Zach Thomann, Sports Editor
Soccer fans, teammates and parents looked on with concern as Utica College junior Connor Nolte won a header against the Sage College Gators on Saturday. Utica head soccer coach Brian Marcantonio thought Nolte played with confidence, and the opposing crowd never would have guessed that Nolte was rendered unconscious on the field a month before.
On Sept. 13, UC and Morrisville State College were scoreless heading into the second half. Two minutes into the half, Nolte was kneed in the head after his slide tackle set an opposing player off balance.
“It was a standard play,” Marcantonio said. “There was a breakaway and Connor tried to clear the ball free.”
Marcantonio recalls Nolte and the opposing player moving at high speeds when they collided, but it was hard to tell what happened from the other side of the field.
“We all thought he was in agonizing pain because he was moving on the ground, but it turns out Connor was having a seizure,” Marcantonio said.
The Morrisville trainer immediately ran onto the field and got halfway to Nolte before he was calling for an ambulance. Junior Garrett Bortiatynski, Nolte’s teammate, could see the panic on the trainer’s face and decided to run onto the field.
“Being an E.M.T and seeing the gravity of the situation, I felt that I needed to be out there,” Bortiatynski said.
Marcantonio said he admired Bortiatynski’s courage and was amazed by how calm he was.
“He ran up to me and said, ‘Coach, I’m going on the field,’” Marcantonio said. “Everyone was scared, but Garrett reacted like he’s done it a thousand times.”
Bortiatynski started by gauging Nolte’s level of consciousness to see if he was responsive.
“Nolte was responsive but very disoriented,” Bortiatynski said. “Once I checked his vitals and made sure he wasn’t in critical condition, I tried to keep everyone calm until paramedics came.”
According to Bortiatynski, his ability to diagnose Nolte and relay the information to a medical team allowed them to move the process along and get his teammate to the hospital as quickly as possible.
That moment is something Bortiatynski and his teammates say they will never forget, but for Nolte, he doesn’t remember anything.
“The last thing I remember of that game was halftime,” Nolte said. “I was listening to a song that was playing, and the next thing I know I was lying on the field.”
Nolte had suffered a small concussion in the past but never experienced a seizure before. He went in and out of consciousness a few times recalling brief moments on the field and in the ambulance.
“I didn’t know what happened until I was in the hospital,” Nolte said. “I had such a bad headache and I thought my season was over.”
Nolte felt embarrassed by what happened and thought he let the team down.
“There was a bunch of people in the stands looking at me helpless,” Nolte said. “I didn’t realize it at the time, but it hit me later.”
When Nolte made it back home, he was forced to sit in a dark room for four days. His condition prevented him from looking directly at lights such as a television or phone.
“I’m a very social person,” Nolte said. “Not talking to anyone was the hardest part of recovering.”
Nolte said he slept for 18 hours a day because his headaches were hard to bare. He was isolated from the world and the experience was everything but fun in his eyes.
“I couldn’t do anything,” Nolte said. “It was honestly really boring.”
After two weeks, the headaches weren’t as bad, and the next day they were gone.
“I was ready to go,” Nolte said. “My body felt great and I needed to play again.”
Nolte knew he would eventually play soccer again but wasn’t sure if he could reach the college level again. After visiting a clinic in Syracuse and following school protocol for concussions, Nolte was cleared to play again 27 days after his seizure on the field.
“I ran up to Garrett when I came back and gave him a hug,” Nolte said. “I love the man. He’s a really good friend and he helped me out when I needed it the most.”
While Nolte’s teammates were excited for him to be back, not everyone was pleased to see Nolte back on the field this season. Nolte had said his parents hated the idea of him getting back into soccer this year.
“They were absolutely 100 percent against it,” Nolte said. “We had plenty of fights about it, but it was my decision. I’m 20-years-old, and I want to go for it.”
Nolte now wears a padded headband that is designed to help prevent concussions. He believes that the injury was extremely rare and most likely won’t happen again.
Marcantonio said that the worst injury he’s seen on the field prior to Nolte’s concussion is a broken bone. A seizure on the field is something he thinks can’t be planned for.
“Seeing someone hurt is never a good feeling, but I’ve never worried about a player’s long-term well being,” Marcantonio said. “When someone breaks a bone, you know they can recover. This was a scary moment because we weren’t sure if he would be alright.”
UC prepares its athletes in order to prevent these incidents. Marcantonio teaches proper techniques and going for challenges at the right moments. He believes that his athletes follow these techniques, but concussions are a part of the sport.
“We treat two or three concussions a year,” Marcantonio said. “Most concussions are unpreventable because they come from a loss of balance and hitting the ground hard.”
Nolte has over two years of experience with Marcantonio but was nervous to slide or head the ball at the first few practices. One play sticks out as what helped him get over his fear.
“Someone came toward me with the ball and instinct kicked in,” Nolte said. “I slid and stole the ball. After the play was over, I realized what I did and knew I was ready to move on.”
Marcantonio noticed that Nolte was back to his previous form, and in his first game back against Hamilton College he showed no repercussions to the injury.
“He had complete confidence on the field,” Marcantonio said. “It was a physical game, and you never would have known that something so horrific happened to him a month ago.”
Nolte is hopeful that everyone will start to forget the injury he can’t remember, but in the meantime, his family and team worry about him each game.
“Every time I see him go for a header or a challenge I cringe,” Bortiatynski said.
Bortiatynski had been friends with Nolte prior to the injury, but thinks his help on the field has changed the way his teammate looks at him.
“I know it’s cliche, but hero is the right word to describe Garrett on that day,” Marcantonio said.