LAFAYETTE — In his mind’s eye, former Louisiana-Lafayette offensive guard Jeremy Sparks can see an older version of himself zipping passes to his kids, and he knows then he made the right decision to end his promising career as it was starting to take flight.
Sparks’ future self slings spirals with a right arm that is unburdened by the condition that ended his playing days. It’s unburdened because of his choice to end them. There is no familiar tingling sensation that creeps from his shoulder to his fingertips when he lets one rip. He is happy and not wondering what might have been.
He’s not there yet. On this day, the native of Daphne, Alabama, is thankful for what is in store for him. But simultaneously he mourns what was lost.
“He was crushed,” said his mother, Kim Sparks. “He’s still crushed.”
Sparks stepped away from the game he loves earlier this fall because of what it was doing to his body. He was diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome, a compression of the nerves and blood vessels in the passageway between the chest and extremities. He could hardly take the field without his right arm going numb.
But he didn’t bow out without putting up a fight.
What price should one pay for the chance — not for certainty, but for the chance — to continue doing what one loves? Countless hours spent toiling in the gym, film room and practice field? Moving hours away from one’s loved ones, as Sparks did, to chase a dream?
How about surgically removing part of one’s body? A blood sacrifice to the football gods for the chance — barely better odds than a coin flip — to stay on the field.
“He chose surgery because this has been his life,” Kim Sparks said.
Sparks went to a cardiothoracic surgeon to have a rib removed this offseason, the first rib on his right side, hopefully to alleviate some of the pressure on his thoracic outlet.
“I thought that showed a lot of courage on his part just to go through that procedure to play football,” Cajuns offensive line coach Mitch Rodrigue said. “Myself, I might have decided then, ‘You know what? Football’s not that important. I don’t know if I want to give up a rib to play football.’
“But that’s the kind of guy he is. … I admire him for that. At least he gave it a shot. He doesn’t have to go away saying, ‘What if?’ ”
But Sparks the fighter has not given up on football. When one door closes, even hesitantly, another opens.
A strange feeling
The sensation is familiar to Sparks now, but when it first hit during the fall camp leading up to last season it was foreign. Sparks had never experienced it at any level of football.
“It would go all the way down to my finger tips,” Sparks said, his voice faltering.
Here is where the true impact of the injury becomes visible on Sparks’ face. His eyes well up and his voice trembles slightly as he elucidates. His massive offensive linemen’s frame is slump-shouldered and resigned, defeated by an enemy Sparks couldn’t see or prepare for.
“My whole arm would go numb — on its own sometimes. Sometimes, as soon as I got hit, my arm would start to get this warm feeling and it would start to tingle. It would shoot all the way down my arm and stay there.”
Sparks experienced this in what team athletic trainer Travis Soileau called “three or four recurring stingers.”
A stinger is a fairly common football injury, especially on the offensive and defensive line. It’s caused by extreme flexion or compression of the neck or shoulder area.
The team couldn’t pinpoint the problem, so they shut him down. Sparks went through several weeks of physical therapy at a local clinic. It looked like they’d cleared up the problem, and Sparks returned in time for the team’s bowl game against Tulane last season.
The offseason brought rest, and with it hope that Sparks had moved past his vexing problem. Sparks felt great when spring ball arrived, and there was an open starting spot on the offensive line created by Andre Huval’s graduation.
“We were definitely hoping that he would end up being OK to play, because we really thought he was going to be a good one,” coach Mark Hudspeth said. “We felt he probably could’ve won one of the starting positions this year.”
It wasn’t meant to be. A few weeks into camp, on an otherwise forgettable and routine collision, the tingling feeling ricocheted down his arm.
“The stingers started coming back, and I couldn’t figure out what was going on,” Sparks said. “I kept getting them, I was getting two or three a practice.”
Stingers are treatable, but nothing the staff was doing worked, and the frequency of attacks was a sign something else might be wrong.
Finding out what that something else was wasn’t easy. Soileau said the team did multiple diagnostic tests on Sparks — MRIs on both his neck and shoulder area, X-rays, an examination of his cervical spine — but everything came back normal. There was one clue, though.
“The biggest sign that we had starting in the spring was that he started having … some discoloration in his arm, lack of circulation types of problems,” Soileau said. “So we dug into it a little bit more. He’s actually seen about three different team physicians for the same problem. By them collaborating, they thought it was best for him to see a cardiothoracic surgeon.”
