BY JEFF FALK
To this point of the calendar, the Cedar Crest boys’ basketball team’s tale has been the feel-good story of the year in Lebanon County sports. But not everything that has happened surrounding the Falcons this winter has been warm and fuzzy.
Yet not unlike the Falcons themselves, Tommy Black’s plight is one filled with loyalty, perseverance and overcoming adversity.
Quite simply, Black and his role on the team has become lost in Cedar Crest’s unprecedented success. But not only is his story worth telling, it is one that in many ways is more important than anything that could ever go on, on a basketball floor.
Black, an athletic senior forward and former starter for the Falcons, has been relegated to the Cedar Crest bench by, not one, but two injuries to his head. Imagine dedicating yourself to helping turn a program completely around, and then not being able to actively participate in that success.
“It’s really hard,” said Black. “I want to play and know that I can’t, just because of what happened. The reason I keep coming to games is that Coach (Tom) Smith said that no matter what, I’m still part of the team. I’ve been around the guys since I was in elementary school, and the guys keep telling me I’m part of the team too.”
The Cedar Crest team that Black remains a part of will take on Spring-Ford, the seventh-place finisher out of District One, on Saturday at 6:30 p.m. at Milton Hershey School, in the opening round of the PIAA Class AAAA playoffs. To this point, without Black, the Falcons have set a school record for basketball wins in a season, and won their first Section One and Lancaster-Lebanon League championships in 38 years.
“That’s the type of kid Tommy is,” said Smith, the Falcons’ head coach. “He put in as much time as anyone. He wanted to be a part of it. It would’ve been a surprise to me if he hadn’t come around (after the injury). It’s his personality. But I think he struggled with it, that he was there and not able to help us. That’s the type of competitor and athlete he is.”
Since re-injuring his head during the Falcons’ third game of 2013-14, at Central York, Black has sat on the bench for 17 of Cedar Crest’s ensuing contests, forced to watch by his inability to clear doctors’ medical orders. Ten of the games he missed were the result of not being able to handle loud noises, a side effect of his injuries.
“He started most of the games for us last year,” said Smith of Black. “Ever since Tommy stepped on a basketball court, he did everything for us. He did all the dirty work. Things like rebounding and defending the other team’s best player. His biggest strength was his energy and his mentality. He brought a different mentality to the court. He just worked harder than everyone on the court.
“His role this year would’ve been pretty much the same as last year,” continued Smith. “Tommy’s skill set is unique. He’s about 6-2 and could defend a guard, but also physical enough to defend a post player. He just makes the right play. He’s just a smart basketball player.”
“I wanted to go to all of them,” said Black of Cedar Crest games. “But I couldn’t because of the loudness of games. The last one (Saturday’s district final against York at Hershey’s Giant Center) was so loud I almost went into a coma again. I have to wear ear plugs. I’m very sensitive to loud noises.
“I don’t remember that one (the injury against Central York) either,” added Black. “But all my symptoms came back. My doctor is allowing me to go to games, but he doesn’t want me to go to practice. I ask him all the time to clear me, just because it gets me doing something.”
“I didn’t see exactly what happened,” said Smith of the injury Black sustained against Central York. “It was a foul shot/loose ball, but I don’t remember exactly what happened. What I remember is Tommy staggering off the court. He says he didn’t hit his head, but the jolt was enough to cause the injury to be re-aggravated.”
In true, Black and Falcon fashion, he has made the best out of a bad situation. From his spot on the Cedar Crest pines, Black has become part cheerleader, part motivator, part player/assistant coach.
“I just try and motivate them,” said Black of his teammates. “Try to point out to them things they could do on the court. Yeah, it’s frustrating. I’ve gone from the kid who plays sports year-round to having to sit out. Last year, my role on the team was just energy. Coach would put me on one of the other team’s better players. I would be the guy who was diving for all the loose balls.
“It’s been a great season,” added Black. “We expected to have a good season. We only lost two seniors who played, so we had a lot of returning guys. we’ve had the best season Cedar Crest has ever had. To me, it went a lot better than I expected.”
Black’s initial head injury was even more horrific and frightening. It occurred on October 8th of last year during a Falcon boys’ soccer home game with Conestoga Valley.
Off a corner play, the ball, Black, a goalkeeper for Cedar Crest, another Falcon defender and a Buckskin attacker all came together in the air. Black landed awkwardly, his head hit the ground and for a time one of the other players landed on his head.
After laying on the field motionless for 30 minutes, Black was transported to Hershey Medical Center. He was in a coma for 10 hours and stayed in the hospital for several days.
“From what people told me, I called ‘away’,” said Black. “But I dove for a ball, even though I called ‘away’. My head hit the ground and someone landed on me and had all their weight on my head. Then I was in a coma. But no, I don’t remember anything from that day.
“In the hospital, my mom was at my side the whole time,” Black continued. “But the one time she left me, I woke up. I remember waking up looking for my mom because my arm was on fire. I was freaking out because I didn’t know what was going on. The doctors called in a ‘traumatic brain injury’. They said it was worse than a concussion.”
“When I caught wind of what happened, I went up to see him and it didn’t look good,” said Smith. “I was definitely concerned about Tommy’s health, but I also thought, ‘Man, this is going to be a big loss.’ But before the beginning of the season, he passed all the (medical) tests. I felt bad for Tommy, because of the time he put in.
“Head injuries are, without a doubt, very serious,” continued Smith. “They’ve always been, but there seems to be a much bigger emphasis on them now. Head injuries are something you don’t want to mess around with. It’s very serious.”
The good news is that Black was recently cleared to return to non-contact physical activities like riding a bike. Though basketball is out, Black plans on getting in shape this spring to resume his soccer-playing days at Penn State-Altoona in the fall.
“I feel like I’m 80, 90 percent,” said Black. “I slur my words up, so I’ll be starting speech therapy soon. I can’t sleep. I get these headaches, but they (doctors) said they’re going to happen. I used to get five a day. But now I’m down to one a week.”
“Tommy is Tommy,” said Smith. “I’d say that through conversation there are definitely some lingering effects. I don’t think he’s back to 100 percent yet.”