By Jimmy Allinder
Even though James Hart’s mind was clouded by a dense fog, his decision to continue playing sports was crystal clear.
Doctors termed it “very dangerous” for the then South River High School junior football player to return to the athletic arena after suffering what head baseball and assistant football coach Mike Lepore Jr. called “two of the worst concussions I’ve seen since I’ve been here.”
However, Hart was determined to play sports again with the initial goal of returning to Rams’ baseball team in the spring.
“I realized it was going to take a lot of effort, mentally and physically, to get back to 100 percent. But in my mind, I had no other choice,” Hart said. “I wasn’t going to stop doing what I loved without trying everything within my power to return.”
This season, the Rams (16-7-1) captured the Greater Middlesex Conference (GMC) Blue Division crown and, as the top seed, play the winner of the ninth-seeded Keansburg High School and eighth-seeded Bound Brook High School game May 26 in the NJSIAA Central Jersey, Group I tournament.
Hart did not decide to play sports again without carefully weighing the potential consequences of being afflicted with post-concussion syndrome, which has been brought to light in recent years.
“It crossed my mind it might not be worth [going through rehab and the risk of further injury],” he said. “But once I decided to play sports again, it was full speed ahead.”
Hart was told the first phase of rehab was rest — lots of it.
“That was extremely hard,” he said. “I went from playing sports every day to being stuck in the house basically doing nothing.”
Hart was eventually cleared to begin physical therapy — an arduous, time-consuming regimen designed to prep him for the return to varsity sports, whenever that was.
“I had doubts I would get through [the rehab] at times,” he said. “But I kept it in my head that I needed to work hard [for six months] before I received clearance. I’m thankful I had many people — family, coaches and teammates — that encouraged me to get through that phase, and I just kept my head up.
“The doctor asked me, ‘Why do you want to put yourself through [the rehabilitation and the possibility of re-injuring yourself] and what’s preventing you from quitting?’ I told him, ‘I don’t play sports just for me. It’s for my community and the people who live here.’
“I’ve been fortunate to be raised by a family (his father, Willy, is a longtime Little League coach) [that] taught me the importance of hard work. I’ve had amazing support, and I was taught that even if I wasn’t the best player on the field, I would show the most heart. There was simply nothing that was going to stop me from playing sports again.”
After Hart was cleared to play sports in the spring, he returned to the Rams’ baseball team and proceeded to bat .338 with 24 hits. Amazingly, he played both ways for the football team last fall.
Hart’s horrific mishaps were finally behind him, he believed, as his final baseball season began. But he suffered another against Woodbridge High School.
“James separated a rib in a collision,” Lepore said. “He didn’t want to come out, but we were concerned about aggravating the injury, so we removed him. He ended up missing only one game after that.”
So now Hart enters the final few weeks of his high school career as captain of the baseball team, which has aspirations of winning at least a state sectional title and perhaps the overall state championship. Lepore recognizes people’s strong opinions about whether athletes who have suffered multiple severe concussions should return to sports, but he feels fortunate to have coached Hart.
“James began this spring as our leadoff hitter but kind of struggled, so I told him I was dropping him down in the lineup,” Lepore said. “He responded, ‘Whatever is best for the team, coach.’ ”
Since then, Hart has elevated his average to .283 with 17 hits and continues to be a very capable outfielder.
Hart was asked what advice he had for athletes who, like him, are faced with deciding whether to continue playing sports after suffering a serious injury like a concussion.
“I would tell [them] to listen to their heart,” he said. “There are people who tell you it’s not worth the risk of re-injuring yourself, perhaps more seriously. And there are those who push you to keep going.
“If deep down in your gut, you feel you should return, then go for it. Don’t ever sell yourself short. Give everything you got. For me, there was nothing else I could see myself doing with my life. In my head, my love for sports outweighed any fears I had of re-injury.”
And for that and many other reasons, Hart will be headed to New Jersey City University next year to receive a college education and play baseball.