Three years ago, Jimmy Petrilli started his senior year of high school at Simsbury High School in Connecticut. He was captain of the school’s rugby team, one that was expected to contend for a state title, and he had committed to play for San Diego State University.
“I sat down for my first day of class my senior year, got to my English class, was handed an assignment and realized I couldn’t read,” Petrilli said.
It had been five months since his most recent concussion, and he knew something was wrong. After consulting with a neurologist, Petrilli was diagnosed with brain damage.
“I think I’ve had a total of 10 concussions, maybe 12,” Petrilli said. “Most of them came from rugby.”
Petrilli was diagnosed with three concussions his freshman year, and according to the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference, once someone has a fourth concussion, they can no longer play high school sports.
But in Petrilli’s case, the rule meant that he never went back to his high school’s trainer when he would get his “bell rung.” His injuries went unreported and untreated.
“Once you’ve had a concussion, you know when you’ve gotten another one,” Petrilli said. “I would get sensitive to light. I’d be super out of it. I could tell I had a concussion.”
But Petrilli would keep playing, and most of the time he wouldn’t even come out of the game.
“I just sort of would go into autopilot,” Petrilli said. “I would come to, realize I was playing rugby, and just play rugby. I wouldn’t even think about it.”
Petrilli played through his concussions, and was still playing at a high level. He briefly played for USA Rugby’s U19 team. (Note: most concussions last 7-14 days, any symptoms that go on for longer than that are labeled as post concussive syndome).
“Once I started to take care of my head, I never injured it again,” Petrilli said. “I had been tackling like I was playing football, where you put your head in front of the person you’re tackling. When I started to rugby tackle, where you keep your head behind the person you’re supposed to tackle, I never hit it badly again.”
But he was still playing an unpadded, contact sport.
“It was my senior season,” Petrilli said. “My freshman year was the first year there was a rugby program. We were top 50 in the country and we had a good shot at winning the state championship. I was playing that season.”
For Petrilli, he needed that season.
“Rugby was the only thing I didn’t half-ass in high school,” Petrilli said. “I did my best just to get by in the classroom, but rugby was the only thing I truly worked at.”
Petrilli had decommitted from San Diego State already and he knew he wasn’t going to play in college and that after high school he was done.
“Playing was my decision, my mom knew that,” Petrilli said. “She knew how much it meant to me and she trusted me to make that decision.”
Petrilli played that senior year and his team made it to the state semi-final, the same game where he had gotten his 10th concussion, and lost, ending his team’s season and his career.
“I still miss it,” Petrilli said. “I get excited when spring comes around because it’s always meant the start of the season. It’s different now. I just do more of my hobbies like fly fish and work on my car. But there’s a lot of the time where I just find myself sitting around.”
He has also noticed a little less structure in his life.
“I don’t get up at 6 a.m. to go on a run anymore. I don’t have a set time where I do my homework anymore,” Petrilli said. “I’m just not as organized as I was.”
As for his physical changes, there’s been a few, but Petrilli has been able to manage them.
“I get agitated easier than I did before. Someone can be tapping a pen in class and I’ll notice it constantly,” Petrilli said. “I’m sensitive to light. I still will occasionally have trouble reading.”
His roommates only really notice Petrilli has an issue when he’s studying.
“I could be having a conversation with someone at a normal level, and I can see out of the corner of my eye that I’m annoying him,” engineering senior Zach Maskin said. “He needs complete silence to study, but he never asks for it. That’s not who he is.”
But, Petrilli still won’t say he regrets playing rugby.
“Would I still play if I knew this was going to be the outcome? Absolutely,” Petrilli said. “There was so much camaraderie. That team was like my family.”
What’s more than that, Petrilli attributes rugby to helping his get through school.
“There’s so many other ways that high school-me could have released testosterone,” Petrilli said. “Without rugby I probably would have gotten in fights. It just allowed me to get rid of some energy, but it’s such a gentlemen’s game that afterwards we would all sit down and have a meal together. I’m not going to regret rugby because rugby made me who I am.”