It was the darkness that terrified Mark Tingstad most. As he lay face down on the seven-yard line, the weight of his helmeted head pressed his face mask into the turf, shutting out the sunlight. With 1:30 left in the first half, Washington quarterback Cary Conklin had dashed through a hole in the line. Tingstad, Arizona State's left inside linebacker, read the play, tossed aside a blocker and stepped up to meet Conklin. Conklin began to slide, turning his back to Tingstad as Tingstad's yellow helmet crashed into the back of the quarterback's shoulder pads. The impact snapped Tingstad's head back.
Now he couldn't move. "I felt a rush through my whole body. Then it was numb," Tingstad said later. "I couldn't feel anything. I knew it was important to move my legs, but I couldn't."
He pleaded with the Arizona State trainers to roll him over. "I've got to get some air," he said to them. Aware of the danger involved in moving a person who may have a spinal injury, they at first refused. But in the darkness of his helmet, Tingstad was panicking, so they carefully rolled him onto his back.
Spectators and teammates, concerned that Tingstad might be paralyzed, were relieved to see his arms and legs move. They did not know that the limbs were contracting on their own—pressure on the spinal cord had caused electrical impulses to fire, opening and closing his right hand and twitching his legs like detached limbs in a horror movie. "It was like looking at somebody else's hand," Tingstad says.
The game against the Huskies was in Seattle, and Tingstad's parents were in the stadium, having come from their home in Spanaway, Wash., 35 miles away. As he was rolled onto his back and then strapped onto a wooden board, Tingstad saw his mother kneeling at his side. She held his left hand in her right. In her other hand she clutched a cross. "Praise God, help my son," she said as she raised the cross in the air.
A few minutes later Tingstad recovered the use of his hands, and by the time he reached the emergency room of University Hospital, he had regained control of his legs. There were two games to go in the '89 season, and Tingstad, a senior, would miss them both. But a week and a half after the Washington game, he was feeling no effects from the tackle that had prematurely ended his football career.
These days, as Tingstad walks around the Arizona State campus in Tempe, people come up to him and tell him how sorry they are that he missed the Sun Devils' last two games. But viewed another way, the frightening episode in Seattle was a happy ending to a tense personal drama that could serve as a case study of ethics in medicine and in college football.
Last February, Tingstad had suffered a similar, though less severe injury during spring drills. In the five months that followed, he was evaluated, and his condition discussed, by family, doctors, coaches and Arizona State administrators. All of these people, who know and care about Tingstad, were forced to confront a number of sensitive issues: What are a student's rights? Whose decision is it to forbid a student to participate in college sports? If every football player accepts some risk when he steps on the field, when does that risk become unacceptable? What young man who has played football for more than half his life would risk his life to play another game? What young man wouldn't? Says Charles Harris, the athletic director at Arizona State, "The questions raised in Mark's case are as basic as, What is college athletics?"
On Feb. 21, the fourth day of contact during the Sun Devils' spring football practice, Tingstad made a tackle. There was nothing unusual in that: Last season he led the Pac-10 in tackles, averaging 15.6 per game, and was fourth in the country, with 172, a school record. What was unusual was the numbness he felt in both arms after the hit.
This was not a stinger, the burning sensation down the arm that a player sometimes feels after he takes a shot to the top of the shoulder. A stinger means that a nerve has been momentarily pinched or irritated, as happens when the funny bone is hit. But stingers affect only one side; Tingstad collided head-on and was numb down both arms. When an X-ray showed no fracture, he returned to practice the next day.