In many ways, things are the same as always around the holidays at the Lindsey household in Atascadero.
The biggest tree the family could find at the nearby Home Depot, which they decorated with tiny Santa ornaments and an angel perched on top, filled a corner of the living room of their Spanish-style home this week. Laughter occupied the rest of the space as parents Michael and Jenny Lindsey, sons Louis and Isaac, and daughter Mattie talked about presents that hadn’t yet made it under the tree.
But this Christmas will be anything but ordinary for the family of five. This one is special.
On Tuesday, Isaac returned home to a welcome fit for a Super Bowl winner. Hundreds of well-wisher lined the streets of downtown Templeton to greet Isaac as he arrived after being away for 95 days following a traumatic brain injury he suffered while playing in a football game against San Luis Obispo at Templeton High School.
At times, the family wasn’t sure if Isaac would be around for Christmas, or any other day for that matter.
“He was supposed to be home for Thanksgiving, too, but that didn’t work out, so I kind of had my doubts for Christmas,” his older brother, Louis, said Wednesday.
“So when I saw him pull up yesterday, I was like, ‘Wow.’ ”
But here was Isaac, back in his home, sharing what he was most looking forward to on Christmas.
“Just being here with my family and just having them all there with me,” Isaac said.
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Louis chimed in: “Being home and not in San Jose.”
“That’s nice, too,” Isaac agreed.
Return to Templeton High
Not far from the cheering crowd at his homecoming parade, Isaac returned to Templeton High on Wednesday afternoon for the first time since he left the campus in an ambulance Sept. 18. With students on winter break, the campus was deserted.
“I really wanted to show him the love of his classmates without having the commotion of everyone wanting to come and give him a hug,” his mother, Jenny, said.
The first stop was the weight room, Isaac’s favorite place. “HOW STRONG? LINDSEY STRONG. #32” was painted on the window of the weight room. He was known as the strongest student on campus, able to bench press 315 pounds and the only junior in the exclusive 1,000 Pound Club for the school’s top lifters. Now, Isaac’s strength of will during his recovery has given a new meaning on campus to “Lindsey strong.”
Jenny and Isaac then made their way to the empty football field, passing signs of support along the way.
He sat there for a few minutes and he looked at me and said, “Wait, did you say no more football forever? Like, for the rest of my life?
“It was nice,” Isaac said. “I hadn’t been there since the injury, so it was really nice to see that it was all still there.”
Jenny helped steady Isaac in the tall grass as they made their way across the field. She pointed out the large “Team Isaac” banner hung on the fence in plain view for anyone driving on Highway 101 past the town of 8,000.
The last time Isaac was on the field, he was at the peak of his football skill, playing both as a defensive lineman and fullback. At 5-foot-10, 230 pounds, he was such a powerful player that, on defense, it took two opponents to stop him. But as he stood on the field Wednesday, he was faced with the harsh reality that he will probably never play football again after suffering second-impact syndrome and undergoing two brain surgeries.
When Isaac trotted off the field Sept. 18 and collapsed on the sidelines, paramedics raced him to Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center in San Luis Obispo. Doctors ultimately diagnosed him with a traumatic brain injury caused by a concussion sustained during the game while still healing from an earlier unrecognized concussion.
Isaac underwent life-saving surgery to relieve pressure on his swelling brain tissue and then was put into a medically induced coma for a week. On Oct. 2, he was transferred to a rehabilitation unit at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center in San Jose.
Jenny said Isaac’s neurologist told him that he should not play any contact sports following a second surgery to replace a piece of his skull removed during the first surgery.
The news was a shock to Isaac.
“He sat there for a few minutes,” Jenny recalled, “and he looked at me and said, ‘Wait, did you say no more football forever? Like, for the rest of my life?’ He said, ‘I just can’t believe that this happened to me.’ He said, ‘I did everything that they said I needed to do. I lifted, I ran, I was at the top of my game, and now it’s over with forever.’”
Jenny added, “I even cried because how do you explain that? There’s nothing you can say.”
The stories of community support for the Lindsey family are endless, and the support started immediately.
As the Lindseys sat in the waiting room early Saturday morning on Sept. 19, someone had Jamba Juice delivered. Nobody knew where it came from.
Cards, letters, a signed jersey from the Cal Poly football team, a signed helmet from the Nipomo High football team, a “32 Strong” warmup jersey worn by the Templeton volleyball team and more than $100,000 in donations poured in over the following weeks. A Facebook page titled Team Isaac posted updates on Isaac’s progress and provided a place for well-wishers to comment. The page has more than 4,000 members.
The family was particularly touched by a little boy named Jackson, who asked friends attending his seventh birthday party to just bring gifts for Isaac.
I really wanted to show him the love of his classmates without having the commotion of everyone wanting to come and give him a hug.
Jenny Lindsey, on Isaac’s first visit to Templeton High School since his injury
The package sent over by Jackson and his family included a CD of the music played at the party, NFL trading cards and a key ring that held stars with messages to Isaac from the children at the party. Children he has never met.
