Standing on the sidelines of Butterfield Stadium, senior Lance Baumgartner is less than 3 feet from the football field.
Dressed in khakis and an Ithaca College Bombers polo, Baumgartner high-fives and congratulates players as they jog by and chats with them on the sideline. But no matter how close Baumgartner physically is to the field, he will never have the opportunity to step on the field again as a player.
Baumgartner, who suffered a grade 3 concussion last fall and was told he couldn’t continue playing and risk suffering another hit, has found a new role on the football team, as a volunteer assistant coach.
During an Empire 8 conference home game against St. John Fisher College on Oct. 10, 2009, the then-junior fullback moved to block one of the Cardinal linebackers. As he turned to hit the linebacker with his shoulder, the player’s helmet struck the side of Baumgartner’s head, jarring his temple.
The hit, of which Baumgartner has no recollection, brought an end to his collegiate career.
Baumgartner, a physical therapy major, has seen the game film of his hit and said he stayed on the field for two more plays before coming off.
“I wasn’t stumbling around the field or falling over,” he said. “But when I came off the field the trainers diagnosed me [with a concussion] and sent me to the hospital.”
The formal diagnosis for Baumgartner’s injury was a grade 3 concussion, the most severe. Often caused by a direct blow to the head, concussions pose both short- and long-term physiological damage with symptoms and side effects that range from headaches to memory loss.
Over the next two months, Baumgartner, who had suffered two grade 3 concussions in high school, missed two weeks of classes, went to doctor’s appointments almost every week and visited his neurologist back home in Hamburg, N.J. Baumgartner said his symptoms ranged from memory loss to the inability to focus — even watching television gave him headaches.
When he had not seen significant improvement after two months, Baumgartner said he knew his playing career was over.
“I was thinking, ‘If I do get another [concussion], what am I going to do with school?’” he said. “I’m not going to be able to study; I couldn’t focus or anything. So it was more just a matter of academics coming before athletics for me.”
A three-year letter winner for the Bombers, Baumgartner said he still wanted to stay involved with the team despite not being able to play — a sentiment that was shared by the Bombers’ coaching staff.
“[Baumgartner] is very committed to Ithaca football,” Head Coach Mike Welch said. “He’s a good people person, and he’s passionate about football, so we asked him if he wanted to coach.”
Despite having the title of coach, Baumgartner is still a college senior, who is friends with many of the players and lives with four of them.
Senior and offensive guard Rich Mallon, one of the four roommates, said Baumgartner is able balance his relationship with the athletes on and off the field. Mallon said Baumgartner touches on his own experiences when giving instruction as a coach.
“He’s really doing everything in his power to bring all of his knowledge and everything that he’s learned in the last three years and get that across to the team,” Mallon said. “He brings his best stuff everyday, helping the younger backs. He’s always telling them to come to him if they have any questions.”
Welch said Baumgartner is aware of his situation and makes sure not to compromise his role as a coach.
“There’s a line he has to draw,” Welch said. “That’s probably the most difficult thing for young coaches, to draw that line and make sure that he’s committed to what the coaches are doing and not being a player.”
Baumgartner’s work has also proved to be rewarding for the Bombers’ offense. Baumgartner has been working with the younger running backs on developing proper technique, including making their blocks correctly.
“You do get a lot out of it, because you see the improvement in the players and you’re like, ‘I have a part in that,’ so it is rewarding,” Baumgartner said.
Working with players on both the varsity and junior varsity teams, Baumgartner has seen several of those players have success this season. One such player is freshman running back Jared Prugar. Prugar scored a 1-yard rushing touchdown during the Bombers’ 33–3 win over St. Lawrence University on Sept. 4.
“When Prugar scored, that felt really good because I’ve helped him,” Baumgartner said. “The fact that he’s a freshman and he scored a touchdown, that’s unbelievable. It took me until junior year.”
Prugar said Baumgartner took the time to draw out plays for him, help when he had to learn a new goal line formation and provide experienced insight into running the ball.
“Sometimes I don’t even remember that he’s still in college because he knows so much about the position and not only our position, but he knows the job of everyone else,” Prugar said.
Baumgartner said there is something particularly hard about not being able to play his senior season.
“You want to be able to do everything and play with all your buddies for the last time,” Baumgartner said. “I can still coach, but I can’t play, which is what I really want to be doing.”
Despite not being able to play, Baumgartner said the reality of his new position sunk in when the freshmen arrived at camp, addressing him as “Coach” when asking him questions.
Though Baumgartner said he has been enjoying his coaching experience, he does not plan to coach next year and will focus on completing his degree. But until then, he said he’ll remain committed to the team.
“I’m just putting as much into it as I can,” Baumgartner said. “I’m trying to be 100 percent for the athletes — try to help them out as much as I can. Whatever they need, I’m there.”