When Jim Sherl and his family gather for Thanksgiving dinner, they won’t have to look far to see who they are most thankful for this holiday season.
If it weren’t for some fast-acting doctors, there might be an empty seat at the table this year. The Claremore baseball coach doesn’t like to think about tragic things that could’ve been, though.
He is just happy his son Gannon is back to a functional state.
The same couldn’t have been said about his son’s condition a mere eight weeks ago.
Gannon suffered a severe concussion during a freshman football game against Collinsville on Thursday, Oct. 3, and had to be rushed to the hospital.
Here is a Thanksgiving story about family, perseverance and courage.
Gannon remembers getting hit, but that is about it.
What happened immediately after that is a blur for him. He doesn’t recall anything about the game, nor does he remember being transported to the hospital.
“I woke up in the hospital,” Gannon said. “I was confused and didn’t know where I was or any of that. I just saw my mom and dad.”
Upon further review, coaches believe a single hit wasn’t responsible for the concussion.
Instead, it was more like a series of hits in quick succession.
As Gannon dove for a touchdown, his head collided with a defender’s knee before crashing into another player’s helmet.
“It kind of ping-ponged him,” Sherl said. “The way the doctor explained it to us was he probably got multiple concussions.”
Even then, though, things didn’t look out of the norm.
Gannon seemed to be himself and continued playing.
Claremore dialed up some trickery in the second half with a receiver pass, and Gannon was the designated catcher and thrower.
He caught the pass on a bubble screen, but he didn’t treat the situation as if he were playing in a game.
Instead, he turned and prepared to throw the ball back to the quarterback like a casual game of catch.
He was gang tackled before that could happen, but the coaches knew something was amiss.
Gannon surprisingly passed the ensuing concussion test, but the trainer kept him out of the game as a precaution.
That decision might’ve saved his life.
By the end of the game, Gannon’s condition had quickly deteriorated.
After seeing his son pass the concussion test, Sherl figured Gannon had simply gotten “his bell rung”, so he headed home early to prepare dinner for when everyone returned.
As he set the table with a pot of homemade chili, plates and drinks, he received a call from one of his other sons, Brooks.
Brooks, who is a high school junior, had been waiting in the parking lot for Gannon when one of his brother’s teammates approached him with concerning news.
Brooks rushed to the locker room, where he saw Gannon’s head leaned against a locker, tears filling his eyes.
That is when Brooks’ brotherly intuition kicked in.
“I went to get him, and he said he didn’t know where he was and started crying even more,” Brooks said. “So I picked him up and carried him to the car and told my mom we needed to take him to the hospital.”
By the time he got to the car, Gannon couldn’t open his eyes and couldn’t speak.
In about 10 or 15 minutes, he went from being fine to incoherent with limited functionality.
Sherl was optimistic as he drove to the hospital, but that soon changed upon his arrival.
One of Gannon’s teammates was also sent to the hospital for a concussion, and what he saw was truly terrifying.
“He was slumped over in his chair uncontrollably shaking and couldn’t speak,” Sherl said. “When I saw that, it scared me. Then when I went into Gannon’s room, he was lying there, his eyes were shut and he just didn’t look good.
“I’m in my 19th year of coaching, but I’ve never seen or dealt with a concussion like this. This was pretty scary.”
Doctors performed various tests on Gannon and asked him questions about his name, birthday, the date and what he was doing, but Gannon couldn’t provide adequate answers.
What doctors said next stopped Sherl in his tracks.
"The first thing they said was, ‘We can’t deal with him here, we gotta get him to Tulsa. We’re going to have a neurosurgeon and a brain surgeon on standby,’” Sherl said. “That’s when it hit me. When they start talking about brain surgery, that’s when I knew something wasn’t right.”
With all this coming less than a month after two students in the Oklahoma City metro died from football injuries, Sherl was overwhelmed with fear.
Southwest Covenant sophomore Peter Webb, 16, passed away on Sept. 13 after sustaining a head injury while making a routine tackle.
Eleven days later, 13-year-old Riley Boatwright of Lexington Middle School died under similar circumstances.
“There’s no worse feeling than seeing your son sick,” Sherl said. “I told everybody I wish he would’ve broken his arm or broken his leg or had something where they can give him a pill or give him a shot or put a cast on it. This was different. This was scary because you don’t know. You don’t know how long it’s going to take, and you don’t know how long the recovery is going to be.”
Luckily for the Sherls, Gannon survived and avoided that same tragic fate.
Even with all the pageantry of homecoming surrounding him for most of the day on Oct. 4, Brooks’ mind was elsewhere.
Leaving his brother in that state to go play a football game was a difficult decision to make, but he certainly honored Gannon with his performance.
The highlight of Brooks’ night came when he returned a punt 64 yards for a touchdown with about three minutes remaining in the first half.
Upon retrieving the ball at the Claremore 36-yard line, Brooks moved quickly to his left before cutting right to split two Cardinal defenders.
He then angled back to the left and outran several East Central players down the north sideline, slicing right at the 15-yard line and back straight again moments prior to diving into the end zone with a defender on his back.
Unfortunately, the outstanding play was negated by a personal foul penalty.
It would’ve been the first special-teams touchdown of his career.
