CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Just like thousands of other young boys around the country, Zack Demopoulos grew up dreaming of playing football.
"I think Steve Smith was the player I always wanted to be," said Demopoulos. "I wanted to become a wide receiver."
Demopoulos did just that, playing wide receiver for his high school team, the South Meck Sabres.
He hoped to eventually play in college and, perhaps, beyond.
"I always had the thought of being a professional football player, a wide receiver for the Panthers, like I always had that dream."
All of that changed, starting with one defining catch.
"It was my sophomore year. Last game, last play, last catch. Right when I jumped up for the ball, I tucked it in and I got slammed back into the ground, having my head hit the turf," recalled Demopoulos who is now a senior, "you see the stars and you know something isn't really right. All I remember is I couldn't get back up. I wasn't able to celebrate my own game-winning touchdown."
He felt the concussion- the headaches, mood swings, lack of concentration- for weeks. He said that made it difficult to do school work for a while. Still, it didn't stop Demopoulos from playing football…yet.
Next season, he was hit again and suffered another concussion.
"My head kind of got slammed by someone's knee. I saw stars and stuff again, but I went back in the game. I kept playing through it. Didn't really feel it at the time but the next day, the headaches kicked in."
Two months later, he suffered another blow to the head. This time the headaches didn't seem to go away.
"That's what kinda scared me. It lingered. So I went back to the doctor," explained Demopoulos, who said the doctor told him his brain had taken a beating. He'd suffered at least three concussions in a little more than a year, which put him at risk for serious, potentially permanent brain damage. His doctor couldn't force Zack to sit out, so the decision was up to him
" I had many nights of tossing and turning, I thought I have to play my senior year. This is what I dreamed of," recalled Demopoulos, "I talked to my parents, and I ended up coming to the decision of not playing my senior year. Mostly because I thought about the future, not just the present."
The 17-year-old said his coaches and teammates at South Meck have been supportive about his decision. Demopoulos has advice for other young players who may be experiencing similar issues with concussions.
"See someone for that. See a doctor that can help you. I think the biggest thing is not to have that tough mentality, that you can endure anything."