Football coach’s dilemma

Santa Rosa's punter Travis Baker barely reaches a poor snap during the game held at Santa Rosa High School, Sept. 3, 2010. Baker was able to get the ball off. (CRISTA JEREMIASON / PD)

In a way Les Richardson is playing God and he doesn’t want to play God. He just wants to coach Santa Rosa High’s football team tonight against the Lobos at Elsie Allen High. He wants to teach, motivate and, in the best of all possible worlds, win.

He doesn’t want to be the guy who has the last word of whether one of his players is healthy enough. He doesn’t want to put Travis Baker out there before his head is ready.

“Funny, you arrived today,” Richardson said to me Tuesday. “Look at what I just received.”

Richardson handed me a piece of paper. It was a doctor clearing Baker to play “without restrictions.”

On Sept. 17th Baker suffered a concussion against Windsor. A quarterback at the time, Baker said he was grabbed by his facemask and thrown to the ground, head-first. He left the field on a stretcher, taken to Kaiser Hospital in an ambulance, released later that night. Richardson is not convinced Baker is ready.

“I am really leery,” Richardson said. “It’s been less than two weeks. OK, so I have this piece of paper. OK. But is that enough? I don’t know. Considering everything that’s going on these days, I have to think long and hard about this.”

“Everything”, Richardson explained, is the stream of dialogue surfacing about concussions, in the NFL, college and high schools. Concussions have become The Topic, as the Senate is currently reviewing two proposals that will affect the diagnosis and treatment of concussions in youth sports.

Too many examples have revealed the deleterious effects of concussions. Richardson is cautious, extremely cautious about Baker and before he makes his decision to play his senior tight end-quarterback-fullback-halfback-linebacker, he will talk extensively to Baker’s parents and Baker as well.

Baker, of course, knows what he’ll say.

“I’m definitely ready to go,” Baker said. “I’d be out there in a heartbeat. I’m fine.”

Earlier in the interview Baker was asked how he was feeling.

“I feel good,” he said, “but maybe not quite as good as I wish I could be feeling.” That sentence was repeated back to Baker later in the interview. He shrugged.

“I’m pretty stubborn,” said Baker, 5-foot-9, 195 pounds. “If someone tells me I can’t do something, that just gives me more reason to do it.”

Tuesday Baker gave Richardson his doctors’ clearance paper, told the coach he was ready to practice. Richardson said nope, you aren’t practicing. But I’m going to put on my helmet now, coach. Fine, Richardson said. You can watch practice with your helmet on.

Caution, Richardson wants caution. Well … Richardson remembers that heat stroke Baker had last year, yeah, only a stubborn guy would have gone through that.

Santa Rosa was playing at Piner and it was in the afternoon and “It was hotter than it’s been this week,” Baker said. “At halftime I was completely exhausted. I should have stopped playing.”

He didn’t. Went out in the second half and collapsed in the fourth quarter.

“I couldn’t get up off the ground,” Baker said. He was taken to a hospital and re-hydrated.

“Yeah,” Richardson said with a smile and shrug, “Travis is stubborn.”

Wouldn’t know that Baker also has dislocated his right shoulder, or pulled both of his groins, or sprained both of his ankles. He has the warrior mentality and Richardson can admire that, even identify with it.

“What if this was Les Richardson, 17 years old, and not Travis Baker who had a concussion Sept. 17th?” I asked. “What would Les Richardson, the teenager, tell his coach?” “I’d tell him,” Richardson said sheepishly, “I was fine and that I was ready to play.”

Once a warrior always a warrior. But now Richardson is a warrior with perspective.

“I used to wear a T-shirt that said on the front: ‘Football Is Not A Matter Of Life And Death’,” he said. “And on the back it read: ‘It’s Much More Important Than That’.”

Richardson doesn’t wear that T-shirt anymore. He’s also not 17 anymore either. He just turned 50. Except for a few years off when his kids were born, Richardson has coached high school football in this area since 1981, at Tomales, at Rancho Cotate, with a previous stint at Santa Rosa.

“I don’t think there’s been a year that’s gone by,” Richardson said, “without a concussion. We used to call them dings. It was like one of those unspoken things in the past.”

Football players get dinged – “got their bell rung” was another favorite catch-phrase – and then they play again and life goes on. La, la, la. And yes, life went on. But then stories would surface. Headaches would come. Memory loss would take root. All variety of debilitating and embarrassing results would take place, including suicide.

“I remember throwing the ball,” Baker said, “and then I remember being on the ground. Things happened so fast. Sure, I got a little dizzy. But I was just exhausted. I never lost consciousness. They said I got my bell rung. The only thing I thought about was ‘When are the doctors going to clear me to play?’”

Tuesday the doctors cleared Baker to play. Now it’s up to Richardson. He is being asked, in a way, to play God. Frankly, he’d rather pass on the assignment.

“But the bottom line,” Richardson said, “it’s my team. It falls on me.”

And from the looks of him, with those broad shoulders he has, those broad shoulders have a bit of a sag. Yes, it’s obvious it is a weight he is carrying, and yes again, it’s heavy.

For more on North Bay sports go to Bob Padecky’s blog at padecky.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or bob.padecky@pressdemocrat.com.