AFA's Schafer still suffering from concussion symptoms

May 13, 2010
photo - Air Force center Sammy Schafer has seen grades drop since suffering head injury in November. Photo by KEVIN KRECK, THE GAZETTE
Air Force center Sammy Schafer has seen grades drop since suffering head injury in November. Photo by KEVIN KRECK, THE GAZETTE 

Sammy Schafer still has a headache.

Air Force basketball’s 6-foot-11 center has had one since late November, when he suffered a concussion during a practice.

Since then he’s tried rest, dark rooms, about 10 medications and acupuncture. He’s visited a chiropractor. He’s visited concussion specialists at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

And yet …

“It’s always there,” the sophomore said earlier this week of his headache. “It never goes away. And depending on what I’m doing, it gets worse.”

After emerging as a high-energy contributor as a freshman, Schafer started the first three games of Air Force’s 2009-10 season. He averaged 7.3 points and 4.3 rebounds and looked like a cornerstone in the middle for the Falcons. But in a practice before the team’s fourth game, he took a pair of inadvertent shots to the head. He left practice and didn’t return. All season.

Several Air Force players suffered concussions during the 2009-10 campaign. But while most would have a few days of haze and then begin to recover, Schafer’s symptoms never totally disappeared. It became a frustrating and difficult battle for the Air Force medical staff, which reached out to experts across the country in search of answers.

“He’s a complicated case,” said Ernie Sedelmyer, Air Force basketball’s athletic trainer. “We sent him to Pittsburgh, and the folks at UPMC are some of the foremost with concussions in the country. And even they said it’s a very difficult case.”

The academy initially treated Schafer for a concussion. Then, when symptoms persisted, a chronic tension headache.

“We treated for that for a while, and that’s when we started doing some alternative medicine because we weren’t making the progress we wanted,” Sedelmyer said. “When you’re having a headache, to have some neck problems associated is not unusual. So we gave chiropractics a shot. That didn’t make a difference. We tried acupuncture to try something different because we get frustrated on our end just as the athlete gets frustrated. We wanted to leave no stone unturned.”

The Falcons finished the season, and Schafer still had his headache. But losing his sophomore season hasn’t been Schafer’s only sacrifice.

A voracious reader who typically finished one novel and one or two books of poetry per week, Schafer hasn’t been able to read for pleasure in several months. Studying and going to classes has been difficult, too, and Schafer’s grade-point average has dropped from about a 3.8 to a 3.0, according to coach Jeff Reynolds. Even Schafer’s ultra-positive demeanor can seem a bit subdued — his ever-present smile not able to mask completely his pain.

“Pretty much everything is affected by it,” he said.

“I try not to get frustrated, but at the same time I can’t play basketball, and that’s really important to me. It also has affected my grades — they aren’t as good as they were. But I’m still finding ways to keep positive, and everyone here is taking care of me and we’re all kind of working toward the same goal of getting me better.”

Schafer believes he’ll be able to stay at the academy and hopes eventually to rejoin the Falcons on the court. He and academy medical personnel are optimistic they’ve finally gotten him on the right treatment path. They’ve determined that Schafer has a family history of migraine headaches and the November concussion could have triggered them in him. That knowledge has led to his current medication.

Schafer made progress after taking the medicine, but the academy’s final exam schedule has impeded it. Stress makes headaches worse, and Schafer is making up some first semester exams in addition to taking his second semester exams. Still, Sedelmyer said Schafer is in just the beginning stages of using the medicine, which can be given in progressively larger doses.

“We’ll take our time, be patient and hopefully he’s on the right track,” Reynolds said.

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