As Isaac sat on the couch and pored over each gift Wednesday, it was impossible for him to pick a favorite among them.
“All of them. They are all perfect,” Isaac said.
The night of the injury
Jenny, the true definition of a football mom, takes video of every game that her sons Isaac and Louis play in.
Her reason is simple: “I don’t ever want it to be over, so I can play it over and over again on the TV if I want,” she said.
The camera was rolling during that fateful Sept. 18 game. She watched as Isaac came off the field. When he started to sway on the sideline, she thought to herself, “He probably has a concussion.”
“I wasn’t afraid because his brother had had a concussion, and I kind of knew the course that takes,” Jenny said. “He’s done, (Templeton athletic trainer) Shelby (Lamendola) is going to go look at him, he’s going to be fine, he’s not going to play anymore, they are going to remove the helmet, remove the pads and he is going to sit, and we will go to the doctor, follow the protocol.”
So she continued filming Louis, a senior offensive lineman on the team. Then teammate and friend Nate Avery came running up the stairs and told her she needed to come down to the field.
“I said, ‘Let me grab my stuff, and he said, ‘No, just come,’ ” Jenny said.
By the time Jenny and Isaac’s dad, Michael, arrived at their son’s side, Isaac was incoherent, lying on the trainers’ table and appearing to be having a seizure.
“I remember, this was the scariest part, you know it’s serious when they cut the uniform off, which they did,” Jenny said.
A short time later, the game was stopped. The crowd was silent as Isaac was wheeled across the field and into a waiting ambulance. His teammates raised their helmets in solidarity and then soon returned to play.
“I heard later from the players that the scariest part for them was here goes this gurney of one of the biggest, strongest players on the team and on the side were his arms dangling,” Jenny said.
The Lindseys sped to Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center, which was designated a Level III trauma center in 2012, capable of treating an extreme injury like Isaac’s.
“They asked, ‘Are you the family of the football player?’ and I said, ‘Yes.’ And they said, ‘Come with us.’ And I said to my husband, ‘I’m not going, I’m not going,’ ” Jenny recalled. “I just had this sinking feeling that we were going to end up in a room with bad news.”
The news was bad, but it wasn’t the worst.
Isaac was alive. She credits his survival to the quick thinking of LaMendola on the sideline, the first-responders who happened to be at the game and the neurologist at Sierra Vista.
“I looked at (the neurologist) and said, ‘Can you treat him patient-wise as if he were your own son?’ He said, ‘I already am,’ ” Jenny said. “I don’t think he left the hospital in those first 48 hours.”
Over the following weeks, the Lindsey family learned that at some point before Isaac left the field for the final time, he had suffered two concussions. Doctors say one concussion was suffered that night, but no one outside of Isaac knows when the first concussion occurred, Jenny said.
Football is such a small part of life. There are so many great things out there for him. But right now, football is everything, so it’s devastating.
“He asks questions about the Santa Paula game. He asks questions about San Luis. He doesn’t seem to recall those two games at all,” Jenny said. “And that may be part of his memory loss. That may be part of his concussion.”
The Lindseys have faced criticism from those who believe football is too dangerous, but Jenny stands by her decision to allow her boys to play the sport they love.
“You take teenage boys that have a lot of energy, and they are going to do something with that energy,” she said. “The stupid things that they do that risk life, limb and everything else. Look at an organized sport that’s officiated, with coaches training technique, with trainers looking for injuries, with EMTs on the field, with rules with protective gear.
“I don’t know, I’d rather have my kids doing that.”
The Lindsey family, along with family friend Madison, followed Isaac outside of their home Wednesday to his pride and joy: a fully restored 1939 McCormick-Deering Farmall tractor.
Michael and Louis helped Isaac fire up the cherry-red machine for the first time since he had returned home. Michael beamed with pride as he talked about the hard work and more than 450 hours it took Isaac to restore the tractor.
Isaac, or Ike as he is known in the Lindsey household, wears the fruits of his labor in the form of a belt buckle, the result of being named Tractor Restoration Grand Prize winner at this year’s California Mid-State Fair in Paso Robles.
Isaac wanted to take the tractor for a spin, but his family stopped him.
Although his doctors are impressed by his progress, his mother said, Isaac still has a long way to go in recovery.
At times, he struggles with long- and short-term memory and balance. His speech is slower and he is easily fatigued, so family has asked the many well-wishers to check with them before visiting. Isaac will soon get back into a rehabilitation routine that includes a meeting with his original neurologist and primary care physician, physical therapy, and speech and occupational therapy.
“We will do our best to keep a structured schedule for him because that’s what he needs. That structure will help him memory-wise,” Jenny said.
If all goes well, coaches have assured the family that Isaac will have some kind of role with the team next season, she said.
For now, the Lindseys are just looking forward to the holidays.
“It’s really great to have him back,” Isaac’s sister, Mattie, said. “It’s like our friend Sheila said: All the chicks are back in their nests, so we are all together. That’s how it should be.”