Editor’s note: This is the fifth in a series catching up with Pahrump Valley High School graduates who are continuing their athletic careers in college.
One concussion is enough to make many athletes rethink their choice of sport. A second concussion would make many mothers demand an athlete give up the sport. But three concussions, each more severe than the previous one, would make a lot of people lock the bedroom door and pull the covers over their heads for a few weeks.
Yet here is Antonio Sandoval, Pahrump Valley High School Class of 2016, cleared to get back on the mat and wrestle his senior season for Ottawa University in Ottawa, Kansas, after three concussions.
Extremely dedicated or utterly insane? In wrestling, that line always has been rather blurry.
“I had a very minor one my senior year of high school, I had another slightly more severe one my freshman year of college, and then sophomore year of college was the big one,” Sandoval recalled.
Chatting with Sandoval in the Pahrump McDonald’s gives no clues as to the beating his brain has endured over the past few years.
“Obviously he was dealt a rough hand, having sat out the last few seasons with concussions, but he didn’t spend any time feeling sorry for himself but rather found his own way of making an impact on our season,” Ottawa wrestling coach Colby Crank said. “I’m not sure many young men would handle that particular situation the same way, and we are definitely blessed to have him on our side.”
“I’ve redshirted the past two years,” Sandoval said. “I’ve been in close contact with a neurologist for the past few years and we decided that for my brain to heal properly it would probably be best to take a step back and approach wrestling from the corner of the mat rather than the center. It really helped me out a lot, opening my eyes to realizing how much fun being a coach can be.”
Sandoval said the transition to watching from the sidelines was not that difficult, which is impressive considering the four collegiate matches he has wrestled are a far cry from the 105 he wrestled in high school, when he won 73.
“Antonio was a four-year varsity letter winner in wrestling,” Pahrump Valley High School wrestling coach Craig Rieger remembered. “He was part of the 2015 conference, regional and state championship team. Antonio is a hard worker that enjoys and respects the sport of wrestling.”
The Trojans won three league championships, two region titles and that 2015 Division I-A state crown during Sandoval’s career.
“A goal of mine was always to wrestle in college,” he said. “Ottawa offered me a scholarship and offered a chemical engineering degree, which is what I was always dreaming to study.”
“We were able to trust him with a lot, and he was essentially an extension of our coaching staff,” Crank said. “Antonio really helped our whole operation run smoother, whether that was at competitions or helping his teammates through whatever adversity they encountered throughout the year. The guys had full belief in him.”
But Sandoval had another battle on his hands, because the concussions affected more than wrestling.
“I had a lack of concentration and lack of focus,” Sandoval said. “I personally always have felt like I’ve been a very driven person, and after that concussion that really set me back. I didn’t have any motivation to go out and tackle something like I used to.”
Being at a school with fewer than 1,000 students on campus was a help, he said.
“The best thing about the school for me is the relationships with the teachers,” said Sandoval, on track to graduate next spring with an engineering degree. “My biggest class has 11 of us in it, so you can develop really strong one-on-one bonds with your teachers, and they’re always willing to help you out if there’s something that you’re struggling with. For me, that’s been a really big help given the brain issues and the setbacks that I’ve had education-wise.”
Returning to form in the classroom is one thing, doing it on the wrestling mat is quite another, but Sandoval will not go back out there unprepared.
“My neurologist is currently developing special protective measures that athletes in my situation will be able to use,” he explained. “We’re currently testing a new type of headgear that has the two ear cups as well as full padding over the head to limit the blows my head would take.”
Crank is happy to have Sandoval around the program whether or not he’s on the mat.
“For me, going into my first season as a head coach, Antonio played such a pivotal role in our success,” Crank said. “He was one of our few returners and really is just a charismatic kid with great personal skills.”
Those skills gave him another important role as vice president of the Student Athlete Leadership Team at Ottawa. He is also the school’s male representative for SALT, working with athletes from other schools on issues important to student-athletes. Sandoval said the group has made some changes to Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference rules, while on campus the Ottawa SALT has worked on everything from extended hours at the salad bar and better nutritional benefits to finding better ways for teams that share fields to schedule practice time.
Back on the mats, the Braves enjoyed success last season, receiving Top 20 votes in National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics polls. Sandoval said half of the team qualified for nationals, and the Braves posted their first winning dual-meet winning record (8-1). The loss was to Baker, Crank’s alma mater, which finished the year in the Top 10.
“Our head coach, this was his first season, and he came in and got the program back on the right track,” Sandoval said.
While Sandoval is a senior, his situation means he can wrestle more than one year.
“I have only used one year, so I still have three years left,” he said. “I’m going into my senior year at Ottawa, and once I leave Ottawa I still have two years of eligibility, so regardless of where I go to grad school in the country, if they have a wrestling team I can go out for it and see how I do.”
Graduate school always was in Sandoval’s plans, and he said he is seriously considering coming home to the University of Nevada or staying near his adopted home and going to the University of Kansas.
“UNR is definitely very tempting because they do have a fantastic engineering program,” he said. “The University of Kansas as well, because our school is 20 minutes down the road from theirs, so I’ve met a few of their professors. They said based on the education I’m getting out at Ottawa I’d fit in perfectly in their system. So UNR and KU are the front-runners right now.”
While he loves the green in Kansas, the Sunflower State can’t match Pahrump in the memories department, one memory in particular.
“Senior Night,” he said. “We were at home against Sierra Vista. I was the second-to-last senior announced. The gym was loud when they announced everybody, but I remember as soon as they announced my name that place went nuts. To me, that was an absolutely breathtaking experience. That was something I’ll never forget.”
Contact Sports Editor Tom Rysinski at email@example.com On Twitter:@PVTimesSports