MADISON, Wis. -- The optics on Michael Caputo's rattling hit and its aftermath were startling Saturday night. Horrifying, really, as replays looped on websites across the world.
Caputo, Wisconsin's captain and starting safety, dove in low to tackle Alabama running back Derrick Henry on a seemingly routine play early in the first quarter. When Caputo stood, he was so disoriented that he walked into the wrong team's backfield, completely unaware of his surroundings. He backpedaled woozily, stopping to place his hands on his hips while Alabama players pointed to referees to alert them of a potentially dangerous situation.
Caputo eventually walked off the field, blood trickling down his right cheek from the impact of his visor smashing into his face on the tackle. He was diagnosed with a head injury and did not return to the game. Four days later, Caputo told reporters the plan was for him to play in the next game if medically cleared by doctors -- a proclamation that quickly sparked outrage and disbelief on social media among college football fans who witnessed the scary replay.
The entire sequence of events highlights the complicated nature of head injuries, a subject that has only recently vaulted to the forefront of national sporting awareness. Did Caputo experience an actual concussion? He said he never lost consciousness and did not suffer the symptoms generally associated with a concussion, including sensitivity to light and noise, as well as nausea. The damage, then, doesn't appear to line up with the images from Saturday. Still, anyone who saw Caputo's confused, glazed-over eyes on the field knew something was wrong, including him.
"I've done a lot of personal research," said Caputo, whose right eye and cheekbone were still purple from the hit. "It depends on what you mean by concussion. Some people have definitions. Some people say concussions are if you lose any sort of vision, get a ring in your head. It doesn't have to be loss of consciousness. It could be something simple.
"And then there are some people who are more on the hard-nosed side like, 'Hey, you have to lose consciousness for three seconds out cold.' It just depends on what you mean by concussion. There's a lot of people with a lot of different definitions."
One of the most disturbing aspects of the tackle was the hit. Its gravitational force was measured on an impact sensor device and registered at "a pretty high impact," according to Caputo. He said he was told the force was so substantial that it surpassed the threshold that prompts fighter pilots to pass out. Still, Caputo said he didn't consider the hit to be scary and instead blamed himself for the manner in which he tackled Henry.
"I wear it almost like a badge of honor," he said. "I kind of got my neck jerked, and I feel like that's what really caused the problem. So that's on me, really. I have to correct that as a player to be smarter about how I hit."
Toughness is no doubt a necessary staple to be a college football player, and teammates say Caputo is as tough and relentless as anyone they have seen. In a different era, Caputo probably would have played the second half against Alabama. He was alert, fully conscious and active the entire game on the sideline. Badgers coach Paul Chryst even noted Caputo "had the grease board out" trying to help teammates dissect Alabama's offense as the Tide ran away with a 35-17 victory.
Caputo practiced Wednesday in a non-contact jersey and was expected to participate in contact drills Thursday, provided he passed the concussion protocols with team trainers.
The fifth-year senior from Imperial, Pennsylvania, acknowledged he had suffered two diagnosed concussions in his career, one in high school and one early at Wisconsin. But he didn't know whether Saturday's hit resulted in a third concussion.
"See that's the thing," he said. "They don't even know what to call this one. Because the symptoms that I experienced were not of the standard of what let's just say our medical [staff] would call a concussion. I'm going through the concussion protocol just to make sure."
Recognizing and understanding what happened to Caputo last Saturday is at the heart of ongoing research into the long-term effects playing football has on the brain because repeated hits build up over time. General awareness has increased, in part, because Chris Borland, a former Wisconsin linebacker, took a bold stance by retiring this offseason from the San Francisco 49ers at age 24 rather than risk further damage to his brain.
"Chris is one of my buddies," Caputo said. "I talk to him quite often. I follow it a little bit."
Caputo noted he would base whether he plays Saturday against Miami (Ohio) on how he feels, assuming he is medically cleared to return.
"Right now, I feel good," he said.
Perhaps that's the scariest part of all.