By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — At the end of a recent UVa football practice, Connor McCartin stood on the sideline talking with Anthony Poindexter. Both wore sweat clothes. On the field in front of them, players in full uniform pushed themselves through a grueling series of sprints.
Agony probably never looked so enticing to McCartin, whose passion for football showed in the zeal with which he attacked his special-teams duties for the Cavaliers in 2009 and ’10. He had every reason to believe he would contribute more on the field this fall, but now, early in this third year at UVa, his playing days are over.
McCartin, a 6-3, 230-pound defensive end from Warrenton, retired from football last month after struggling to recover from a concussion he suffered early in training camp.
“It’s a hard situation for a kid at 19 years old,” said Poindexter, who coordinates UVa’s special teams. “You take a hit, and all of the sudden two weeks later they say it’s not in your best interest to play anymore. But I think in the long term this is the best decision for the kid.”
McCartin, whose older brother Kyle is a redshirt junior quarterback on the team, got the news on the eve of Virginia’s opener against William and Mary. Tests done by a neuropsychologist had revealed the severity of the concussion, McCartin’s second as a Cavalier. McCartin said he met Sept. 2 with Ethan Saliba, UVa’s head athletic trainer, and Dr. John MacKnight, UVa’s co-medical director of sports medicine, among others, and they laid out for him the significant risks he would take by playing football again.
McCartin had an idea what was coming, but it was still a shock to be told that he needed to put away his helmet and pads for good.
“I took the news pretty hard, because I’ve played football forever now,” said McCartin, who’ll turn 20 this fall, “and somebody telling me that I can’t play any more, that’s a pretty big culture shock to me.
“But you can never look back and be like, ‘Well, that was the wrong decision,’ or anything like that. My health has to come first. I’ve got years and years to live, so that has to come first.”
Poindexter, who was an All-America safety at Virginia, saw his playing career cut short by a catastrophic knee injury, so he can empathize better than most with McCartin’s plight. When it became apparent that McCartin would not play again, Poindexter went to Virginia head coach Mike London with a request.
“I said, ‘Let Connor help me with special teams,’ ” Poindexter recalled.
London agreed, and so Connor McCartin the special-teams dynamo became Connor McCartin the student-coach.
“I love him to death,” Poindexter said. “I’d do anything for this kid. We want him around here, and we know the value that he brings to our program.”
During special-teams periods, McCartin works mainly with scout-team players, whose job is to simulate Virginia’s opponents. He also helps organize the personnel on the offensive scout team.
“It’s a tremendous opportunity, and I’m very thankful that Coach London offered it to me,” said McCartin, who remains on scholarship.
“When the whole thing happened, a huge door in my life was shut, and Coach London offered me this opportunity, and I just had to look at it as if someone closed this door on me for a reason and opened a new one. I just gotta take the same approach as I would to playing and do all I can and be the best at it that I can be.”
At Fauquier High School, McCartin played linebacker, tight end, running back, wide receiver, whatever his team needed. He made 135 tackles as a junior, and in the summer before his senior year McCartin accepted a scholarship offer from UVa, where Kyle was about to join the program as a recruited walk-on.
A torn ACL had limited Kyle to one game as a Fauquier High senior, and he was thrilled to learn that he’d be reunited with Connor at UVa in 2009. They’ve always been close, and the premature ending of Connor’s playing career floored Kyle last month, too. They had played together on two special-teams units last season and were looking forward to wreaking more havoc this fall.
“It’s my little brother,” Kyle said. “It hit hard.”
As a high school player, Connor said, he had “a couple” concussions from which he showed no lingering effects when he enrolled at UVa. He appeared in five games as a true freshman without incident but, in 2010, suffered a concussion against North Carolina.
After sitting out one game, McCartin was cleared to return a week later against ACC rival Miami. In all, he appeared in 11 games as a sophomore. He was in for 126 plays — three at linebacker, the rest on special teams — and made six tackles, throwing his body around with the reckless abandon that was his trademark.
“That’s just kind of always the way I played,” McCartin said.
Ron Prince supervised UVa’s special teams when McCartin was a freshman. After London replaced Al Groh as head coach in December 2009, Prince departed, and Poindexter took over as special-teams coordinator. McCartin quickly became a favorite of Poindexter, who as a UVa player had also been known for his aggressiveness.
“The way he played special teams and how he worked at it, I really respected him for it,” Poindexter said. “Some kids, they don’t understand the value of special teams, but this kid, he kind of figured out that that was going to be his role on the team, and he dove into it as a player.”
In one of the team’s first practices last month, the course of McCartin’s football career changed. During a kickoff return drill, “I dropped back and hit my man,” he said. “And right away I knew that I had another concussion.”
Some six weeks later, headaches still bother McCartin, and he hasn’t been cleared for rigorous exercise. But he’s slowly getting better and is expected to make a full recovery, though McCartin said his doctors “can’t give me a definitive answer on how long it’s going to be.”
Knowing he’s not expected to suffer any long-term effects from his concussion has helped him accept his status as a former player.
“I don’t want to say it’s easier,” McCartin said, “but I can live with it, knowing that I’m going to get over this, and I’m still going to have my health, and I’m not going to have any permanent damage or anything.”
The support of his teammates has made things easier, too. “They’re the best,” said McCartin, who lives with Tucker Windle, Paul Freedman, Luke Bowanko, brothers Matt and Jake Snyder, Ross Metheny, Billy Skrobacz and Sean Cascarano.
Practice begins around 8 a.m. for the Cavaliers on most weekdays, and McCartin’s schedule hasn’t changed much. He arrives at the McCue Center with the players, but “instead of getting taped and stuff, I go up to Dex’s room,” McCartin said. “I watch film, make sure everything’s prepared for practice, make sure I got my cards together and the depth chart and everything.”
He sits in on the special-teams meetings that Poindexter leads and then assists his mentor during practice. In the afternoons, McCartin said, he returns to the McCue Center to review videotape with Poindexter and “see where we need to improve.”
A sociology major, McCartin said he finds his new role on the team “very interesting, and I can definitely see myself coaching down the line. If I can’t play the game, the second-best thing is coaching, because I’m still around the game, and I still get to be around the guys.
London said: “He’s still one of us, and we’re going to support him every way we can.”