Published September 28. 2012 4:00AM
Waterford - Some of you, from wisdom born of pain, will read what has befallen David Zaldivar and, perhaps mindful of your own torments - mortgages, bosses, children - wave it off with an absorbing, "well, if not being able to play on Friday night is the worst thing that ever happens to him ..."
But try being 17 again. The intoxication of Friday night lights. Being with the guys. The smell of the locker room. The big catch. The tackle that draws an "ooooohhhh" from the crowd. And then try being told that complications from a concussion that happened almost a year earlier would officially hijack your senior year.
This is the story of the kid who wears No. 1 at Waterford High, the kid out there every day at practice even though he can't play. The kid for whom the significance of tonight's event, the first home game on the new turf at the high school, will run like a current through his veins.
"I know we made the right decision," his dad, Dave Sr., a coach on the Waterford staff was saying earlier this week, "but it just doesn't feel that way on Friday nights."
The younger David was running a slant pattern Nov. 12, 2011 at Norwich Free Academy. Let the record show he caught the ball. He just doesn't remember. That's because a safety from NFA flattened Zaldivar with a hit that ESPN would surely show repeatedly.
"All I remember is being on the ground," Zaldivar said. "I just remember looking up and being confused."
Zaldivar was at school a few days later when the headaches commenced. Then came anxiety attacks. From nowhere.
"The most random times," he said. "I'll be in class and just start to feel the need to walk around. I'll feel nauseous. I can't breathe sometimes. I'll feel really nervous for no reason."
Still, though, the length of the offseason, which often feels interminable to the football crowd, would benefit Zaldivar. Big senior year planned. New turf, new field, pretty good team returning.
"I went to a (preseason) camp and we were in pads. I took my first hit and it wasn't a big hit at all," Zaldivar said. "I had a planned doctor's appointment after camp. The doctor asked me how it went and I told him I had a headache and I started getting more and more.
"I went to three doctors and they all told me I shouldn't play," he said. "When the first doctor told me, I didn't listen. Once the headaches got worse, I started to think about it more. I'd be taking a big risk for one season."
Zaldivar's decision is prudent and practical. But they could award him the Nobel Prize for Prudence and Practicality and it won't change the pain of Friday nights. Oh, to be out there tonight, the first home game in the 06385 since Oct. 29, 2010. That's 698 days ago.
"It was really hard the first game (of this season) at Ledyard," Zaldivar said. "I was standing on the field before the game actually crying. I'll never forget how it felt to be out there. Now it's a different feeling. It's not good."
It's not all bad, either. Zaldivar, who wants to be a coach one day, has jump-started the process. His perspective is different. More wisdom born of pain.
"I didn't realize how dangerous this was when I was playing. When you're playing you don't care. Go hit people," he said. "Now that I watch every play, I see the risk I'd be taking."
Plus, he has newfound respect for his coaches.
Zaldivar is learning it's not their fault that they're neurotic.
"It's hard to yell at them because I'm not a coach," Zaldivar said. "But now I can see it from a coaching perspective. When they don't do something coaches want, I see a lot easier now why all the coaches get mad."
Waterford coach Mike Ellis, whose team has been ravaged by injuries, would like his players to pay attention to their captain: his dedication, his passion, his respect for the privilege of wearing Lancer blue.
"He's not just going to walk away from it. It says something about his role as a captain and how it has evolved from a guy on the field leading to a guy who can still make an impact," Ellis said. "Plus, David gives us a guy on the inside of the players' group. Hopefully he can influence a couple of them. Like telling them, 'I wish I had your opportunity right now. Maybe you'll start listening.'"
This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro.