Head injury became family's hell
A sticker with Rocco's number 62 is on the Zicarelli family's SUV.
The Zicarelli family in their living room the last Christmas they were all together. Rocco Zicarelli died in 2004 following a concussion at football practice.
Rocco Zicarelli in his football uniform.
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CONNEAUTVILLE, Pa. -- No. 62 endures.
The stickers, found in red, black or gold around this northwest corner of Pennsylvania, remain affixed six years later to cars and trucks, windows and bumpers, hearts and memories.
The number represents the son of Rocco and Linda Zicarelli, the parents with one of those red stickers on their SUV's rear window and a pile more tucked inside a letter holder in their house. Classmates from Conneaut Valley High and folks from elsewhere continue to ask for one. The parents are more than gratified to oblige, to keep circulating awhile longer these numerical tributes to the boy they called Rocky.
"Of course," said Linda Zicarelli, "you don't think your kid is the one who's going to get injured. Hurt. Die."
Rocco Luke Zicarelli, then a 15-year-old sophomore guard and linebacker, died Aug. 23, 2004, from a subdural hematoma -- a brain bleed -- atop another one still healing. The treatment of and rules pertaining to concussions and brain injuries have changed exponentially since the Monday football practice where the Zicarellis lost their son on their alma mater's field. The last six years for them?
"We went through hell," said Linda Zicarelli, 46. She paused. "We went through pure hell.
"I wasn't really done being a mom yet. I mean, I got Trista [her daughter] and my [three] grandkids now. But our life has changed drastically. It really has."
The family that used to hunt and fish together no longer ventures out the same way they spent their final day with Rocky.
"Any body of water that had fish in it, we went," his father, 45, added haltingly of their father-son outings year-round, on lakes and ice. "I haven't done much fishing since that."
They severed all contact with the high school that educated their parents, them, their children. They watched fissures gradually develop throughout their grieving extended families. They planted a memorial garden in the backyard, then moved and replanted it closer to their patio. They covered with tarps the unfinished truck that Rocky and his dad worked to rebuild as a present for a 16th birthday that never came.
Rocky dreamed of creating a school emblem and motoring around town with Valley and his number airbrushed in red-on-black doors, an image borrowed from the high-school football movie "Varsity Blues."
It was one among the many dreams left around their house, in pieces, incomplete.
"Our family got together and got really tight after Rocky passed away. It lasted about a year," his mother said. "A lot of my family members don't like to talk about him anymore.
"I don't think a day goes by when I don't talk about him. To me, it keeps him alive in my heart, you know?"
A red-haired, blue-eyed teenager who lived to fish, hunt, snowboard, race lawn tractors and almost anything under the sun wound up dying outdoors, under a midday sun.
"He enjoyed ... ," his father started to say, exhaling deeply, " ... dressing and going out hunting." Enjoyed carrying a heavy creel at the end of a good day on a lake, be it Pymatuning, Conneaut, wherever. Enjoyed eating a good day's catch: "Couldn't wait to have fish for dinner."
Rocky played football because it was a Valley thing to do. His mother fought "tooth and nail," in her words, to keep him from the game. But she relented his freshman year. He sought the cut body from weight lifting. He sought the cool factor from football. He ached to play. "When somebody wants to do something that bad, you let them," she recalled.
Then came the start of his second season in football, the Conneaut Valley High Indians starting their second week of two-a-day practices before the regular season opened 11 days later against nearby rival Linesville.
The only injury he brought to the attention of his mother and sister was a bruised calf. He told them the school trainer's concern: If it started to harden and hurt, go to the emergency room. He never complained. They never gave it a thought.
Sunday, Aug. 22, the family had a fishing expedition and cookout, stopping at the Meadville Walmart -- where mother and sister work -- to buy steak and shrimp for the grill.
"It was a great day," Linda Zicarelli said, smiling at the recollection.
Later that night, she added: "He had a headache. He took some ibuprofen. ... You don't think anything of it.
"He said, 'I'm tired. I got double sessions tomorrow. I'm going to go to bed.' Which is unlike him [at an hour or so early]. We thought, 'Is it really worth it, those double sessions?' "
The next morning, "I said, 'Hey, baby boy, I'll see you after practice. We'll go shopping for school stuff and get you contact lenses. ... ' Gave him a kiss and a hug. And he went out the door.
"I never saw him again."
