After receiving his eighth concussion during spring practice in 2011, and numerous times before, Mark Brandenstein took a good look at himself, questioning his toughness and desire to play football.
It wasn’t through a mirror or photos.
“I remember when I had a lot of my concussions [that] I would sit in my room,” Brandenstein said. “I felt like I had an out-of-body experience. I’d lie there, and I felt like I was looking at myself. You realize that that’s just not what you want to go through.”
It is always a tear-jerking moment when an athlete retires from any sport. It’s worse when an athlete is told he or she has to quit.
Brandenstein experienced this — being told by individuals to leave the game he loves so deeply. Nobody probably loves football at Youngstown State University as much as Brandenstein, but he ultimately had no choice.
“I saw three different doctors,” he said. “I was in Pittsburgh. The guy that looked at me, who always works for the [Pittsburgh] Steelers, told me that I was slowly getting slower in everyday life. That kind of hit me a little hard and made me realize maybe there is more to life than just the sport.”
A concussion is a traumatic brain injury that alters the way one’s brain functions, according to Mayo Clinic. Concussions are caused by a blow or jolt to one’s head. Concussions also have life-threatening effects, but that didn’t stop Brandenstein after his first seven.
“It’s a kid’s dream, and I’ve been playing football my whole life since the first grade,” he said. “It’s a lifestyle that you do, and I think that just kept me going. You always want to be that star. Especially playing for Youngstown — I grew up here. You want to be the face of what you love.
“You realize, once you’re in high school, you just start shaking them [concussions] off. I’ve become more knowledgeable of what these things could become.”
Brandenstein sustained most of his concussions during his high school days at Cardinal Mooney. He was concussed the last two times with YSU.
As a senior in high school, Brandenstein was a first-team All-Ohio Division III linebacker and a first-team Division III Northeast Inland District selection. While also playing fullback, he was credited with 54 tackles during his senior year, including a team-high 36 solo while 7.5 were for losses.
“Being a linebacker, being a guy who has that mentality of winning and hitting hard and running fast and just that attack mentality, it weighs a lot on your brain,” said Kurt Hess, former YSU quarterback. “When somebody looks at you and tells you that you can’t play the game anymore because you’ve gotten hit too many times, it really hurts a guy like that. I respect Mark just numerous amounts because he’s gone through a lot.”
During his freshman year with the Penguins in 2010, Brandenstein played special teams, mainly on kickoff coverage. He played in all 11 games and totaled 13 tackles. He also earned his first letter.
“We just decided that it wasn’t in his best interest to continue playing football,” YSU head coach Eric Wolford said. “He still wanted to and his family did, but I just noticed a difference.”
Despite experiencing what no athlete should, Brandenstein encourages younger generations to play football or any sport they desire. The fear of concussions shouldn’t stop them.
“Obviously, every parent doesn’t want their kid to get hurt, but you can’t hide them, too,” he said. “They need to be able to be out there and determine for themselves what they want to do.”
Brandenstein continues to stick around the Penguins and some of his former teammates that still play. He joined YSU’s strength and conditioning staff as a student assistant shortly after his last concussion.
Whether it’s attending classes, lifting weights or pretty much anything else, the big question that sticks with Brandenstein is “what if?”
“Especially on game days and things like that, you sit back and are like ‘Gosh, could I have stayed in one more time? Could I have done this one more time? Should I have not said anything?’ It boils in you,” Brandenstein said. “But, overall, I would have to say that it was the smarter decision on my part. I’m happy with where everything’s going, and I have to live with it.”