A head injury suffered during a youth football game put Tommy Schadl’s sports future in jeopardy, but in less than 2 years he bounced back to become an internationally acclaimed CrossFit athlete.
In 8th grade, Tommy was the tough kid delivering the blows on the McDonald Junior High football team. He wasn’t on the receiving end of many hits, so how could he be the one getting a concussion?
“When I’d hit someone I went black,” the offensive lineman and linebacker said. “I just thought that’s what was supposed to happen.”
Tommy would forget plays, walk diagonally back to the huddle, and his eyes would twitch. During a Sept. 26, 2013, game, he walked off the field barely conscious and his dad took him to the ER at Akron Children’s Beeghly campus in Boardman.
After a series of tests, doctors determined he suffered from multiple concussions and microscopic brain bleeding. He’d been playing with an undiagnosed concussion for about a month.
“As a parent I was devastated he had a concussion,” Tommy’s mother, Natalie, said. “My husband and I live daily with a tremendous amount of guilt for not recognizing it sooner. His coaches, teachers and friends all noticed something was wrong, the symptoms were there all along, but we blamed it on him just being a typical 13 year old.”
These symptoms included regularly dropping things, a strange look in his eyes, difficulty sleeping and a change in his overall temperament.
“One teacher even suspected he might be experimenting with drugs, but it turns out he was dealing with concussions and we didn’t know it,” Natalie said.
Tommy was prescribed “brain rest” and regular monitoring for more than a month afterward. He continued to experience delayed symptoms like sensitivity to light and sound, vomiting, imbalance, high blood pressure and difficulty sitting up.
He had to relearn to walk with intensive, daily physical therapy at Akron Children’s.
“A doctor told him his concussion was a one-in-a-million chance of being this severe, and his outlook for being an athlete was bleak,” Natalie said.
Doctors said his brain would continue to heal for up to 5 years, and meanwhile no contact sports, including football, basketball or baseball. He would instead focus on physical, balance, vision and cognitive therapies.
In need of an outlet and a goal to move toward, a high school teacher and family friend, Josh Krumpak, turned Tommy on to CrossFit, an increasingly popular fitness regimen that involves high-intensity Olympic-style weight lifting, bodyweight conditioning and gymnastics movements.
He quickly embraced CrossFit and soon realized he was exceptional at it.
Less than a year into the sport he was among more than 272,000 CrossFitters around the world between ages 14 and 86 who signed up for The Open – a 5-week, 5-workout competition that ultimately feeds into the CrossFit Games that are televised on ESPN.
“When he started CrossFit, his spirits were lifted tremendously, and between the exercise and healthy diet we started seeing a positive difference,” Natalie said.
After completing the first workout and entering his scores online he was pleasantly surprised to see himself ranked 4th in his age group. The workouts continued each week, and at the end of 5 weeks he stood in 5th place out of more than a thousand 14-15 year-old competitors – good enough to earn a trip to the 2015 Reebok CrossFit Games in Carson, Calif.
“I didn’t think it was going to be as big as it was,” Tommy said. “When I got there they treated me like a professional athlete.”
Tommy ultimately finished 4th in the world at the Crossfit Games, and followed that up with a 1st-place overall in his age group at Wodapalooza 2016 in Miami last month.
Tommy trains at CrossFit Mentality in Mentor, Ohio, under elite CrossFit Games athlete Scott Panchik and his twin brothers Spencer and Saxon Panchik.
“In just the past year he’s started coming around to being how he used to be, and we’re all so happy to see that,” Natalie said. “We had such a positive experience at Children’s. The nurses doted on him, the physical therapists were amazing, the doctors and staff kept in close communication with us and overall he was just very well cared for.”
Natalie encourages parents to learn about concussions, its symptoms, and what questions to ask your child to help determine if something is wrong.
Akron Children’s offers sports medicine services at Akron, Boardman and Hudson.