The boys' love of football was instilled in them by their father, who was a wide receiver at the University of Puget Sound in the late '50s and early '60s and a high school football coach for 13 years, and is now the athletic director for the Bethel, Wash., school district. "I've dealt all my professional career with people who said, 'My son is not going to play football because he could get hurt,' " says Ed Tingstad. He understands these parents' concerns, but he believes they are largely unfounded. In fact, he fears that publicity about Mark's experience will discourage parents from allowing their sons to play football. "I've had doubts in my mind since Mark began playing in junior high school," says Ed. "It's a typical parent's reaction. You're concerned about the welfare of your child. But I'm concerned every time he's out late and I hear a siren.
"Once, when Mark was a boy, I came out of the house and saw him high up in a tree. I started to yell, 'Get down,' but I stopped myself. I knew I wasn't going to be around every tree all of his life. I just told him to be careful. Based on what we know, we make a decision, and then we have to live with it."
After Torg explained his findings to Ed and Darlene, the Tingstads reached a decision: They would let Mark decide whether or not to continue playing.
In allowing Mark to make his own choice, the Tingstads showed an unusual level of trust, not only in their son, but also in Marmie. Ed Tingstad knows well the pressure that a coach can exert on his players, but the Tingstads were relying on the close friendship that had formed between Mark and Marmie.
The two had arrived in Tempe at virtually the same time, in 1985, and both say they grew up together at Arizona State. Marmie, now 47, had been the defensive coordinator and linebacker coach at Tennessee before becoming the Sun Devils' defensive coordinator before Tingstad's freshman year. In 1988, Marmie was promoted to his first head coaching job when John Cooper left for Ohio State. Tingstad had been recruited by Cooper's predecessor, Darryl Rogers, who resigned nine days before the 1985 signing deadline. Tingstad went to Arizona State anyway (he had few other offers) and in 1989 was one of only three of Rogers's recruits remaining on the team. Drew Metcalf, another linebacker, who roomed with Tingstad on the night before games, says, "Mark Tingstad is consistent in everything he does, like Coach Marmie. Coach treats everybody the same, but his favorite kid is Tingstad."
And perhaps because of his special feelings for Tingstad, Marmie did not want his star linebacker to play anymore and did his best to talk him into quitting. "My greatest fear was that something would happen, and then I would say, I knew, I knew,' " Marmie says. In 1981 he was the defensive back-field coach at North Carolina when one of his best players, Steve Streater, was paralyzed in an auto accident. "I saw that tragedy for two years," says Marmie. "But I decided that it was not my place to tell Mark and his parents, 'I don't care what you say, he can't play.' But if three doctors had said he couldn't play, I'd have been tickled to death."
In fact, there was a third doctor who was reluctant to allow Tingstad to play. Dr. Richard Lee, one of the Arizona State team physicians, considered forbidding Tingstad to play, but ultimately, he also left the decision up to the player. It was a difficult judgment for Lee—especially because he had prevented a wrestler with a potentially more serious spinal problem from competing for the school three years ago. In order to make sure that Tingstad would not make his decision lightly, Lee asked him to sign an informed-consent document. Lee wanted the young man, like a patient about to undergo surgery, to clearly understand that his decision to proceed was not without risk. "I pushed pretty hard," Lee says. "I know a 30-year-old paraplegic. I asked Mark to come see him with me, to see how he lived every day, before he signed the form. That's pushing pretty hard." Tingstad did not go with Lee, saying he knew enough and didn't really need to see that.
Had Lee ruled that Tingstad's spinal stenosis rendered him unfit for football at Arizona State, his decision would not have been without precedent. In 1987, Steve Clayton, a sophomore defensive back at the University of Wyoming, made a tackle against Iowa State and immediately felt tingling and numbness in his arms and legs. Clayton was examined by a number of doctors, including Torg, who found that, like Tingstad, he had a narrow spinal canal. Torg recommended that Clayton be allowed to play. Wyoming held a hearing, at which Torg testified by phone. Afterward the school did not permit Clayton to play; Torg says the Wyoming administration feared liability.
Arizona State athletic director Harris, as a university administrator, represented the last obstacle for Tingstad in his desire to remain a Sun Devil. The safest course for Harris and the school would have been to follow Wyoming's lead and prohibit Tingstad from suiting up. There was a greater chance of a lawsuit if he played and was hurt than if he were not allowed to play and went to court to gain the right to rejoin the team.
Harris could have asked Tingstad to sign a document absolving Arizona State of liability in the event Tingstad were injured, but Harris says, "What kind of person would say, 'Yes, we'd like to have you play for us. Just sign here.' If he got hurt, how would having him sign something make me feel better? When you sit on a living room couch with a player and his or her family, you have an obligation to that family. We ask the parents to give us their son or daughter for the next 10 semesters; we'll educate that person, allow him or her to grow and gain some experience. We owe the parents something too."