During a tackling drill in the afternoon, Rocky removed his helmet. He told a teammate he didn't feel right.
"Then he dropped," Lisa Zicarelli said.
"And he was gone."
After receiving the telephone call, grandparents Louis and Elaine Zicarelli arrived at the Valley stadium field while paramedics were still working to revive him. Efforts failed. They gave their grandson one final hug. He was pronounced dead by the Crawford County coroner on the field shortly after 3 p.m.
The coroner, Patrick McHenry, found there was an initial subdural hematoma already healing when the second occurred, though he couldn't pinpoint the date of the first impact.
"Obviously, if we had known that, he would not have played," his mother said.
"The one was resolving when he had the second injury," Mr. McHenry said. "But he didn't complain to anybody in authority, just his teammates. So nobody was put on alert that maybe he was having problems. And the coach was as devastated as the parents were."
Rob Glus kept the 62 stickers on his vehicles, even though he left the Valley as head coach after the 2006 season and is now an assistant coach at Albion's Northwestern High.
"I still feel like I was responsible they lost their son, because he was under my care," he said. "That's how I teach, that's how I coach, that's who I am. . . ."
He looks at his two sons. Jay, 10, and Micah, 8, who know Rocky's tale, and wonders when he and his wife will relent and allow them to play the game. He offers prayers for the Zicarellis.
"If it wasn't for my faith ... , I wouldn't have gone back that season or the two seasons after that. I just wanted to quit and give up, to be honest with you. But prayers and friends helped me get through it, and it still does today."
Six years later, new NFL policies and new laws in 10 states -- modeled after the Zackery Lystedt Law, named for the Washington teenager who was left in a wheelchair by consecutive, unhealed concussions in an often-fatal condition known as second impact syndrome -- signal a sea change around all levels of football.
In games or practices starting this year, high- and middle-school head coaches are required by Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association rules to remove from the field a player showing concussion signs or symptoms.
The Pennsylvania House on Sept. 28 passed a bill that would mandate head coaches be certified in a concussion management training course once every three years and further affirm PIAA rules about concussed players needing a signed clearance from a health-care professional to return to play. The act has not reached the state Senate.
Eight of the nine football fatalities due to brain injuries from 2007-09, ranging from sandlot to college fields, occurred in high-school football, according to the National Center for Catastrophic Injury Research.
From behind a plastic bin of stories she's collected about her grandson's death, Elaine Zicarelli said: "It's too bad it takes tragedies to get those rules."
Down the road from the grandparents' home, in the Dicksonburg Cemetery memorializing the dead for centuries, Rocky's plot is noticeable for its yucca plants and pink impatiens. Etched into the stone marker is a wildlife illustration much like the mural his sister painted on his bedroom wall: a wolf, a deer, an outdoorsman's paradise. It also bears a copy of the photo that hangs in the family dining room: Rocky with a bass in one hand and a bluegill in the other.
The last time Trista Zicarelli Mattocks, 26, saw her brother alive, he was riding down their dirt road, grinning out the back window of their father's pickup and teasingly giving her a one-finger salute. It's a memory of her playful brother that makes her giggle still.
Nowadays, she sees him elsewhere. Anywhere. Everywhere.
"You drive down the road six years later, and you still see them on people's cars," Linda Zicarelli said of the 62 stickers. "He'd be 21 years old now if he was still here. It just warms your heart [to see them]. It does."
"Actually, you see quite a few," added Wayne Fedenets, the cook and son of the owner of Ruth's Family Restaurant, the town's unofficial assembly hall on Main Street. He estimates one of every three Valley vehicles sports a sticker.
"Even if you're in, like, Erie or quite a ways from home, you'll see that number."
It was what helped to persuade Rocco and Linda Zicarelli to share their son's story today.
She and her husband were mulling over the prospect of going public for the first time with it, their emotions still raw.
The next day, she got an e-mail from Rocky's old girlfriend, Sarah Field, 22, a student at Edinboro University. "I was having a bad day," Ms. Field wrote.
Then Ms. Field passed a vehicle with a 62 sticker. Next, she noticed that her car's external-temperature gauge read 62 degrees. Later, she walked into a restaurant, and on television a sportscaster started talking about NASCAR's Brendan Gaughan -- driver of car No. 62.
"It was nice to know," she concluded in her email to Linda Zicarelli, "I had Rocky with me all along."
First Published October 17, 2010 12:06 am