By Grant Lucas
SISTERS — Tanner Head was left to wonder how unlucky one person could be — and why, it seemed, the world was out to get him.
On his way to earning all-Sky-Em League honors as a quarterback, Head, then a junior, helped Sisters High put together a memorable 2015 football season. The Outlaws went undefeated during the regular season, captured the program’s first league championship since 2007 and earned a No. 2 seed in the Class 4A state playoffs. For the first time in eight years, Sisters was poised to make a run at the state title.
Head, however, would not make it to the postseason.
For weeks last fall, the quarterback complained of numbness and pain in his right (throwing) hand. At times, it would be devoid of color. Other times it would be a dark purple — almost black. “It kind of freaked me out,” Head recalls. “It was painful, too, like it was defrosting.”
“He’s a tough, tough kid,” says third-year Sisters coach Gary Thorson. “His teammates really respect him; he’s been that way since I got here. The players really respect him for his toughness. For him to complain, it takes a lot.”
The night before the Outlaws’ home playoff game against North Marion, despite his painful and discolored hand, Head was planning to start for Sisters, further exemplifying the fortitude described by Thorson. Within 24 hours, though, Head’s status would change drastically.
Following several weeks of massage and physical therapy and acupuncture for what was believed to be a pinched nerve, and one visit to a doctor that ended with the belief that Head suffered from Raynaud’s disease, which causes some areas of the body to feel numb and cold in response to low temperatures or high stress — a final diagnosis was made.
On the day that Sisters was to begin its playoff push, doctors discovered in the posterior circumflex humeral artery in Head’s right shoulder an aneurysm, a byproduct of repetitive motion combined with muscle growth that was causing blood clots. To make matters worse, after Head underwent surgery two days later to repair the aneurysm, doctors discovered internal bleeding in his pelvic cavity, which, Head’s father recounts, stopped within the next few weeks when Tanner was taken off clot buster drugs.
“It was horrible,” Nyle Head says. “As a parent, oh my gosh. … The first thing in his arm, that was a total fluke. (Doctors told Nyle that Tanner) was literally case No. 7 in the United States of this happening to anyone, and the other six were all major league baseball players. That was an extremely rare occurrence.”
Still, Tanner, a wiry brunette QB with a determined disposition, lost almost 25 pounds, Nyle recalls, and seemed weak and tired because the internal bleeding limited his movement. But within several weeks, Tanner’s skin coloration returned. He put on weight and by the spring seemed well on his way to returning to full health.
Then, once again, Head’s fortunes would turn.
During spring break in March, just more than four months since his surgery, Tanner joined his twin brother, Tyler, and their father for a dirt-bike ride on the East Fort Rock trail system east of Bend. It was scheduled to be a 52-mile trek, but Tanner made it only 49.
“It was just bad luck,” Nyle Head says of the motorcycle accident. “It was no rocks forever, in a sandy stretch, and the only rock around is the rock he cracks his knee open on.”
Tanner remembers speeding over a small mound, perhaps too fast. He lost control of his bike and was thrown into a rock. His left knee took the brunt: The damage was extensive, including a fractured tibia.
“I was definitely wondering why it had to happen to me,” Tanner reflects. “That’s for sure.”
“It was hard for him,” Nyle says. “He had grown up playing three sports a year: football, basketball and lacrosse. When basketball season started, he didn’t want to go to games because of that competitiveness in him. We were just trying to stay constantly positive and reassuring that this will pass. ‘You’ll heal. You’re young. You’re going to heal quickly, and you’ll be good to go next year.’ But it’s still hard, and as a parent, your heart just aches. “He’s got some good friends at church who were always positive, and we were positive. Things happen for a reason. We don’t know what that is, but there’s something to learn in this … maybe it’s patience, maybe it’s bouncing back, being stronger and better.”
Despite all the setbacks and misfortune, Tanner Head, at 6-foot-1 and 180 pounds, has not missed a football game this season. He was cleared to play by doctors just in time for the Outlaws’ season opener, and he has passed for five touchdowns — including three at Crook County two weeks ago — to help Sisters to a 3-1 record.
He says that, understandably, he was anxious, even a bit hesitant, about his return to the field. He is keener now on taking better care of his body — playing with a bit more caution, for example — which led him to decide against pursuing a college football career, which he says he had planned on doing prior to the end of last season. Really, Tanner says, “I just want to enjoy this last year.”
“I think a lot of our guys realize, ‘Hey, look at what Tanner’s been through. Look at what he’s overcome,’” says Thorson, the coach. “At the start of the year, at one of our players meetings, players started acknowledging things that we saw other guys do in the offseason, and that came up multiple times by multiple players: all the struggles that he went through.”
Head lives every day with reminders of those struggles. Nyle Head says his son still feels some numbness and tingling in the thumb and index finger of his right hand, and on the football field a large metal brace encases the quarterback’s left knee. The effects of that aneurysm took a toll on his passing efficiency last season. Yet he has returned to the accuracy and proficiency he had begun to show prior to the symptoms. That motorcycle crash has limited his mobility, but Tanner is making the most out of the leg strength he still possesses.
Thorson emphasizes that for all the physical talents Tanner Head brings to the football field, his mere presence is every bit as important to the team.
“He’s just a flat-out leader who our guys are going to play very hard for,” the Sisters coach says. “Our O-line is going to block their butts off for him, and everyone on the team wants to see him be successful.”