Though Harris weighed Lee's misgivings, after talking to the Arizona State doctors and lawyers, he also concluded that it was Tingstad's decision to make. He assured Tingstad that even if he decided not to play, Arizona State would renew his scholarship.
Had the athlete involved been almost anyone other than Tingstad, Marmie, Lee and Harris might not have been so willing to allow a 23-year-old to make such a critical decision for himself. But all three men—as well as Ed and Darlene Tingstad—knew that Mark would weigh his options with unusual care. Tingstad is bright and thoughtful. An accounting major, he was named an Academic All-America last season and this year was awarded one of 11 graduate fellowships by the National Football Foundation in recognition of his 3.43 grade point average.
Marmie, Lee and Harris also knew that Tingstad would be making up his mind free of the pressure that might have been brought to bear on an NFL prospect. Though a remarkable over-achiever on the field, at 6'1", 215 pounds, Tingstad was not pro material. After a redshirt freshman year, Tingstad started two games each of the next two seasons. By his junior year he had earned the starting spot and soon proved himself to be irreplaceable.
Tingstad says that when Torg told him that he thought he could play this season, "I wanted to jump, but I kept it to myself. I was elated. All along I decided that if I got the O.K., I was going to play. As long as I had no greater risk of paralysis than anyone else on the field, I was going to play."
Torg has found that many players quit after being diagnosed with Tingstad's abnormality. "Youngsters who have an episode of paralysis ain't too anxious to go back," he says.
So why would Tingstad risk paralysis, even the temporary kind, to play one more year of college football? "It was my senior year, my last year to play," he says. "The opportunity wasn't going to be around again. I love football."
Having decided to play, Tingstad was welcomed back into the Sun Devil fold. Because he had strained a muscle in his lower back (completely unrelated to his spinal condition) lifting weights during the summer, Tingstad did not tackle another player until practice the week before Arizona State's first game of the season, against Kansas State. Tingstad has always tackled with perfect form—his forehead on the ballcarrier's numbers—and one concern was that he would alter his tackling style to protect his neck, unintentionally endangering it even more. "I have to admit I was worried about my neck," Tingstad says. "I thought, I can't be hesitant. But I was thinking, What if...?"
Tingstad made six tackles against Kansas State with no ill effects. The next week, the Sun Devils played San Jose State in Tempe. With 10 minutes to go in the game, Ralph Martini, the Spartans' quarterback, rolled around right end. Tingstad came up to make the tackle but bounced off as Martini ran in for a touchdown. The collision left Tingstad lying unconscious on the three-yard line. As trainer Edinger ran onto the field, he looked for the ambulance in the end zone. For a moment he thought that everyone's worst fear had been realized. But after about 10 seconds, Tingstad came around. It turned out to be a minor concussion, and Tingstad went back in for the next series, finishing the game with 14 tackles.
Tingstad excelled through the next six games, leading the Sun Devils with 90 tackles. In the fifth game, against UCLA, he broke the school record for solo tackles in a career (207). But whenever Tingstad was slow to get up after making a hit, Sun Devil fans would fall quiet. They knew his history. A headline in The Arizona Daily Star before the opening game proclaimed: TINGSTAD RISKS HIS NECK FOR ASU.
The Washington game was the ninth of the season, and most of the principals from Tingstad's summer of indecision were on hand: Harris was in the stands, as were Ed and Darlene Tingstad. Marmie, Edinger and Lee were on the sidelines. When Harris saw Mark lying motionless on the field after Conklin's run, he thought, "This is not the way they write these things. This is not the way this is supposed to happen."