COLUMBIA — When Crystal "Bug" Dominguez regained consciousness, she was sprawled out in the middle of Culver-Stockton's basketball court. The crowd was loudly applauding the Culver player who had just punched Dominguez in the face, causing a double concussion that would end her Stephens College basketball career with one game left in the 2008 season.
"The crowd was cheering for her, telling her, 'Right on,'" Dominguez recalls. "I just kept saying, 'Get me out of this gym, get me out of this gym,' to Pam (Dodge), the assistant student coach at the time. But I could barely walk."
Moments earlier, in the second half of a physical match in Canton, Dominguez had gotten tangled up while fighting for a loose ball with a Culver freshman whose name she cannot and cares not to remember. What she does remember is turning her head just in time to see the Culver player winding up. Dominguez turned away, trying to avoid the imminent blow.
Later, when Dodge had safely guided Dominguez to the locker room, Culver's athletic trainer examined Dominguez. It was the exact spot above her ear on the right side of her face where the El Paso, Texas, native had been elbowed two years earlier in a game during her freshman season at Stephens. She had suffered a concussion then. The athletic trainer informed her that he suspected she had just suffered another.
But Dominguez did not have health insurance. Against her coaches' and the trainer's urgings, she opted not to go to the hospital. She could not afford any unnecessary bills.
It was a two-and-a-half-hour ride back to Columbia. Dominguez rode in the back of Stephens coach Dane Pavlovich's car. By the time they got home, Dominguez said she knew she had to see a doctor. She called her mom.
"My mom wanted me to call her every time after the doctors came in the room," Dominguez says. "She was really worried about me."
The doctors at Boone Hospital Center submitted Dominguez for a CAT scan. An examination showed Dominguez had suffered severe bruising to the brain and a double concussion. It would prove to be the fourth and last concussion of her basketball career. But at the time, nobody was aware of that.
A month after the "incident," as Pavlovich cautiously refers to it, Dominguez was still experiencing intense migranes. She says she remembers not being able to stand up without losing her balance. She returned to the doctor for her preseason check-up, where she was diagnosed with post-concussion syndrome.
"The doctor wrote a letter saying he didn't think it was a good idea to let me play because the damages could be fatal if I get hurt again," Dominguez says. "Before that, I had thought I would be able to play. That's when I really realized my basketball career was over."
It hit her at once. Dominguez was attending Stephens on an athletic scholarship that she couldn't lose. She had hospital bills piling up. She was already working at the front desk of Stephens' health center in the school's work-study program. Worst of all, she wouldn't be able to play basketball her senior year of college on the team that had become her emotional support system.
Dominguez had no other choice but to pick up her spirits as quickly as she had picked herself up off the court the month before. She immediately began brainstorming how she could continue to help the team, she said. She had to remain a part of the team.
Pavlovich helped Dominguez begin researching her different options. One in particular looked promising for both Dominguez and the team.
"Pam Dodge was just finishing her year as the student assistant coach, so the position was empty," Pavlovich says. "We went to the athletic director to see if it was acceptable for Bug to use her athletic scholarship to become the new student assistant coach."
Dominguez had experience with coaching. When her high school coach Marlee Webb asked Dominguez to volunteer as a coach for the girls' summer basketball league after she graduated, Dominguez says she didn't hesitate. She returned as the volunteer coach for the Chapin girls' summer league for two more summers. It was those summers that gave Dominguez confidence that she would be a capable assistant student coach for Stephens.
It took several weeks filled with lengthy meetings and extensive paperwork for Stephens' athletic committee to approve the proposal. Dominguez says becoming assistant student coach was the best thing that could have happened to her given her situation.
She attends every practice to help Stephens' guards develop defensive plays. But when the time comes to run through the plays, coach Pavlovich forces Dominguez to step off the court. She used to nag him about it.
"She was always saying, 'Just this once,' to me," Pavlovich says. "But she has stopped asking. She knows I am protective of her, and she knows what my answer is going to be before she even asks."
Wearing makeup and high-heeled shoes, she sits with the coaches on the bench during every game It is a drastic change from her black-and-white Nike's and mismatched maroon-and-gold tube socks, but Dominguez is adjusting.
She still goes to the gym and shoots hoops. She still works at the front desk of Stephens' health center. She is still paying off over $3,000 worth of hospital bills. And she still holds a small grudge.
"I didn’t get these injuries because of playing — these three concussions had nothing to do with the game of basketball," Dominguez says. "It had to do with people’s attitudes. It makes it harder knowing that's why I can't play my senior year."
But it's not in Dominguez's nature to dwell. She says she knows she can't change what happened. Coach Pavlovich theorizes she has exchanged the adrenaline rush that comes from being on the court for a different rush that comes from coaching.
Dominguez says it's still too soon to know if she agrees with him.