Patrick Risha was a Mon Valley football phenomenon, for which he paid a terrible price
June 28, 2015 12:00 AM
By Karen Zingle Zegel
Patrick Mark Kinzle Risha loved football. He considered football a test of courage and a rite of passage for a young man growing up in Steeler Country’s football rich Mon Valley.
Patrick became a record-setting star for the Elizabeth Forward Warriors. He played strong safety for the defense. On offense he was a running back and rushed for nearly 4,000 yards, garnering school records for most career yards, touchdowns and attempts, for most season yards, touchdowns and attempts, and for most game yards. He was selected among the 1998 and 1999 Post-Gazette Fabulous 22, was an athlete of the week for both WTAE and Fox, and won many other athletic honors.
Patrick’s coach nicknamed him “The Horse” and he became known for never letting the first hit take him down. One headline read “Warriors Ride Risha into the WPIAL Playoffs,” which he helped his team do two years in a row.
Patrick was a courageous kid playing a man’s game. He took brutal poundings as every opposing team keyed on him.
Patrick went on to play football at Dartmouth, graduating in 2006, but by then it was clear that his personality was changing. He went from outgoing to reclusive, he couldn’t concentrate, he got angry easily, he started gambling.
On Sept. 17, 2014, Patrick died of suicide at the age of 32. Suicide is a common symptom of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, caused by repeated hits to the head. An autopsy revealed Patrick had CTE.
As Patrick’s parent, all I ever wanted to do for him was provide good opportunities in life and give him chances for happiness. Patrick viewed football as an avenue to an Ivy League education and it made him happy. Unfortunately the repetitive head trauma Patrick experienced playing football took those opportunities away as his brain developed CTE, the disease that so many pro football players are dealing with today.
We didn’t know then what we know now — that repetitive blows to the head cause this horrible disease. Now, in an effort to save other young men from Patrick’s fate, we have started a nonprofit organization and website, StopCTE.org, to bring awareness to this inherent problem in tackle football. We believe parents should be aware of the danger of playing a sport that requires violent collisions.
On June 13, the Elizabeth Forward Athletic Association held a football clinic for children ages nine to 12 at Warrior Stadium. Patrick loved playing there, where his plaques still fill the trophy case. He gave all he had and more on that field.
As a mom, I wanted to let other moms know the problems their children could encounter by playing football and to share Patrick’s story with the high-school players running the clinic. I went to the clinic to quietly hand our pamphlets about CTE to parents as they dropped off their students in the parking lot.
I am grateful that my daughter and some friends were there to help because what ensued that morning was unthinkable. We were accosted and angrily shouted at by EFAA leaders. At their urging, we were asked to leave the school premises by the Elizabeth Forward security guard. Hurtful and naive comments were hurled at us, such as “CTE doesn’t even exist.” The security guard (who said he was in contact with the superintendent) even called the police. We later shared the StopCTE website on the EFAA Facebook page, but it was deleted.
It is sad that youth football leaders and school districts are so wrapped up in protecting their enterprise that they are fearful of allowing a hometown mom to peacefully share her knowledge and experience with parents and children.
Children’s brains are so precious. Helmets do not protect against CTE.
Football is a man’s game. We learned long ago that boxing can lead to CTE and that kids should not box. When are we going to face the fact that kids’ heads are being banged around in football, too?
I am so sorry that I did not see the harm that football caused for Patrick. I am saddened even more that it is still happening, and that some people would try to block our efforts to spread awareness.
I understand that high-school tackle football is a beloved American tradition, especially in Western Pennsylvania. But I think most parents love their children more.
Karen Kinzle Zegel, a retired school food service director, is president of the Patrick Risha CTE Awareness Foundation (StopCTE.org).
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