Professional photographer Melissa Bonacci often spent her free time taking photos of the Largo High School football team. During a preseason game against Dunedin last August, Bonacci's son, cornerback Taj Taylor, came up to her on the sideline with a request.
"Mom, make sure you get some good pictures of me running," he said before trotting onto the field for the third-quarter play.
Once the football was snapped, Bonacci panned alongside Taylor. Through the lens of her camera she watched him run downfield. She watched him go for the running back's legs, head first. She watched his head hit the running back's knee. She watched Taylor crumple to the ground.
Bonacci ran onto the field before the play was even over.
"I had that moment hit me, I don't know whether I'm running to my dead or paralyzed child right now," she recalled.
Taylor was unresponsive on the field for more than nine minutes. Once paramedics arrived, they strapped him to a backboard and whisked him away to St. Joseph's Trauma Center in Tampa, where he was diagnosed with a Grade 3 concussion — a concussion that can have prolonged symptoms and possibly result in mild brain damage or coma.
Taylor's accident that day serves as just one of many cases of football-related head injuries that have put the game and its safety under scrutiny. On July 21, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law a measure that limits contact in middle and high school football practices, in an effort to diminish the risk of such injuries.
For Bonacci, who still struggles with the memory of her child sprawled unconscious on a football field, it's a step in the right direction. It's also proof that Florida has some catching up to do.
• • •
Effective Jan. 1, 2015, California middle and high school teams will no longer be permitted to have full-contact practices in the offseason, and during the regular season and preseason, teams will be allowed no more than two 90-minute full-contact practices per week.
The California measure also requires players who sustain concussion-like symptoms to have a physician sign off before returning to play, a protocol similar to one enacted by the Florida Legislature in 2012.
The standard set by the California Legislature is exactly the kind of thing to which Dr. Michael Reilly and the rest of the Florida High School Athletic Association Sports Medicine Advisory Committee members pay attention.
The 15-member committee, made up of doctors, trainers and coaches, gathers biannually to help guide the policymaking process and discuss health-related issues affecting Florida high school athletes. For the past few years, Reilly said, the discussions have overwhelmingly been directed toward the issue of concussions.
Reilly, a family practice physician in St. Petersburg and former team doctor for the Tampa Bay Lightning, has been a member of the committee for 20 years. He's quite familiar with its procedures.
"We don't want to reinvent the wheel there. We want to stay with national standards," Reilly said about concussion-related protocols. "As we see other things happening nationally, those things will be brought up for discussion."
The return-to-play regulations formulated by the committee and signed into law in April 2012 are the latest actions Florida has taken on the matter. And while Hillsborough High football coach Earl Garcia can understand the need for such a rule, he says its enforcement has led to complications.
Garcia said he had a player experience concussion-like symptoms during the first day of practice last season. Abiding by the new policy, the player couldn't return until he had a permission slip signed by a doctor. The kid missed half the season, though, Garcia said, because his family couldn't afford to send him to one.
Now in his 41st season coaching football, Garcia said the measures taken to diminish the risk of injury have drastically changed the game. It's easier to be a football player, he said, than it's ever been.
And he's not sure if that's for the better.
"It's football. People are going to get hurt," Garcia said. "I think if the mothers had their way, we'd do away with padded football and just play 7-on-7."
• • •
After his accident, Taylor didn't return to the football field for the rest of the 2013 season. He spent the next several months going through tests and visiting neurologists. He missed school because of excruciating headaches and had to get blackout drapes put in his bedroom to avoid the light.
But amid the bad memories remained one valuable lesson.
"I would never go in for a hit like that again," said Taylor, a junior who expects to have a more prominent role in Largo's defense this fall.
That's the exact thing new Largo head coach Marcus Paschal is trying to instill in his players. Paschal, a Largo alumnus and former NFL safety, said his professional football experience taught him to stay up to date with head injury studies, and he teaches his players the proper ways to tackle. With well-executed fundamentals, he said, comes safety.
"Ten, 12 years ago, it was just kind of, 'Go put your helmet on somebody and run through them,' " Paschal said. "Now it's 'Make sure you've got your head up, and tackle the proper way.' That's going to continue to help."
Like Garcia does with his Terriers, Paschal said his team doesn't typically engage in full contact during the practice week. And both coaches agree that, despite the precautions, freak accidents are still going to happen. It's a fact that, Reilly said, will likely result in a decrease of youth participation in the sport.
But for the mothers like Bonacci, who just can't rip their sons away from the game they love, it leaves behind a fear that will never subside.
"I witnessed my son almost die in front of my eyes," Bonacci said. "I don't want other parents to have to go through that."
Contact Kelly Parsons at [email protected] Follow @_kaparsons.