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Student-Athlete Perseveres Through Concussion
by Kristin Zuvich

Photo Courtesy Paul Cortese

Cortese didn't let a serious concussion derail his dream of playing in the NFL.

Paul Cortese's wildly curly hair makes him four inches taller than the 6 feet 2 inches recorded on his medical charts. He has sharply raised eyebrows and a tall, stocky build that gives him an air of authority and intimidation. Until he grins. Then the intimidation subsides, but the authority remains.

He wants to be a University of Connecticut football player and climb his way to the NFL. In his first semester of college, in fall 2006, he seemed unstoppable.

The summer before his freshman year, he had been granted a full academic scholarship as a pre-med major. UConn football coaches encouraged him to consider being a walk-on. Instead, he decided to join the track team, where he had been offered a guaranteed spot as a shot-putter. Knowing that track is an excellent physical conditioner for football, he planned to compete on the track team in the fall and try for a spot on the football team in his sophomore year.

In October 2006, while doing what should have been routine sit-ups, everything changed. Working with a teammate, he would alternate catching a medicine ball, throwing it back, and doing sets of sit-ups. Accidentally, the 16-pound medicine ball hit him in the head, slamming his head to the ground.

After the accident, he sat for a while. He planned to see a trainer before he left, but was so disoriented that he left without doing so. The team members had been practicing on their own, without coaches present.

When he did seek medical help, doctors diagnosed a concussion and predicted a short recovery time. His two minor concussions from football in high school had only taken a day to heal. The doctors thought this would be no different.

The first couple of days passed and Cortese experienced many of the normal symptoms of post-concussion syndrome, including vertigo, headaches and nausea in the morning. His doctors told him that it could take up to six months for his symptoms to disappear and for his brain to heal. As the weeks passed, Cortese skipped classes more and more as he kept passing out or was so incapacitated by pounding headaches that he would have to stay in his room. His eyes became sensitive to light, which magnified the headaches.

As weeks turned into months, Cortese sought the advice of neurologists at Windham Hospital and Danbury Hospital. He was given the same advice: Wait it out. But his condition did not improve, and the insomnia he developed prevented him from sleeping off the pain.

When he went to class, he could not remember the material a day later. He had trouble focusing on a single train of thought. He struggled to recall conversations he had with his friends or family. He was routinely forgetting assignments and could only remember important deadlines for up to three days. At his worst, he would eat breakfast and not be able to remember what he had eaten by dinnertime.

He was red-shirted for the fall semester, meaning that he could train and practice with his teammates but he could not compete. As his symptoms increased, Cortese began to experience dramatic mood shifts, accompanied by increasing depression.

"I really noticed it was a problem when I would try to go to sleep every night but have this impending sense of doom," Cortese said. "I always felt like something terrible was going to happen. I never felt like that before."