For Ryan Hermes, playing sports was as necessary as breathing. He would do anything to stay on the field. His first concussion came in middle school. He suffered eight more before graduating. Now, his playing days over, he's left wondering, "What's next?"
At a very young age, Ryan Hermes became a master of disguise. Ever since he could tuck a football into the crook of his arm, the recent Sterling High School graduate dreamed of playing in college. Perhaps beyond.
So he repeatedly veiled his hidden injuries, just long enough to ensure he wouldn’t miss a snap.
“We couldn’t see his concussions, which made it really hard,” Ryan’s mother, Becki, says. “I think he learned really quick, ever since he was young, how to work around it and not let anyone know how bad it hurts.”
At least nine concussions later, Hermes says he’s finally reached a place where he doesn’t wake up with a headache every day. But he’s become increasingly forgetful. He occasionally stutters.
He shudders to think.
“I’m starting to worry it’s never going to be all right again,” Hermes said.
‘Like a headache on fire’
Hermes thinks back to his first football concussion, in seventh-grade junior tackle.
“Behind my eyes, it burned really bad,” he says. “It was like a headache on fire. It was weird. That was the first time I ever experienced one.”
His mother begs to differ.
She recalls a wrestling tournament about 8 years ago, in which Ryan, then a big kid for a 10-year-old, tangled with an older wrestler at a tournament and thumped his head on the mat.
Afterward, he got sick. On the drive home, he cried and was inconsolable, a side his parents hadn’t seen.
“We were pretty shook up about it,” Becki says. “We drove him home and he was pretty upset.”
They kept an eye on him, and he quickly got better.
“For a long time, we didn’t realize how severe his concussions were,” Becki says. “His dad and I both wish we would’ve paid more attention or had more information. We might’ve made different decisions through the years. But it’s hard to say ‘No’ when it’s something that they truly love. We didn’t want to take that dream away from him.”
“I played in high school, but not like him,” Ryan’s dad, Mark, says. “We were proud of him. We wanted him to succeed and would’ve loved for him to play college ball.”
His parents felt somewhat handcuffed as Ryan headed into his senior year.
“It was really hard for us to leave it in his hands,” Becki says. “but we knew it was up to him at this point.
“I’d hate to see anybody go through what he’s gone through or feel helpless like we did.”
Hermes readily concedes he wasn’t fully healed when he returned to the gridiron for the Golden Warriors’ playoff run.
“I was probably about 80 percent,” he admits.
The defending Northern Illinois Big 12 West defensive MVP had suffered a concussion in each of his freshman, sophomore and junior football seasons, in addition to the two he suffered before high school.
“It all makes sense,” Sterling athletic trainer Andi Sumerfelt said. “The younger you are when you get your first concussion, you’re going to be more susceptible.”
Hermes knew it was crucial to stay on the field throughout his senior year, the icy threat of second-impact syndrome be damned. Sterling’s starting fullback and linebacker envisioned a full, healthy season, and more to follow at the University of St. Francis in Joliet.
But that was derailed in the fourth quarter of the season opener against Moline at Roscoe Eades Stadium. Hermes suffered what Sumerfelt deemed his worst concussion when his head struck the knee brace of running back DeShawn Johnson.
Minutes later, she comforted Hermes in the locker room. Typically unshakable, he cried uncontrollably, an unmistakable indicator he had suffered a concussion.
“That was actually the first time I’d ever seen that,” Sumerfelt says. “I’d never seen it in an athlete until I saw it in him, and it was so strong with him. He was scared about what was happening to him, and I tried to assure him that it was going to be OK. I think he put all of his trust in me at that point.”
Friends and fauxs
About 2 weeks later, Hermes returned to school, where just looking at a computer screen made him sick and triggered headaches.
Sumerfelt and faculty worked hard to prevent him from falling behind.
“They’d give me assignments and tell me just to get them back whenever I got them done,” Hermes says.
Such patience and sympathy was harder to find among his peers.
“At the beginning, everyone said, ‘You’ll be fine and you know yourself the best. Just rest, and you’ll be back,’” Hermes recalls. “Toward the end of the year, they’d say, ‘So are you coming back? Probably not, huh?’ It just got annoying. You start avoiding the question after a while.”
Being sidelined wasn’t easy. Quite the opposite, in fact.
“Toward the middle of the season, like the Geneseo game, that was pretty hard to watch the biggest game of the year as a senior from the sidelines,” Hermes says.
“He was an outstanding player,” Sumerfelt says. “He has more heart than anyone.”
Hermes cherished Sumerfelt’s counsel and expertise.
“I couldn’t even imagine what it would be like without a trainer,” Hermes says. “You’d have the crazy football coach who would grab you by the facemask, look you in the eyes and say, ‘How many fingers am I holding up?’ He’d give you that test and say, ‘You’re fine. Get back out there.’ “
He says he has no regrets about withholding his symptoms from Sumerfelt. And she harbors no ill will.
