to school — turned out to be almost as challenging as it was shortly after the injury. A slightly altered schedule that included only 30-to-40-minute classes — roughly 30 minutes less than the average class — seemed like a reasonable compromise, but it didn’t take Sanderson long to come to three depressing conclusions: first, sitting in class for only 30 minutes, while considerably less than a full period, still brought on headaches and blurry vision; two, missing so much class time made keeping pace with his peers almost impossible; and three, at the end of the school day, Sanderson was so exhausted from the effort he had nothing left for homework.
Predictably, Sanderson quickly fell behind and ended up dropping out of almost every class. Regular school, it seemed, was simply impossible, but desperate to get back on track he enrolled in summer school. Before going, however, the Sandersons met again with the neurologist, who promptly shot down the idea as ludicrous. Summer school was four days a week, she noted, and classes two to three hours long. Forget it.
When it came time to lay out his junior year schedule, the road ahead looked more daunting than ever as he had to figure out a way to make up for those previously dropped classes. That’s when Larry Sanderson suggested that his son consider another option — attaining his GED.
“When I first heard the idea, I really was not for it,” Zack Sanderson said. “When I thought GED, I just thought it was a lesser education compared to someone who went through the whole high school and got their diploma, but I really changed my mind when I looked into it.”
Nicolle Sanderson said she was surprised to discover that Ashland High “had an amazing GED program,” and after meeting with the head of it at the time, athletic director Karl Kemper, the Sandersons finally felt like they had a reason to feel optimistic.
The GED program was considerably less labor intensive than a traditional diploma program, requiring less class time and fewer homework assignments. In the fall of 2016 Sanderson was still dealing with frequent headaches, but was confident after only a few weeks that his new track was doable. He attended one class a week and did everything else at home. The most challenging aspect, he said, were the tests he was required to take about once every other week. Crucial to his standing in the program, the tests took place in the classroom on campus and generally took about an hour to an hour and a half to complete.
“That was pretty rough on my head,” he said, “especially on a digital screen. I’d usually have a pretty bad headache by the end of it.”
But similar to his efforts on the football field or basketball court, Sanderson willed himself through the pain, hour after hour, day after day, until completing the program in a little over three months. He turned in his last GED assignment in February. The small class of about 10 students got together for a small ceremony to celebrate. Sanderson stayed home with a migraine.
Now, rather than lamenting the past, Sanderson is excited about his future. He started classes at RCC Sept. 25 and works part-time at a farm. He’s being cautious for the time being, taking only 13 credit hours, but so far he’s experienced few of the symptoms that derailed his high school experience, outside of the occasional headache. And though he won’t go so far as to call his time at AHS a blessing, he’s managed to pencil in his own silver lining. In his free time away from school he managed to pick up a couple new hobbies. One, beekeeping, is something he still does in his free time, and another, building computers, is something he hopes to one day turn into a computer science major at a four-year school.
Their son’s two-year ordeal disappearing in the rear-view mirror, Larry and Niccole Sanderson say they’re relieved he can finally move on with his life.
“It was a breath of fresh air,” Larry Sanderson said.
“Because,” Niccole Sanderson said, “we knew that once (the GED) was done, we could just keep moving forward instead of struggling trying to figure out how the next thing was going to work and who was going to help us and how he was going to pass that class. It’s just done.”
Joe Zavala is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at 541-821-0829 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @Joe_Zavala99.