Tech star, back from concussion, grapples with joys and risks of football

Luc Dark-Fleury sets up a tackling dummy at Oakland Tech practice after bringing it down. Dark-Fleury's no-nonsense approach to practice is inspiring, teammates say.

Luc Dark-Fleury sets up a tackling dummy at Oakland Tech practice after bringing it down. Dark-Fleury's no-nonsense approach to practice is inspiring, teammates say.

Football practice has just started at Oakland Tech High School, and Luc Dark-Fleury is in game mode. He’s lined up, for a tackling drill, against his friend Alem Amores.  The players face each other on their knees. Then Dark-Fleury sticks the facemask of his helmet into the Amores’ chest, grabs his body, squeezes and lifts.

Amores is one of the top offensive linemen in the East Bay, an all-star Oakland Athletic League football player, a big tough guy. But lined up across from Dark-Fleury in the tackling drill, Amores’ body shakes with the force of Dark-Fleury’s grab, and his eyes widen when Dark-Fleury wraps his arms around him in a tackler’s clutch.

“He’s just one of those guys that likes to challenge everybody,” Amores says afterward. “Make sure everybody’s giving it their 100 (percent). He’s going to make sure you are.”

Dark-Fleury is a 6-foot-1, 225-pound senior linebacker at Oakland Tech, which opens its 2010 season this Saturday with a 2 p.m. game at Balboa High in San Francisco. He has long, dark brown hair that covers his eyes and a dark bushy beard, a look that his dad says reminds him of his own youth in the 1960s.  Friends on the football team call Dark-Fleury “Wolverine.”

Off the field, Dark-Fleury is a soft-spoken, thoughtful guy who volunteers at Children’s Hospital, loves to read, and has been a straight-A student in the classroom the past few years.  But his personality changes when he’s on the field, as he morphs into an intense and vocal leader whose voice booms all over the field.

“He’s got a motor,” says his coach, Delton Edwards, who redesigned the team’s defense this year to showcase Dark-Fleury’s athleticism, and moved him from the defensive line to outside linebacker, where he has more room to run. “He just keeps going.”

While watching Dark-Fleury terrorize a football field, it’s hard to picture him holding back on the sidelines. But last year he missed most of last season with a series of injuries.  The most serious was a concussion. It was a mild one, but it was his second in two years. At 17, he’s talented enough to consider a serious future in football, but he’s thoughtful enough to worry that he may badly hurt himself playing the game he loves.

“Honestly, that’s my biggest fear that I have in football,” Dark-Fleury says. “That I’ll do something that will damage my brain in some way.”

Injuries to the brain that occur on the football field have been studied closely, and received new public scrutiny, in recent years. According to the NFL, about 135,000 children between the ages of 5 and 18 are treated in emergency rooms each year for sports- or recreation-related concussions and other head injuries. Up to one in ten high school football players has a concussion each year, according to the National Athletic Trainers’ Association. Recent research has raised concerns that concussions can cause permanent damage, like neurological disorders, in adults who are years past their athletic careers.

Dark-Fleury’s father, Lawrence Fleury, says he and his mother really worry about the concussions. “That’s the one downside of football,” Fleury said. “I really enjoy watching him play, but I worry about him getting hurt.”

Dark-Fleury is only the second player in Edwards’ 16 seasons at Oakland Tech to talk openly about having  suffered a concussion. Edwards says there’s no doubt the number is higher, but that concussed players either don’t understand what’s happened to them or keep their  injuries to themselves in order to get back in the game. While Tech has a trainer on the field at games, Edwards says the only way to know if a player has suffered a head injury is, after an especially big hit, to ask.

“Sometimes, you don’t really know unless the kid gets knocked out on the field,” Edwards said.

When Dark-Fleury suffered a mild concussion against Pinole Valley last September 24, during the third week of last season, it was his second he suffered and the first on the field [the first was unrelated to football], and he was ordered to sit out by a doctor. He also had knee and arm injuries last year that forced him to miss time.

“It was frustrating, mainly because [I] wasn’t couldn’t show what I’m capable of doing,” Del-Fleury says. “Everything you work so hard for, you can’t show that.”

While Dark-Fleury is eager to get back on the field this season, he also says he wants to play in college next year.  Edwards believes Dark-Fleury has the talent to garner a Division-I scholarship and play on college football’s biggest stage.  But Dark-Fleury has also been looking at some smaller West Coast Division-III schools, where he could receive a good education without having to focus so much on football.

A few more years of fun on the field, though, also means a few more years of hits. While his parents worry about his health, his father said they also want to support their son in following his passions. “It’s really what he wants to do,” Fleury says, “and we’re supportive of him for that reason.”

In college, Dark-Fleury  says, he wants to either study literature (he’s a big fan of F. Scott Fitzgerald) or pre-med. He was only in seventh grade when he suffered his first athletic injury – a torn meniscus that Fleury says ended his son’s soccer career – but instead of deflating Dark-Fleury, the injury sparked his interest in medicine. He would study his own X-Rays, and now says he’d like to become a doctor specializing in orthopedics or sports medicine.

“That’s the nature of being a doctor,” Dark-Fleury says. “Giving so much, and helping someone so much, and maybe not even getting a thanks for it–that just inspires me.” He now volunteers at Children’s Hospital during the week, when he doesn’t have practice, keeping hospitalized kids company.

“This misfortune that he had in having his injury produced a lot of good things,” Fleury says. “It made him more compassionate.  And also it made him aware that you can be very healthy and powerful and be undermined by fate, or something bad happening.”

Right now, though, the football field is where Dark-Fleury wants to spend as much time as possible. He bounces around different groups of players on the field, giving tips and instructions on a tackling drill, and gives it an extra burst of energy when it’s his turn, slamming a tackling dummy to the ground and then trotting quietly back into line.

Amores says he’s glad to have his friend back on the field, even if it means lining up against him. “He’s really aggressive,” Amores says, starting to laugh. “Like always wanting to blitz and stuff.”

Dark-Fleury says he doesn’t think about getting injured, or suffering another concussion, when he’s out on the field, because he doesn’t have to. He’s too focused on the game, and playing well, and trusts that if he uses proper techniques he’ll be OK. “I don’t think about while I’m out there,” he says. “I guess because it’s not in my mind. When I hit people, I don’t have to think about it.”

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