Sad, deadly return to the field
Ryne Dougherty returned to action just 25 days after sustaining concussion
Teammate informed Dougherty's father that his son complained of headaches
RIDGEWOOD, N.J. -- Once the candle-light vigil burned down into a pep rally, the mother, who hadn't left her son's bedside while he was in the hospital, stepped to the fore and started chanting to the crowd outside Montclair High Friday night.
"No. 44! That's my baby!" yelled Marinalva Schnarr, wearing her recently deceased son Ryne Dougherty's No. 44 blue home jersey, waving three white flowers in her left hand and holding a candle in her right. "It's okay to be weak, children! Don't do it to your parents. You don't have to step on a field if you are hurt."
Last Monday, Dougherty, a 16-year-old junior who played outside linebacker for the junior varsity and was part of the varsity's kickoff coverage, played in the JV game against local power Don Bosco Prep in Ramsey, N.J. Twenty-five days after sustaining a concussion while tackling a teammate in practice, the 5-foot-11, 200-pound hustler, who had been cleared by doctors after a CT scan was conducted and he sat out the mandated period, chased after a Bosco player. Looking to stop the rusher before he reached the end zone, the curly-haired defender made the tackle and then collapsed, according to players and coaches in attendance. In short order, he was attended to by trainers from both schools and was rushed to nearby Hackensack University Medical Center, where he underwent tests and surgery for a brain hemorrhage in the Intensive Care Unit before passing Wednesday night.
While the coroner's office told the parents Friday that no conclusion will be drawn for two weeks, many around the school and family suspect that Dougherty had not fully recovered from the previous month's concussion. A teammate informed Dougherty's father, Martin, that his son had complained of headaches since being cleared, and the teammate thought he was protecting his friend's chances of playing by not telling coaches or the trainer. "This is no one's fault," said the father, a transportation consultant who said his son suffered another concussion the year before. "He liked to hit. You couldn't keep him out of the gym or off the field."
Grief counseling was offered by the school from Wednesday through Friday, with special attention given to the football team and junior class, and will be available early next week as well, interim principal Judith Weiss said. As a show of unity, more than 700 family and friends gathered in the Woodman Field parking lot on Essex Street at 7 p.m. and marched three blocks to the school, retracing the team's daily route to practice. Aglow with candle light, the moving vigil included the father, who walked with wax dripping down his stick. "This is surreal," said the father, who suffered at least two concussions as a youth. "I just hope better testing and awareness comes of this."
When the procession reached the school, a sonnet was read and flowers were placed next to stuffed animals and balloons by the sign that read "Ryne #44 Forever". On separate pieces of paper, a scripture from Zechariah 8:5 was quoted, "The city streets will be filled with boys and girls playing there." When the mother talked, she addressed his image cut from the school yearbook, and, exhorted the team to play for her son's memory. Soon after, an inconsolable player yelled, "I should have made that tackle!" He made his way out of the collected circle of support and was embraced by a friend.
To keep their son's memory alive, the family donated most of his organs, sending his liver to Maryland and keeping his pancreas and kidneys in New Jersey, and scheduled a viewing for their son on Sunday and a mass Monday. He is to be cremated by mid-week, the father said, in what will be a small family gathering. "He had so much life in him that we wanted someone else to benefit," said the father, who has been divorced from the mother about five years.
The reverberations of Dougherty's death will continue to be felt in an area where two other on-field football deaths have been recorded in the last two months. Douglas Morales, a junior at Cliffside Park High School, died from a head injury after a tackling drill in late August. Just days before that, Sean Fisher, a 13-year-old middle school student from Waldwick, died of an apparently undetected heart condition after he collapsed during drills. "You never think that when you step on the field anything like these incidents can happen," said Montclair coach Ed Lebida.
On Saturday, friends held four fingers on each hand in the air before kickoff of Montclair's game against then-undefeated Ridgewood. The most jarring reminder of their fallen classmate came with 1:42 remaining in the third quarter when quarterback Luke Iovine scrambled right out of the pocket and was hit in the head while approaching the sideline. Parents from the crowd called for a helmet-to-helmet contact penalty, but no flag was thrown. Only Iovine remained on the grass, and was helped to the bench by two trainers and the Ridgewood team doctor, Anthony Delfico, an orthopedist, who said the player was dizzy, had a headache and a retrograde amnesia. When asked, the quarterback could not remember what play was run, but he and his father, also Luke, appeared unconvinced that he should stay out of the game. Frustrated by the Delfico's suggestion that he should instead be further examined at Pascack Valley Hospital a few blocks away, the son said, "I can go in. I can go in. I don't understand why I can't go in."
Influenced by athletic director John Porcelli and the medical staff to take the precautionary trip to the emergency room, the father, who played quarterback for Montclair in the '80s, drove his son away. Shortly thereafter, the Mounties had a chance to win the game near the end of regulation but kicker Arman Walia missed the field goal. Given another opportunity after the defense stopped Ridgewood to begin overtime, and after advancing the ball, Walia kicked it through for a game-winning field goal. "I knew that Ryne was going to sweep in and carry it through," said Walia after the 17-14 win.
Onto the field rushed students and families, including Dougherty's mother, wearing mournful black sunglasses, a black wide-brimmed hat and her son's blue jersey. After celebrating the win in the fading sunlight and jumping in the arms of several players, she had a closing message. "Don't be sad," she said. "He was here today. My son was here!"