CBKB: Player dons boxer's headgear to fight concussions

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - IPFW forward John Peckinpaugh heard the catcalls again last week.

"U-F-C, U-F-C," the IUPUI students chanted at Conseco Fieldhouse.

This is what Peckinpaugh goes through in his new, protective world. When he stepped onto the court at Southern Illinois-Edwardsville in November, wearing the distinctive boxing headgear for the first time, he was just hoping to prevent concussions.

Four months later, he's still standing, still chuckling over the taunts that seem to come on every road trip.

"Tonight was the funniest student section," Peckinpaugh said after an 86-77 loss at Conseco, a game in which he had eight points and six rebounds. "I don't like (the headgear), but I've gotten used to it."

The junior forward didn't have a choice.

Last season, Peckinpaugh wore a protective plastic helmet and still wound up with five diagnosed concussions, enough to make his parents and coaches worry about long-term damage.

So coach Dane Fife and the Mastodons trainers spent the offseason searching for a solution, settling on the helmet that looks better suited for an Olympic boxing match than basketball. Fife won't let him play without it.

So far, so good.

Through the first 23 games, Peckinpaugh has missed just three and has not sustained another concussion.

Yes, the 6-foot-5, 225-pound junior still takes his shots. Two weeks ago, Fife held him out after he took a blow to the jaw without his mouthpiece. Last week, an IUPUI player ran into Peckinpaugh, knocking him to the floor and his headgear completely off. When he got up, Peckinpaugh shook his head, returned to the bench and took ibuprofen in case he got a headache.

But everybody, including Peckinpaugh, understands that the next hard hit, the next dive for a loose ball, the next elbow that catches him in the temple could end his basketball career.

"Our team doctor worked with me and said a lot of the symptoms I had weren't as bad as the ones other guys get," Peckinpaugh said. "But if I get another one, I don't think I'd want to play any more."

That's quite an admission from a guy known as a fearless scrapper.

Fife can relate. Nine years ago, he was the gritty, tough-minded player who helped Indiana reach the national championship game. Now 32, Fife finds himself in the role of protector.

Coaches have told Peckinpaugh there is no need to dive for every loose ball in practice and have stressed the importance of watching for picks.

If anything, the headgear has allowed Peckinpaugh to play his usual style. He doesn't back down from contact, is willing to mix it up in the paint and shows no hesitation when sliding over to take a charge.

In some ways, that's the concern.

"At his core, he's probably a 1950s or 1960s linebacker or offensive lineman, you know the guys who wear no helmets and no facemasks and have blood coming down over their noses," Fife said. "That's John."

The headgear has forced Peckinpaugh to make some adjustments.

The protruding sides limit his peripheral vision. He also had to change his shot and get accustomed to the awkward questions and continual taunts. The soft-spoken native of Muncie, Ind., never wanted his college career to turn out this way.

But it's the only way he can help the Mastodons.

"John is always pushing me to take the helmet off," Fife said. "I think he's lost some confidence about the way he thinks he should play. But it's better to have an unconfident John than no John, and it's better to have John mentally with it than recovering from a blow to the head that would have long-term effects."

In recent years, the NFL, the NHL and the NCAA all have adopted stronger concussion policies. The NBA and its players' union are also monitoring concussions, though there is no leaguewide mandate on what players must to do to return from head injuries.

The NCAA rules, Fife and Peckinpaugh said, played no role in their decision-making.

How much more can Peckinpaugh's body and mind take?

Nobody knows.

Dr. Terry Horner, who works with Methodist Sports Medicine and the nonprofit Indiana Sports Concussion Network, says that as long as Peckinpaugh is symptom-free, passes his baseline tests and takes corrective action, he should be OK.

"I haven't examined him, but if we had a scenario like this, where his tests were normal and he satisfied all that criteria, then he would be allowed to play," Horner said. "If he didn't, that would make him more susceptible to additional concussions."

The verdict also is out on whether the headgear protects him.

Though Peckinpaugh has been concussion-free this season, nobody can say with certainty whether that can be attributed to the black "helmet."

Horner says that unless the head is kept from rotating, concussions can and will occur.

"You would have to secure the helmet, like to the shoulder pads in football, so you have no motion of the head," Horner said. "It's been done pretty well in race cars now."

Peckinpaugh is well versed in the ways a player's head is vulnerable on a basketball court.

He routinely defends opponents three or four inches taller, and Peckinpaugh's naturally hunched defensive stance often puts his head in the path flying elbows. Another problem, Fife said, is Peckinpaugh winds up on the floor on almost every possession.

In Fort Wayne, where IPFW is located, the constant battle to keep Peckinpaugh healthy has taken on a life of its own.

"Any time John gets hit in our gym and there's any question about it, the gym goes silent," Fife said. "Once you see him move, you know he's OK because when he got hit last year, he was out."

Opponents aren't so forgiving.

Earlier this season, one grabbed Peckinpaugh by the headgear and tossed him to the floor. Last week, IUPUI forward Christian Siakam got the assignment of guarding Peckinpaugh and held nothing back.

"At that moment, you don't really think about it," Siakam said. "You're thinking about getting in position to score. I just want to win."

Crowds on the road are doing their part, too, and they're hitting closer to home than they think.

"John doesn't fear pain. I hated pain," Fife said. "Actually, I think he enjoys pain. You know if he wasn't playing basketball, he'd probably be one of those ultimate fighters."

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