The Price of Playing With a Life
12/18/2009 4:13 PM ET By David Whitley
David Whitley is a national columnist for FanHouse
MARLBORO, N.J. -- Every football player's nightmare lives here, though you'd never know it at first.
Ring the doorbell and a Golden Retriever barks hello. The door swings opens and Tammy Plevretes beams a friendly smile.
The two-story house is warm and all done up for Christmas. It's enough to make you wonder if you have the right address.
Then, you hear something coming down the hall.
"Don't use your wheelchair," Tammy said. "Show how you can walk!"
It's her son, Preston.
He is the face and body of football's dirty little secret -- the concussion. It's become all the rage this season, from Ben Roethlisberger to Kurt Warner to Tim Tebow to a growing debate over when to say when.
Somebody didn't say when soon enough for Preston Plevretes.
He was a redshirt freshman for La Salle in 2005. A Duquesne player flattened him while he was trying to chase down a punt return. The jolt damaged Preston's brain so badly that a priest administered last rites later that day.
But that wasn't the money blow. Preston had suffered a concussion a month earlier in practice. The Plevretes family filed a negligence suit against La Salle, claiming Preston was still suffering symptoms and should not have been cleared to play.
Five days before trial was to begin on Nov. 30, LaSalle agreed to pay $7.5 million. It admitted no culpability. The school, ironically, no longer has a football program.
"Although we were prepared to defend our position, the University does not believe that it would serve any purpose to engage in further discussion on the matter," a statement said.
The Plevretes family believes differently.
"This is what kids need to see," Tammy said.
Somewhere in there is the old Preston, the vivacious kid who could charm a room. They see flashes of that in the new Preston. He understands much of the world around him, but he is like a 6-foot-3, 210-pound toddler.
"He's stuck in this body," said his father, Ted, "and we're working to get him out."
Preston needs 24-hour nursing care. His every move is a slow motion exhibition of determination. He can't say more than a few mumbled words, and those require careful translation from a parent.
I asked Preston why he went to La Salle. He looked at me for a moment.
"Snap out of it," Ted said. "Start talking."
"Can't talk today?" Ted said.
"I think I know why," Tammy said. "Does somebody need a hug?"
She kissed Preston's cheek and started rubbing his shoulders. He tends to shut down when he gets stressed or excited.
"Relax," his mother said.
I can only wonder what Preston is thinking. What would he say if only he could?
He remembers nothing about Nov. 5, 2005. His parents remember everything. They were at Marlboro High School attending a Parents Day game. Preston's younger brother, Perry, was showering after the game when Ted's phone rang.
"Don't be alarmed," a social worker said. "Your son is having brain surgery and you need to get here right away."
Don't be alarmed?
His parents got in their car and started driving. Hours later, they were in Pittsburgh. Tammy went in and looked at her son.
"I almost stopped breathing," she said.
The play that put him there was the kind you see a few times every weekend, usually accompanied by an approving whoop from the announcer. Preston's eyes were trained on the ball carrier. He never saw the block coming.
He went down, fought to get back up, then he lapsed into a coma.
"My head!" he screamed as trainers tried to hold him down. "My head!"
"He just wanted to run, run away from the pain," Tammy said.
Preston's brain was swelling by the second. He likely would have died if the hospital hadn't been only two blocks away. He was rushed into surgery and underwent a "decompressive craniectomy."
In layman's terms, the surgeon removed about a third of Preston's skull to ease the pressure on his brain. He spent three months in a medically induced coma. He was in five different hospitals over the next seven months.
All that time he was fed through a tube. He wilted from 235 to 160 pounds.
Would it have happened if he hadn't sustained the initial concussion, or it had been treated differently? Lawyers at Philadelphia's Kline & Specter firm were ready to argue that Second Impact Syndrome triggered the damage.
La Salle held Preston out one game after his concussion. The Plevretes family said Preston's symptoms persisted and he never received a doctor's clearance to resume play.
One sign of Second Impact Syndrome is when the victim is initially conscious after a blow to the head. Whatever a trial might have found, it all gets back to how concussions are handled.
They used to be treated like sprained ankles. You sucked it up and played. It's just that after years of wear and tear, old players can have knees and shoulders replaced.
