The symptoms were all too familiar for Craig Westby.
The dizziness, the nausea, the numbness to his arms – he had experienced them all before.
Granted, this time around everything was significantly milder, but it was a concern nonetheless given Westby’s long history of concussions.
Westby, a senior at Tumwater High School, felt disorientated during a routine drill at last spring’s Thunderbirds football camp.
“I just didn’t feel right,” Westby recalls. “I knew something was going on.”
Westby was able to make the self-diagnosis because of three previous incidents where he suffered a mild traumatic brain injury over a span of seven years.
The first occurred in elementary school when Westby was involved in a nasty collision during a heated game of “Capture the Flag.”
Fast forward three years and concussion No. 2 occurred during middle school wrestling practice after Westby’s head violently bounced off the mat.
“The first one was a Grade III (concussion). The worst kind you can get,” Westby said. “I was knocked out and when I woke up I became very sick. The second one wasn’t as bad.”
Cleared to participate in sports, Westby fulfilled his dream of playing football for the T-Birds – first playing on the freshman team, then as a sophomore reserve on Tumwater’s 2010 Class 2A state championship squad.
He excelled during his junior season, earning a starting position in the T-Birds’ secondary and receiving first-team all-Evergreen Conference honors in helping Tumwater win the conference crown.
But four days before the T-Birds’ 2011 first-round playoff clash with Archbishop Murphy, Westby felt dizzy after a hit during practice. His season was over. The Wildcats went on to drub Tumwater, 41-6, ending the T-Birds’ hopes of defending their state title.
The loss was disappointing, but Westby was determined to close out his high school football career on a high note. Two days into spring football, however, the symptoms returned.
“It was incredibly tough. I talked it over with my parents and decided it was best not to play football my senior year,” Westby said. “Ever since elementary school I dreamed about playing there.”
An emotional conversation followed with the Tumwater coaching staff. Instead of letting Westby walk away, they gave him a whistle.
“They asked me to help coach the secondary,” Westby said. “They still wanted me to be a part of the program. That meant a lot.”
Westby embraced his role as honorary assistant coach, traveling with the team to Central Washington University for summer camp and helping out during August two-a-day drills.
It wasn’t long, however, before Westby began to second-guess his decision. By the time the start of the season rolled around, his desire to play was in full swing. The change of heart wasn’t based on missing the actual physical play. It had more to do with a football brotherhood.
“I just missed playing with my friends too much,” said Westby, a longtime friend of defensive standouts Joe Brueske and Jaimie Bryant. “I started thinking about it at (the CWU camp). I missed the team aspect of it, working for something as a group. I’ve played with these guys since third grade. It just felt like something I needed to do.”
Given the green light to play by his doctor, Westby had to persuade his parents to let him return.
“They obviously had concerns about me playing again,” Westby said. “We had another long talk.”
Westby’s parents agreed, albeit with a strict monitoring system in place should any concussion symptoms resurface.
“I had to get all my practices in, so I didn’t actually get to play until the North Thurston game (week six). It seemed like it took forever because I wanted to play so bad,” Westby said. “I was tentative at first during practices. It took me a while to get back into a groove, but once I played in that first game everything was back to normal.”
Things certainly appear to status quo for the T-Birds, who travel to Kennewick today to play Prosser in the state semifinals – the 11th time they have advanced to the semis. A victory would give Tumwater the chance to play for its sixth state championship.
“It’s really hard to explain how it feels to be out there playing again with these guys,” Westby said. “I wouldn’t trade this season for anything.”