Rick Nault needed a high-intensity, high-energy counselor for the young group at his recent camp.
The Central Catholic basketball coach’s choice was a simple one. He went with the kid-at-heart, the Raider with the widest smile.
“It was great to get him, too,” said Nault about his co-captain, recent graduate Doug Gemmell. “He’s so good with the little guys, let me tell you. He’s one of them himself. It was a terrific thing to see.”
It was only months ago that Nault wondered if he’d ever see Gemmell smile. A concussion suffered on Jan. 29 against North Andover sent Gemmell into a world of pain and anguish.
“It was scary and it got pretty bad,” said Windham’s Gemmell, now 18.
“I’m an active guy, not being able to active was terrible. I’d get headaches all day and by 8 o’clock at night, I was ready to fall asleep. It felt like it went on forever, and I had no idea when it was going to be over.”
Central, at the time, was deep into a heated Merrimack Valley Conference race, with the madness of March and the state tournament just around the corner.
Five days later he attempted to give his mates a lift, showing up at St. John’s for a huge rivalry game. Maybe his presence could spark the team.
He didn’t make the opening tip.
“Coach Mac (assistant Kevin McCarthy) saw me on the bench and knew I had to get out,” said Gemmell. “It was so overwhelming. I left before it started, and then we lost. It was pretty terrible, too.”
That loyalty to the team continued to gnaw at Gemmell.
With the conference title on the line, he gallantly tried to play in Lowell (a loss) and was back at practice the next morning, but he wasn’t right.
“You know, they make you take those concussion tests, everyone kind of goes through it, but you really pay no attention to it,” said Gemmell.
“There’s depression and loneliness. I remember leaving the St. John’s game, I felt completely alone. I definitely came back too soon in Lowell. I should have taken the practice off, too, and I didn’t.
“It stunk, because I just had headaches. It felt like I was fine, but I really wasn’t. A concussion isn’t like a sprained ankle. No one can see your pain, so you just want to get back.”
Central would forge on without its leader, marching all the way to the state semifinals.
But without Gemmell and his nightly double-doubles, the dream of a state title would die at the TD Garden in a 55-50 loss to Mansfield.
Luckily, Gemmell had support at home for the painful ride.
“For the most part, my mom would always remind me life was more important than basketball, when it was happening,” said Gemmell.
“I was focused on basketball, just wanting to get back to my team so bad.”
But perspective won out in the end.
Gemmell would finally shake loose of the concussion’s grasp, earning MVC All-Star honors in volleyball this spring.
“I got a late start, maybe a couple weeks in, but I felt really good, and I knew I was back,” he said.
Basketball then stepped to the front.
He began thrice weekly workouts with some of the top college players in the region over at the North Andover Youth Center.
It didn’t take long for Gemmell to mix it up like the old days with Central’s Jimmy Zenevitch (Assumption) and Andover’s Sam Dowden (Brandeis).
In less than a month, he’ll head off to the University of New England in Biddeford, Maine and begin to author a new chapter on court and in his life.
“I can’t wait to start playing at UNE and start to try and do some big things there,” he said. “This whole thing made me realize how lucky I am, to be able to go out there and run and play basketball every day. I’m not about to look back now.”