There are no artificial brains. Recent studies show higher incidence of Alzheimer's disease and other brain-related ailments among football players. The NFL and NCAA have tightened standards in just the past few weeks.
The thought of eating through a straw for the rest of their lives is starting to take hold. Roethlisberger sat out a game two weeks ago, which didn't sit well with his old-school teammate, Hines Ward.
He criticized his quarterback for not being there for his team. Ward later apologized, but the macho culture won't be easily uprooted.
The dangers are more glaring in high schools and youth leagues, which often don't even have concussion protocols or base-line testing policies regarding how long players must sit out.
"This is a big cost to pay for wanting to get back in a game," Tammy said. "Preston could have missed that game. He could have missed that season. Now he's out for the rest of his life."
Nobody in the house is anti-football. Preston's a big Steelers fan, and he certainly had no problem with Roethlisberger sitting out. The Plevretes family just wants the inherent risks of football to be minimized.
Life has been difficult enough the past four years without thinking none of this had to happen.
"I was very angry at first, but there's nothing we can do about it," Tammy said. "We don't have any negativity in this house, it doesn't help Preston. We keep it light and keep it happy."
If Preston is the face of avoidable tragedy, his family is the face of loving resolve. That includes his aide, Eileen Graham, who takes him to physical therapy five days a week. Ted takes him to the YMCA to work out every night.
Sam the dog has an intuitive protective bond with Preston. The whole family goes out to eat at least twice a week so Preston will have chances to socialize.
"We know our son. We know his soul," Tammy said. "We take that spirit he had and put it into his recovery. We don't baby him. If he wants a drink, I tell him 'Get it yourself.'"
She looked over at her son.
"Why is that?" she asked.
"Foorr mmlifff," Preston said.
"For your life," Tammy said. "Exactly!"
Preston had improved to where he was walking two miles a day. He could take two steps backward and would sing his favorite AC/DC songs when they came on the radio. Then he started having seizures a few months ago and needed an eight-hour operation to remove scar tissue.
It basically erased three years worth of progress, though his doctors think he'll get back to where he was in six months. Ted wanted me to see how well Preston was doing before the operation, so he popped in a DVD shot in July.
Preston was walking in a park, working out at the gym, singing "Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap" in the car.
Ted also showed a DVD the La Salle coaches made titled "Preston's Greatest Hits." Though only a freshman, he'd quickly become the team's Ray Lewis. He could bench press 435 pounds and still chase down tailbacks.
As the Greatest Hits rolled, I noticed Preston was making them with a heavily bandaged hand. He'd broken a finger early in the season. The damaged digit warranted trips to three different orthopedists.
The damaged head Preston got in practice?
Zero doctors saw him at La Salle, the family said.
Ted also popped in a DVD from 2004. It was the sports banquet at Marlboro High, and Preston was at the podium. He began reading a speech, then put down the paper and started ad-libbing.
He told jokes, gently skewered the coaches and had everybody roaring. You could see why he planned to become a sportscaster. He had looks and style and seemed fully capable of becoming the first 18-year-old host of SportsCenter.
I glanced over at the new Preston. He was smiling at the old Preston.
What was going through his head? What was everybody else in the room thinking?
"I miss him so much," Tammy said.
She's made peace with the fact her son may never fall in love or be a father or all those things money can't buy. If Preston comprehends such things, he rarely lets on.
There was one time. He got up and needed to use the bathroom. As his mother sat next to him trying to steady him, Preston leaned his head back and started to weep.
"Why?" he cried. "Why?"
"I have no answers," Tammy said.
They just sat there and held each other.
"If anyone deserves to cry," Tammy said, "it's you, honey."
Through the tears, she believes they've found an answer. It started forming when Preston told her about Nov. 5, 2005. He remembers one thing.
He'd gone into cardiac arrest in the operating room. As his life drifted away, he saw a bright light though the fog. A figure with long hair and a beard appeared.
Preston said they walked barefoot on some grass, then they stopped and stood between two trees.
"We came to believe those trees represented life," Tammy said. "He was stuck in the middle, deciding whether to move on or come back.
"He chose to come back."
"We have to let people know this is real," Tammy said. "This is what can happen.
He didn't say anything. He didn't have to.