Hanover Rhinos players David Harden (13) and Phoenix Russell (18) kneel in remembrance of late Susquehanna Valley Knights’ player Carlos Anderson at Manheim Adventure Park on 4/29/17. Photo Credit- Chris Bunty.
That’s what Phoenix Russell remembers about the violent hit that gave him his first-ever concussion last June.
It was June 3rd, 2017, a typical late-spring warm day as the calendar was stretching toward summer.
It was the final game of the the season, and the Hanover Rhinos were embroiled in a bitter winner-take-all showdown for the final AFA playoff spot with the Franklin County Tigers.
Fans lined the the edges of the sidelines at Manheim Adventure Park with lawn chairs and tents. Among them was Russell’s girlfriend, Rachel Dutterer.
With the Rhinos facing 3rd-and-4 from their own 43-yard line in the first quarter, the Rhinos’ offense huddled before the play. Quarterback Jake Orner asked Russell if he wanted the ball, and Russell said yes.
Orner took the snap, turned and handed the ball to Russell, playing running back, a position he’s played since his youth football days as a 10-year old on the Bermudian Springs Grey team.
Russell drifted slightly to the right, then headed right up the middle for the a-gap. He stuck out his left arm and fought off contact from two Franklin County defenders, and bounced to the outside of the line on the right side.
Cornerback Brian Miller shot up and filled the hole. He lowered his head and hit Russell in the facemask with the crown of his helmet.
“I was looking back inside to see if anyone was coming towards me, then…nothing,” Russell flips through the images of the incident in his mind like Polaroids in an old album.
Pages are missing in Russell’s mental album, however.
“I briefly remember laying on the ground, frozen with my arms in the air, but only like one second. After that nothing,” he recalls.
The force of the blow knocked Russell’s helmet off.
From the spectator area nearby, Dutterer saw the helmet go flying.
Initially, she didn’t know it belonged to her boyfriend.
As the players on both teams cleared away, she got a clear look at who was injured.
“It was instant panic,” Dutterer said.
Rhinos owner Chris Bunty was taking pictures of the game and was one of the first to respond to Russell when he was laying on the field.
Bunty has first-aid certification and takes the USA Football Concussion Awareness Certification Course every year.
“The pro level has medical staff on the sidelines at all times,” Bunty says. “The semi-pro level doesn’t always have medical staff available. We will have an EMT or a person with first aid on our staff to quickly help our players if need be.”
Also on hand were registered nurse Phyllis Harden and Bunty’s wife Amy, a team-mom of sorts with first aid training.
Russell walked over to the sideline under his own power to the cheers and applause of the fans and his teammates.
However, the faces of those teammates turned to concern after they spent a few minutes with Russell on the sidelines.
“When I saw him get up, I was so relieved,” Dutterer said, “But that relief turned into panic again when I spoke with him a couple minutes later and he couldn’t remember what had just happened.”
“The first few minutes after coming to the sidelines, I wanted to get him to the hospital for evaluation,” Bunty said.
Russell kept asking people questions, like what had happened, why he wasn’t in the game, and when he could go back in the game. He also volunteered to hold one of the first-down marker sticks on the sideline.
When it became apparent to teammates and staff that something wasn’t quite right with Russell, Dutterer was summoned, and the decision was made to take Russell to the hospital.
“I was freaking out,” Dutterer said. “Everyone was trying to talk him into going to the hospital, and he just didn’t want to listen. I was just worried that it could cause permanent damage.”
In the car on the way over, Russell kept asking Dutterer where they were going and why he wasn’t playing in the game anymore.
At the hospital, Russell regained the ability to remember things.
But still nothing when it came to the hit and up to 10 minutes afterward.
After four hours, and a visit by his mother, Brenna, and his sister Breela, Russell was released and Dutterer drove him home.
But Russell wasn’t out of the woods yet.
A myriad of symptoms kept him home from work for two days. When he did return on Wednesday, he only worked half-days for the rest of the week.
A sore chest kept him bed-ridden, and and headaches and dizziness caused by lights kept him in the dark for a few days.
“It definitely took a toll on his body, mentally and physically,” Dutterer said.
The thought of even playing football again didn’t seem like a reality to Russell.
“After not remembering anything, I honestly felt (playing again) wasn’t in my best interest,” he said.
Still, as the summer wore on, Russell and his best friend from high school, Rhinos tackle Dustyn Lauver began to kick around the idea of testing things out again.
“Dustyn and I wanted to see if I was better after my concussion, if I could still play” Russell said.
Lauver had already received an invite from the Central Penn Piranha, a Harrisburg-based team that is considered the winningest team in minor league football history.
“I heard the Piranha was kind of (the next level of minor league football) and I heard a bunch of D-1 players were going, so I wanted to see if I could hang with them,” Russell said.
Lauver brought Russell along to practice, and on July 15th, just 42 days after suffering his first-ever concussion, Russell suited up and took the field for the Piranha.
“We were both really excited to see more competition outside of Pennsylvania,” Lauver said. “It was a really great experience for both of us and definitely made us better players.”
Still, the season was kind-of a disaster.
The Piranha lost for the first time in 4 years, and eventually folded before the season ended. Russell played in just 4 games before leaving the team.
His stint did very little to assure Russell that he could or should still play.
“Yes and no,” he said. “I never really had helmet-to-helmet contact with anyone. So I was still nervous.”
So nervous, that he seriously considered giving up the game for good.
There were plenty of times this off-season where he didn’t feel like himself.
“Football used to be everything to me,” Russell said. “I used to still think I can be in the (NFL) someday, I used to strive to be on the field, whether it was practice or a game or just throwing around. But then I didn’t really wanna do it anymore.”
Fear defined his daydreams of football. The field that was once his sanctuary had become one of the most uncomfortable things that occupied his mind.
“It was very difficult for me. I didn’t wanna work out, was debating not playing anymore. Thought about coaching. I was scared,” Russell said.
“I feared getting hit again. Never being able to play again.”
Some time early in the fall, Russell sat down and had a serious discussion with Dutterer about what he wanted to do and what the consequences could be.
“We talked about whether or not to play again. How if I have kids if I’ll be ok if I have another injury like that. If the long term affects are worth it,” Russell stated.
Russell, who turns 21 this May, came to one conclusion.
“If I don’t play now, it’s just gonna get harder and harder to come back the further away from playing gets. ‘Cause what if I get married and have kids? Or have some kind of freak injury? I need to play as long as I can while I still can or I will regret it,” Russell remembers.
One thing he still doesn’t remember is the hit that turned his life upside-down.
Through talking to his friends and watching video of the game, Russell has been able to piece together what happened.
He still has side-effects. He gets headaches out of the blue, and lights often make his head dizzy.
But having some idea of what happened that day has really helped.
“It’s offered motivation,” Russell says, “And at the same time, it’s a reminder of how quick things can end or change.”
Russell has decided that he will continue to play for the Rhinos this spring. His service in the Army National Guard will keep him out of the first game, but on March 24, 2017, his story will come full circle.
He plans to take the field that day against the York Silver Bullets at Manheim Adventure Park, the same field where he suffered the injury last spring.
“Honestly not sure if (the itch to play) is back,” Russell says. “I haven’t gotten any real playing time in…I’m gonna have to wait and see if it’s there.”
Even if he’s not sure that this story will have a happy outcome, he’s doing the only thing he can do- fighting like hell for what he believes in.