2016 Bay Port graduate Austin Sylvester catches a pass out of the backfield in a 2017 game with UM-Duluth (UMD athletics photo).
BY RICH PALZEWIC
DULUTH – The words concussion and football don’t mix, just ask 2016 Bay Port graduate Austin Sylvester.
Sylvester, a hard-nosed running back who was never one to shy away from contact and was often praised for his top-notch work ethic, will be entering his third year at the University of Minnesota in Duluth (UMD), having played the last two seasons for the NCAA Division 2 Bulldogs.
He will no longer take the field for UMD.
“Football has been my life since I was like 5 years old,” said the 5-foot-8, 180 pounder in a phone interview from Duluth. “It’s all I’ve ever known, so the decision to walk away from the game that I love has not been an easy one; but like anything in life, when you stop and think about the possibilities for a quality-of-life issue in the future, it’s an easier decision to make.”
UMD didn’t make the playoffs this past year, but Sylvester was a big part of why the team finished 9-3 and played in the Mineral Water Bowl at season’s end.
He rushed for 392 yards on 99 carries for a 4.0 yards-per-carry average in 2017 and also added 91 yards receiving on 16 catches, with three total touchdowns. Sylvester had two games last year where he had more than 100 all-purpose yards.
“There were a few instances in the last year when I was playing and took a hard hit, I blacked out for a bit and saw ‘stars,’” said Sylvester, who is studying entrepreneurship. “Throughout my career I’ve run with a little bit of a chip on my shoulder – being a smaller guy I felt like I had something to prove. Whether it was practice or a game, I gave my all … I also had this tendency to sometimes run with my head down, which caught up with me here in the end.”
On December 2 of 2017, Sylvester took “the hit of a lifetime” in the Bulldogs’ bowl game when he took a pass out of the backfield and collided with a hard-rushing safety.
“He went flying and was knocked out for quite a while,” he said. “I don’t remember being knocked out, but I do remember everything about the incident. He was carted off by the ambulance after being on the field for about 15-20 minutes. When I watched the video I could see I was out for about 10 seconds.”
It was good timing for Sylvester, as it was winter break, so a few weeks off from lifting and any physical contact made him feel back to normal. Then problems arose after he went back to school in January.
“I started getting headaches every day for over two months,” Sylvester said. “I thought maybe it was my vision, so the eye doctor mentioned that my eyes were working really hard with up-close things … she thought there was a decent chance it was from my concussion.”
During spring ball just a few months ago, Sylvester said unlike his running style in the past, he made sure to avoid contact. He also told himself that if he got one more concussion, he’d have to have the conversation with himself about calling it quits.
“One of the last plays I ever had – it was during the spring game – I cut up field and when I got tackled by the safety, his knee hit the back of my head,” he said. “I blacked out for a second and I basically said to myself, ‘Well, I guess I’m done.’”
Sylvester had second thoughts about walking away and was excited for next season, knowing he’d have a full summer to recover. He stayed up in Duluth for the month of May working, but then doubt crept back into his mind.
“I just started getting this gut feeling – it actually started last December – that I just didn’t want to get another concussion and I didn’t feel 100 percent,” he said. “I was getting that fear of what could happen to me in the future. But being stubborn like I am, I started working out with the team again in June. I had a lot of long conversations with friends, family and the trainer. The trainer and I concluded that I had two really bad concussions and probably three to six smaller ones. He set me up with a doctor and it was the same story … he wasn’t going to tell me what to do, but he basically said that if I was his kid, he’d tell me to walk away.”
That’s pretty much all Sylvester needed to hear, but a trip to head Coach Curt Wiese’s office confirmed things.
“My head coach was about as amazing as a person could be about it,” he said. “His support was what I needed the most, so that has made me feel better. He was completely supportive of my decision and told me I won’t regret walking away, that my mental health and future is the most important thing. The meeting was pretty emotional for me. When it comes down to it, you have two choices … football or the rest of your life. That should be a simple decision at the end of the day. When you hear a doctor say that if I get one more bad concussion in my life, I may not ever be feeling good again, it makes you think. He also told me that if I did play this next season, there’s no doubt that I’d get another one. I was probably past the point of being safe.”
Sylvester still hopes to be associated with the team in the future but also knows it’ll be hard watching from the sidelines instead of being on the field.
He still feels fatigue and gets dizzy spells from time to time, but nothing that takes away from his daily life. His doctor feels that just not living with the fear of being knocked out again will be enough to heal him completely.
Sylvester said his first bad concussion was in the state semifinals his junior year in high school where he doesn’t remember a thing from the entire game and had a bad rage attack after … throwing his helmet and clearing Gatorade tables.
What makes the decision even harder is that coach Wiese recently told the team that he thinks the 2018-19 Bulldogs have a legitimate shot to compete for the national championship … something he has never told a team before.
Sylvester hopes to possibly make his way back to Bay Port for his brother Alex’s senior year in 2020 and help coach him up.
“That would be awesome if I could do that,” Sylvester added. “There are positives that come out of negatives with everything. I’m hoping to make some more games here as well. I just know my time has come to call it a football career.”