San Francisco 49ers

49ers' Donavin Newsom back in action following 2017 concussion scare

Donavin Newsom, center, was injured on Aug. 8 during the 49ers training camp at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara.
Donavin Newsom, center, was injured on Aug. 8 during the 49ers training camp at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara. pkitagaki@sacbee.com

For most fans, the 49ers' 2017 season is marked by Marquise Goodwin's 83-yard touchdown catch against the Giants and Jimmy Garoppolo's gunslinger touchdown pass to Trent Taylor against the Jaguars.

But for anyone who was there at every stage, one of the most vivid memories was something far more grave: Seeing an ambulance roll onto a silent practice field and take a rookie linebacker away.

Donavin Newsom was knocked unconscious when he was struck with an inadvertent, friendly fire hit to the helmet from strong safety Chanceller James on Aug. 8. What had been a lively training-camp practice instantly became eerily quiet as medical trainers worked on Newsom and then called in paramedics.

Newsom spent two days in the hospital, then suffered symptoms that included headaches, problems sleeping and issues with his balance. He dealt with them, especially the headaches, until late December when they finally went away.

He was fully cleared by doctors in January and is now starting the season anew alongside teammates.

Neither Newsom nor James was drafted, but both stood out during the spring and early in training camp last year. At the very least, Newsom would have made San Francisco's practice squad, then would have had a legitimate chance to be pulled onto the active roster when fellow inside linebackers Reuben Foster was injured and NaVorro Bowman was released.

Newsom said this week he's entering the 2018 season with the same mentality he had a year ago. With Foster on an open-ended leave of absence and Brock Coyle recovering from a shoulder injury, Newsom, Korey Toomer, Elijah Lee and Mark Nzeocha are among the backup linebackers vying for position on the team.

"The door's always open," he said. "It's just how you walk through it. I'm going into this new season with the same mentality I did last year: just try to get on the field and help the team win."

During his long recovery, seemingly innocuous activities Newsom once took for granted – watching television, going to movies, playing video games, reviewing game film – were painful and off limits because of the headaches they induced. Unable to practice, he dealt with the monotony of the day by drawing and painting.

He said he got through it with the help of his therapists and teammates, including James, who has become one of his closest friends on the team. James suffered an ACL tear later in training camp and like Newsom was put on injured reserve for the season.

"Everybody checked in. I mean everybody," Newsom said. "I would walk into the locker room, and everybody I'd pass would ask how I'm doing, 'Are you feeling better today?'"

Concussions and blows to the head have become perhaps the NFL's top issue. The league is working on a rule for this season that prohibits players from lowering their helmets and is contemplating an even more drastic change, the elimination of kickoffs, in future seasons.

Another 49ers rookie inside linebacker, Chris Borland, famously retired after his only season in the NFL out of caution over concussions.

Newsom, however, said he never thought about voluntarily stepping away from the game.

"Not really," he said. "The main thing was waiting to see what the doctors said. If they gave me the go-ahead that I could play again, then that was always my first option."

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