Before having the chance to play in his first college game, K.J. Cusack is leaving football, and he said it’s for good.
The Cal Poly redshirt freshman, who raised eyebrows by leading the state in yards per carry during a standout senior season at St. Joseph High in 2009, left the Mustangs this week, citing a fear that the next head injury could be his last.
“Football is a sport you have to play 100 percent, and there was always that thought that if I stepped on the field and got another concussion, what would happen to me?” Cusack said.
“I didn’t feel I was too small, but just the thought in the back of my mind of getting another concussion didn’t allow me to play football to 100 percent of my ability.”
The 5-foot-8, 160-pound running back lost some confidence when he suffered back-to-back brain concussions early in his first training camp at Cal Poly last year, resulting in what he said was diagnosed as second-impact syndrome (SIS).
SIS causes rapid brain swelling that can occur when an athlete suffers a second brain injury before the previous one has a chance to fully heal. The condition is rare but often results in death, according to multiple medical websites.
Cusack said he suffered concussions at consecutive Saturday and Monday practices last summer, after which he remained sensitive to light for weeks.
Though he reported no other lingering effects, it was another eight months before Cusack was medically cleared to play again.
“I got lucky with nothing bad happening to me,” Cusack said. “Luckily, nothing happened with my head, but other kids don’t get so lucky, and brain damage does occur with other people.”
The slotback caught a team-high five passes for 30 yards in the first scrimmage of preseason training camp this past Saturday, but just two days later, Cusack met with head coach Tim Walsh about his future.
Caught off guard by the decision, Walsh encouraged Cusack to take one more day to think about it before making it official.
Cusack was below senior starter Mark Rodgers and junior transfer Deonte Williams at slotback and was competing for backup snaps with redshirt freshman Austin Mahr and true freshman Kristaan Ivory, but Walsh valued Cusack’s skills as a return man and his ability to gain yardage in space.
“He’d end up being a role player right now,” Walsh said, “but I think he’s a good player, and he’s done some good things.
“He got it loud and clear from me that we wanted him to stay. That’s why I told him to take 24 hours.”
Cusack had not been experiencing any further symptoms of brain injury and has been fully healthy since his return, but with counsel from his parents, uncle Robin Ventura and friend Danny Duffy of the Kansas City Royals, Cusack thought it best to walk away while he still could.
A standout senior season at St. Joseph — where he scored 33 touchdowns and rushed for 1,845 yards on 13.77 yards per carry — led to scholarship offers from Air Force, Army, Portland State and UC Davis as well as Cal Poly.
He had nine runs of 57 yards or more, including a 99-yard rush, and led the Knights to a 12-1 record and the semifinal round of the CIF-Southern Section Northwest Division playoffs.
Many in the community were eager to see what the local product, born in Santa Maria and raised in Arroyo Grande, could accomplish in the Mustangs’ triple option.
In the end, it does not seem they will find out.
Cusack will stay at Cal Poly, where he majors in agricultural business, but he’s not eyeing a comeback despite Walsh leaving the door open for him to return in the spring.
“As of right now, I’m not even thinking about trying out again,” Cusack said. “I just want to focus on school, getting a job and just being a normal student.”