“I didn’t see a foul, but when I got in the end zone, I was so excited,” Brooks said. “Then when I heard the foul happened, I just couldn’t believe it. I didn’t expect it.”
However, that was only a minor setback for the junior.
Brooks converted the Zebras’ two-point conversion attempt after a Dylan Kedzior pick-six earlier in the quarter, and he followed that up on the next drive with an 11-yard touchdown reception from Charlie Murdock.
Those were Brooks’ only two catches of the night.
“I wanted to make (Gannon) proud, I wanted to make my family proud and I wanted to make my team proud,” Brooks said. “I feel like I came close to doing that.”
ROAD TO RECOVERY
Gannon was in and out of consciousness throughout the next two days.
For the short time he was awake, he was confused and had no recollection of what happened.
Despite that, doctors felt comfortable enough to send him home on the evening of Sunday, Oct. 6, nearly three days after the injury occurred.
Although finally back home, life was far from normal for the Sherl family.
Gannon’s balance and strength were fine, but his short-term memory was less than stellar. He also spent most of his time sleeping.
“We could eat dinner and come sit on the couch afterward, and he’d ask what’s for dinner,” Sherl said. “We had some towels folded up and told him to put them up, but they ended up in the pantry. We watched the OU football game, and about 10 minutes after it was over, he asked when the OU football game came on.
“You could ask him what he had for breakfast, and he’ll say he didn’t eat breakfast. Then his brother will say, ‘Yeah, I bought you three donuts this morning, and you ate all three of them before we got to school.’”
However, the situation was the most frustrating for Gannon.
He desperately sought his old memory, but he said he knew it was going to be a process.
Of course, having such an understanding family has certainly helped him improve little by little, day by day.
He is now set to begin speech therapy sessions that will help strengthen his memory and attention skills.
“I don’t ever know if I’m right or if I’m wrong or what’s going on,” Gannon said. “I’ve tried my best, and I have a lot of help.”
The longevity of the condition is anyone’s guess.
Everyone’s bodies handle trauma differently, and not all concussions are created equal.
The symptoms could stick around for as little as a few more weeks, or they could remain with Gannon for the rest of his life.
Regardless, the improvements are evident.
“(The doctors) have all been happy and pleased with the way he’s progressing,” Sherl said. “He’s getting better despite headaches and sleepiness. It’s still not completely better, but it’s a lot better than what it was. He’s a teenage boy, so he does stupid stuff all the time, but every day he gets better.
“He has attended school full time for the most part after fall break.”
BACK TO SCHOOL
Returning to school was perhaps the most difficult process of the recovery period.
With how the Claremore attendance policy is formatted, the Sherls felt it best to keep Gannon home except for algebra class until after fall break.
On what was supposed to be his first day back, Gannon’s headaches were unbearable and making him sick, so he remained home.
He made it to school the next day, but he fell asleep and couldn’t be woken up.
Sherl theorized the brightness of the lights and the overall loudness of the school gave Gannon a bad headache.
“He was going to class, but he didn’t realize he was going to class,” Sherl said. “He’d come home not knowing where he’d been or what he’d done.
“His teachers and coaches have been great and easing him back in and letting him go at his own pace.”
Sitting through class was a tough task for Gannon.
He was confused more often than not, and he couldn’t focus on the teachers’ lessons. He’d zone out, making tasks like homework more difficult than ever.
However, those inconveniences have continually shrunk over time.
“It’s been getting better, and I can concentrate more,” Gannon said.
RETURN TO SPORTS
After a lengthy time away from physical activity, Gannon was cleared to play sports once again in mid-November.
His first game action came during a ninth-grade basketball tournament in Pryor on Nov. 18, and though a bit timid and scared, Gannon performed well.
“It felt good to start again because I hadn’t played any sports in a long time,” Gannon said. “But when I first started, I would get headaches, and it was hard to get back into it. Right now, it feels great to be back in sports and playing again.”
Gannon’s playtime has progressively increased through the first few games, and according to Sherl, he appears to be transitioning back into his typical competitive nature.
He is slowly but surely becoming the “old Gannon” again.
“Physically, he’s doing great,” Sherl said. (Monday, Nov. 25) was the first time I thought Gannon was Gannon. He’s a little reckless, and he’s going to do whatever he has to do to be successful, and I saw that for the first time Monday.”
Although it has been a stressful few weeks for the Sherls, the community support they’ve received has been a delightful experience.
From the welfare calls and texts to the countless visitors offering food, the Sherl family has been showered with nothing but love from the Claremore community.
“Our community is great,” Sherl said. “The support we got from the administration at the school, the teachers; everybody wanted to make sure the best was being done for Gannon. We appreciate that so much.
“We’ll go to the store and run into somebody, and they’re checking on him and making sure he’s doing OK and doing better.”
The Sherls’ cornucopia of Thanksgiving blessings is a true symbol of Claremore’s neighborly spirit.
And the biggest blessing to grace the Sherls came in the form of a 6-foot-0 teenager named Gannon returning home after a life-threatening injury.
They are now more eager than ever to express their gratitude to their family, friends and even the community.
That is what Thanksgiving is all about.
“We’re definitely glad to have him back,” Sherl said.