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Tingstad showed up in Torg's office in Philadelphia on July 10, with X-rays, MRIs, films of the spring practice collision and a 16-millimeter projector under his arm. By the time Torg walked into the examining room, Tingstad had already set up the projector on the examining table.
Torg, the founder and director of the National Football Head and Neck Injury Registry and a former team physician for the Philadelphia 76ers, has seen about 50 football players with narrowed spinal canals like Tingstad's. "Cervical spine injuries are fraught with ignorance and misunderstanding," says Torg. "Most neurosurgeons will say that someone with this condition has a greater chance of ending up paralyzed. They are wrong."
In a December 1986 study published in The Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery, Torg found that football players with spinal stenosis do indeed have a greater chance of experiencing the sort of temporary paralysis that Tingstad had in spring camp, but they do not have a greater chance of becoming permanently paralyzed. Of 177 men Torg contacted who had been permanently paralyzed on the football field, none had experienced an episode of temporary paralysis before their paralyzing injuries. In his article Torg also cited seven football players who had spinal stenosis and returned to football after experiencing temporary paralysis. None of them, according to his research, later suffered permanent paralysis. "Our data clearly indicate that athletes who have developmental spinal stenosis are not predisposed to more severe injuries," Torg wrote.
In a continuation of the same study, Torg examined three groups of football players: active players with no history of neurological damage, quadriplegics, and athletes who had experienced some form of temporary paralysis.
Torg discovered that the first and second groups were alike in that there was little or no evidence of spinal stenosis; however, among those who had experienced temporary paralysis, nearly all had spinal stenosis. Thus, Torg believes that there is no relationship between spinal stenosis and permanent paralysis.
Torg says that nearly every paralyzing injury suffered by football players comes as a result of diving into tackles headfirst—spearing—and the diameter of the spinal canal is irrelevant. Mississippi cornerback Chucky Mullins, who was paralyzed from the neck down during a game against Vanderbilt on Oct. 28, was subsequently found to have stenosis. But Mullins's injury occurred on a spearing tackle, and it's uncertain whether stenosis had anything to do with the mishap. Last year, at a trial in Charleston, S.C., Torg testified that Dr. E.K. Wallace Jr., the team doctor at The Citadel, had not been negligent in allowing Marc Buoniconti to play in a game in 1985 in which Buoniconti's spinal cord was crushed as he attempted to make a tackle.
Buoniconti, who is permanently paralyzed from the neck down as a result of the injuries, sued Wallace for $22.8 million, claiming that he should not have been permitted to play, as he had spinal stenosis, two old vertebrae fractures and a curvature of the spine. Torg, called as an expert witness by the defense, said that Buoniconti had speared the ballcarrier when making the tackle and that this was the reason he had become paralyzed. The jury agreed with Torg, and awarded Buoniconti no damages. Torg found the same abnormality in Tingstad's spine that the two neurosurgeons had, but he reached a very different conclusion. In a letter to Edinger, the Tingstads and Sonntag, Torg wrote: "In view of the fact that [Tingstad] has unequivocally had trial by battle and that he is not predisposed to a more significant neurologic problem, I see no contraindication to his further participation in football. However I think that Mark and his parents should be aware of the fact that the developmental narrowing of the cervical spine could result in...an episode of transient [meaning temporary] quadriplegia. Of course, the responsibility for his playing must lie with Mark and his parents."
Torg's opinion is controversial, and he is the first to admit that many doctors have difficulty accepting his recommendations. Sonntag is one of those who are mystified. "Torg is known in this field. He is no slouch," Sonntag says. "But I don't understand how someone could have a high chance of transient quadriplegia and that not be a contraindication to participation in football. We disagree. But doctors don't always agree."
Because the doctors had taken opposite positions, it was up to Tingstad to make a hard choice about his future—and after his visit to Torg, Tingstad was leaning toward playing again for the Sun Devils. While he considered his options, he had no shortage of advisers; they lined up on both sides, and some stood firmly in the middle.
Among those who offered counsel to Tingstad, none had greater cause for ambivalence than his parents. Ed and Darlene Tingstad had always encouraged their three sons to play football. Last season Mark played against his older brother, Ed Jr., a running back for Washington State. Younger brother David plays fullback at Boise State.