"They were making fun of my red hair," the Indiana-Purdue Fort Wayne junior said. "I'm like, 'Why are you guys making fun of my hair? I have a boxing helmet on.'"Whether or not future student hecklers get more creative with their jabs and insults, Peckinpaugh will continue to don a protective helmet the rest of the season in hopes of diminishing the risk of another concussion. Peckinpaugh sustained four concussions during his sophomore season, sidelining him for 12 games and forcing him to seriously consider giving up basketball.
Upon weighing his options for several months last spring and consulting with his parents and neurologists, Peckinpaugh decided the risk of longterm side effects was not severe enough to forgo his final two years of college basketball. IPFW team doctor Eric Jenkinson gave coach Dane Fife permission to play Peckinpaugh only if he committed to wear a mouthpiece and the helmet during practices and games.
"We're just trying to protect him if he gets hit in the head or takes a charge, falls backward and smacks the back of his head," Jenkinson said. "The boxing helmet comes down around the jaw and so you're lessening the impact around the jaw, which is thought to increase the risk of concussion. That jawbone will get pushed up in the skull and that's what causes the brain to go back and forth."
Although Peckinpaugh understands the need to be cautious with his health, that doesn't make the boxing headgear any less of a nuisance. Not only is the helmet's heavy padding oppressively hot, it also restricts his peripheral vision the way blinders do for a horse.
"The first exhibition game, he tried to hide it in the locker room so he wouldn't have to wear it and coach Fife told him to get it and make sure he had it on during the game," Peckinpaugh's father, Jon, said. "The second game he tried to forget it on the bench and coach Fife pointed it out again.
It's no surprise to those close to Peckinpaugh that he's susceptible to concussions because he never shied away from contact even as a kid. The Muncie, Ind., native would routinely return home from pick-up games with skinned knees, bruises all over his arms or a knot on the side of his head.
[Related: The dangerous lasting impact of concussions]
As Peckinpaugh grew older and began thinking of playing basketball in college, it became clear that toughness and grit was his ticket to a Division I scholarship. What the 6-foot-5 forward lacks in size, speed and explosiveness he makes up for with his willingness to dive on the floor after loose balls or to step in front of an oncoming guard to take a charge.
"I really have no idea where it comes from," Peckinpaugh's father said. "Off the court John is very soft-spoken, very mild-mannered. When he crosses the line, the competitive juices get flowing and he's a totally different person. He's always played with reckless abandon. He really has no stop button."Peckinpaugh sustained a mild concussion or two in high school, but his first one at IPFW didn't come until the summer before his sophomore season when he caught an elbow to the head during an open gym. The next two occurred within days of each other in practice a couple months later, the latter of which was severe enough that Peckinpaugh lost consciousness after coming down face first on a teammate's knee.
Although Peckinpaugh endured bouts of dizziness and nausea and couldn't focus for weeks in practice or class, he didn't think twice about returning to the court following an eight-game absence once the side effects cleared. It wasn't until he sustained a fourth concussion a few days before the Summit League conference tournament last March that he and his family began seriously discussing giving up basketball.
From the day of that final concussion until the end of the summer, IPFW coaches forbade Peckinpaugh from running, shooting, dribbling or participating in any sort of basketball activity whatsoever. Midway through that agonizing hiatus, Peckinpaugh decided he wasn't ready to make the temporary break from basketball into a permanent one.
"I decided I didn't want to give up the game I loved and I'd do whatever it takes to keep playing," Peckinpaugh said. "I looked at what some of the long-term side effects were. My doctor told me my concussions weren't severe enough to have those side effects, so I wanted to give it another chance."
Three games into his junior season, a concussion-free Peckinpaugh has no regrets. He's averaging 3.7 points and 5.7 rebounds in 30 minutes per game for IPFW, helping the Mastodons win their season opener and then put a scare into both Xavier and Cincinnati on the road.
The only major test the boxing helmet has withstood came during IPFW's first game of the season when an SIU Edwardsville player caught Peckinpaugh in the chin with an elbow.
"I was stunned for a second but I didn't get a headache or anything," Peckinpaugh said. "The padding in the helmet probably helped some, I would say."
It's because of incidents like this that Peckinpaugh will keep wearing the boxing headgear no matter how uncomfortable or embarrassing it is.
For a guy who sustained four concussions in just a few months, a blow to the ego is better than a blow to the head.
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