Four days later Tingstad made a tackle and had a similar experience. This time he felt the tingling in both arms down to his fingertips, and the sensation remained in his left palm and wrist for 20 minutes. In instances where there is numbness in both arms simultaneously, the affected nerve may be the spinal cord itself, so team doctors referred Tingstad to a specialist, Dr. Volker Sonntag, a neurosurgeon in Phoenix.
Sonntag examined Tingstad on March 13, taking X-rays and an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), which produces an image not only of bone but also of soft tissues, like muscles and nerves. The MRI revealed that Tingstad has a condition known as spinal stenosis—a narrow spinal canal. The spine is essentially a bony canal, composed of vertebrae stacked one upon another, that encircles and protects the spinal cord. Normally there is enough space between the cord and the vertebrae to allow the cord to move back and forth as a person bends or stretches. Tingstad's spinal cord is normal, but his canal is narrow—only eight millimeters in diameter, when it should be at least 12 millimeters in someone his size.
When Tingstad's head snapped back, his vertebrae momentarily pinched the spinal cord. It was as if he had banged his funny bone against the edge of a table, but instead of the shock firing down one arm, it shot down both arms.
Sonntag felt that Tingstad should not play football again. "I told him that he had a greater risk of paralysis [than other players]," says Sonntag. "I wouldn't let anyone with that spine play football. I told him by all means to get another opinion. I showed him the X-rays and his eyes welled up with tears, and so did mine. I didn't want to do it. I've been an Arizona State supporter and a Mark Tingstad supporter for years."
Stunned by Sonntag's recommendation, Tingstad drove back to campus. "I had no idea he would say I was finished playing. He said if I was his son, he wouldn't let me play," Tingstad says. "I was alone, but I didn't go crazy." Tingstad understood the particulars of spinal stenosis—a congenital abnormality that affects perhaps 5-10% of the population—but he didn't understand why he had to quit playing football. After all, he had played the game since junior high, and his spinal canal had been like this since he was born. Even more frustrating was the fact that unlike injuries he had endured before, the problem with his spinal column wasn't really caused by something that happened on the field, and there was no brace or cast he could wear to help him get over it.
Tingstad and his parents did seek a second opinion, from a neurosurgeon in Seattle. Dr. Gordon Mulder examined Tingstad on April 10 and agreed with Sonntag; Tingstad, he said, should not be playing football. Arizona State coach Larry Marmie, who spoke with Sonntag and was told of Mulder's diagnosis, says, "They told me that he could die. I didn't want him out there." And so Marmie began planning for the 1989 season without Tingstad, the most valuable player on the team last year, and a quiet leader who had been named a cocaptain for the coming season.
Initially Tingstad seemed resigned to putting his football days behind him. "Neither of my parents ever said I shouldn't play, but I figured it was over," he says. "My parents assumed I wasn't playing. We didn't really talk about it. I figured I had played the card as far as I could."
But Tingstad never totally accepted that he wouldn't play again. He lifted weights and ran with his teammates all during the off-season, and when they asked him why he was sweating alongside them, Tingstad told his teammates that he wanted to stay in touch with something he loved.
Then in June, Perry Edinger, Arizona State's head football trainer, gave Tingstad new hope. At a meeting of the National Athletic Trainers Association in Dallas, Edinger had heard a presentation by Dr. Joseph Torg, an orthopedic surgeon at the University of Pennsylvania. In his speech Torg, an expert on cervical spinal stenosis, said that men with Tingstad's condition were not necessarily in any more danger of paralysis than those with normal spinal columns.
Edinger passed this on to Tingstad and his parents and asked them whether they wanted to solicit a third opinion—Torg's. Figuring they had nothing to lose, the family agreed. "The last thing I wanted to do was send Mark to doctor after doctor, looking for one who would say O.K.," Marmie says. "If you look long enough, you'll find someone. Would I like to have Mark Tingstad play? Yes. But under those circumstances? No. We'd have stopped after doctor number one if his folks hadn't wanted to go on."