“Boys do that. They hide more and try to be the tough guy,” she says. “It doesn’t make me mad. It’s just the nature of the injury. Pain is very subjective. You can have a headache, and there’s no way I can tell.”
Sumerfelt worked closely with Greg King, Sterling’s athletic director and also its football coach at the time, to make sure Hermes would return only after his brain had fully healed.
About 3 weeks before the playoffs began, he started activities. The week leading up, he finally put on the pads.
“It was an extremely slow progression,” Sumerfelt said. “Every time he came off the field, I talked to him.”
King leveled with his star, telling him there was a chance he wouldn’t play. But Hermes, cleared by the family doctor, followed his coaches like a shadow during the first series of the Warriors’ first-round playoff home game Oct. 30 against Chicago Julian.
“If somebody made a bad play, I’d be like, ‘Coach, I’m right here; I can go in,’ “ Hermes says.
On the second series, No. 44 was called.
“My heart was racing just knowing I could play again. It was about being out there with my friends,” Hermes recalls.
The Warriors grinded out an 18-14 victory over Julian and in the second round drew powerhouse Montini, which would go on to win its third straight state title. In that game, Hermes was shaken up while blocking and pulled himself out of the game with about 10 minutes to play.
The Warriors lost 35-10. But perhaps the biggest sting for Hermes’ parents was learning that it wasn’t the first time their son didn’t remember the entire fourth quarter of a game.
“We didn’t realize at the end of the season that he wasn’t 100 percent,” Becki says. “I don’t think he was completely honest with us, his doctor or his trainer.”
The hiding continued a few months later when the spring sports season arrived. Sumerfelt wasn’t crazy about Hermes playing baseball. Her fears were validated just 2 weeks into the season. Although she would never have known.
Hard to let go
Until his senior year, Hermes committed himself to football year-round, including attending speed and acceleration camps during the winter. As baseball season approached, he knew all he had left was high-school sports. He called a chance to play baseball “a bonus.”
He wasn’t ready to let go. The habit of playing hurt fully formed, he ignored lingering symptoms from the football season.
A relatively mild collision along the first base line during an early-season trip to O’Fallon, Mo., sent Hermes to the ground.
“I just hit my back and kind of laid there,” Hermes says. “I thought, ‘Crap.’ Then my right fielder was standing on first base. I had no idea why. He said he came to get the ball and I didn’t realize why. I thought the game paused.”
An athlete who endures three concussions in a single school year is ruled ineligible by the IHSA. So Hermes put on his game face and masked the pain.
“I didn’t tell anybody about that one,” Hermes says. “I kind of pretty much graded it on my own and compared it to all the rest. I figured, ‘I’ll be fine; this one isn’t all as bad.’ I just had more headaches, more frequently and they were more intense.”
About 2 weeks later, a collision at home plate in a home game against LaSalle-Peru brought his prep career to an end.
Once the proverbial smoke of high-school sports cleared, the Hermes family visited KSB Hospital.
Any lingering aspirations of playing college ball were decimated as neurologist Dr. Sulaiman Mohammad forbid Hermes from ever playing sports again. On any level.
He told the family Ryan had endured at least two Level-3, possibly Level-4, concussions.
“I felt like I just paid a neurologist to tell me I can’t play sports anymore,” Hermes says. “He wasn’t that helpful, honestly, but I guess they wanted to hear it from someone important.”
Becki admits she worries about her son’s future, especially when she looks outside and sees his car door standing wide open. Or when he can’t find something he set down less than a minute ago.
“I’m a tidy guy, and I hate forgetful people,” Hermes says. “Now that’s what I’ve become. It’s frustrating. Big time.”
“I feel better since he’s had an EEG and a Cat-Scan and full neurological workup,” Becki says. “But you still see all the side-effects that are there. I worry that, down the road, when he feels better, he’ll want to play sports on some level.”
The thought of thousands of NFL players suing the league for withholding the long-term dangers of concussions catches Ryan’s attention.
“There are freak injuries where people die from second-impact syndrome. It’s kind of scary, but nothing’s for sure,” Hermes says. “There’s no point to worry about it, thinking ‘When I’m 40, am I going to have Alzheimer’s symptoms? Am I going to have seizures and stuff?’
“There’s no reason to worry about that. It’s not a for-sure thing. Those could be freak accidents with those guys. I didn’t play at such a high level as they did.”
Hermes’ brushes with the hidden injury
Junior tackle football
Two in football Two in baseball
Dr. Michael DeFranco and his concussion team at CGH will conduct two more seminars to educate athletes, parents, coaches and all interested parties • Monday – Noon at CGH Hospital, Classroom 2 on main floor near Ryberg Auditorium • Tuesday – 6 p.m., CGH Hospital, Classroom 2 on main floor near Ryberg Auditorium * – Call 888-721-2867 for more information
To read more from our special series on sports concussion, please check out The Hidden Injury project page on saukvalley.com. Click here to visit.