Sparks’ options were either to go through the surgery to remove the rib, which had a 70 percent chance of being successful, or try the physical therapy route again. Bring on the knife, Sparks said.
No surprise, mom said. She’d seen his eyes light up when football season arrived too many times.
“I knew, even if there was not a 100 percent chance that he’d come back, I knew he was going to wind up taking the surgery,” Kim Sparks said. “Any hope at all that he could still play, he would do it.
“When they did the surgery, the doctor told us that he’d never done a football player. He’d done baseball players and ballerinas, but not a football player that was going to take the blows he was going to take again.”
Still, everybody was guardedly optimistic after the surgery. Sparks went through four months of rehab, during which he was not allowed to lift anything weighing more than 100 pounds.
Sparks was ahead of schedule on his rehab. By August, he was cleared to test his body in practice. Sparks said for the first time in a while he was focusing on football instead of what football might do to him. He felt liberated.
Sparks saw the field in September against Ole Miss, his first action since an October 2013 game against Texas State. On his second play, a Rebels defender jabbed his hand upward and caught Sparks under the chin.
“The same numbness went down my arm,” Sparks said. “A tingling feeling. I sat there for about three minutes.”
He prayed that it wasn’t the same injury, but he knew better. So did Soileau. Sparks had the same symptoms that he did before the surgery. It was time to evaluate whether he should stay with the game. He reached out to those he trusted and everybody came to the same conclusion.
“I told him, ‘Jeremy, football or health and well-being for the rest of your life?’ ” Rodrigue said.
“What’s to say the next blow wasn’t going to make it numb permanently?” Kim Sparks said. “Any kind of neck or nerve stuff like that is scary. I told him, ‘One day you’re going to want to throw a football to your kid.’ He had a lot to think about.”
Sparks, his thoughts drifting toward a future game of catch that could be in jeopardy, quit the game. Or at least he quit playing.
“Football will always be in my life,” Sparks said.
New chapter taking shape
Coach Jeremy Sparks is almost unrecognizable from left guard Jeremy Sparks.
Gone is about 25 pounds of playing weight, just melted away. Sparks has always had trouble maintaining his burly figure. He kept a Foreman grill in his room and used to make himself steaks and chicken before bedtime to keep weight on.
“At first, Sparks was shaped like a fridge,” center Terry Johnson said. “Now, I don’t know what he’s shaped like. I’m happy that he’s not fat and wide any more. He’s in shape now.”
Gone is the curly mane of blonde hair that used to peek from the bottom of his helmet. The haircut was a job requirement, Rodrigue said, maybe joking. Sparks’ reasoning was that if he was going to make a change, he might as well fully commit.
“The little surfboard Hawaiian look wasn’t going for him,” joked right guard Daniel Quave. “He definitely looks more presentable now.”
Sparks is not gone.
His dream of one day playing in the NFL has passed him by, but that doesn’t mean he can’t make the most of his situation.
Now he spends his days in the football facility as an assistant to whomever needs him, soaking up every bit of knowledge that he can about the game he loves. He helps with recruits on game days, watches film with coaches and plans on joining the strength staff next spring — a career he hopes to pursue with his degree in exercise science, which he will attain with a medical scholarship.
“He still has a lot of enthusiasm, a lot of excitement,” Rodrigue said. “He’s helped our young kids an awful lot, given them advice. He’s helped me. He’s always here eager to learn and to work. That’s the kind of player I’m going to miss, too.”
It’s all part of a refusal to give up what he loves.
Hudspeth can’t help but see a little bit of himself when he sees Sparks. It’s the passion that drives Sparks to pursue his dream even after his playing days are done.
“I’m excited he’s still part of the team, because he’s a quality young man who I think could be a really good coach one day,” Hudspeth said.
Of course, Sparks would rather be a really good player than a really good coach right now. It’s proven, in Sparks’ case, that time doesn’t heal all wounds. He’s not entirely happy with his current situation, but he’s grateful for what he still has and is eager to see where his path leads with football as the driving force.
“It still bothers me, because of course I love the game,” Sparks said. “I’ve been playing since I was young. But every day, I’m always praying — and my parents tell me the same thing — it’s God’s plan for me.”
“It sucks, but I’m OK.”
He’s OK now, and he’ll be OK in the long run.