PUBLISHED:May 02, 2012

James Gillenwater '12

On a lovely day last spring, James Gillenwater woke up in a Pinehurst, N.C., hospital room with a fully bandaged head. “My family was there, all three of my roommates were there, and Dean Belk was there,” he recalls. Jason Belk is the assistant dean for student affairs at Duke Law.

The last thing Gillenwater could remember was getting sick on the sidelines of a graduate student-league rugby game in Pinehurst after another player’s head accidentally “torpedoed” into his during a tackle by a third player.  Gillenwater’s skull was fractured.  He was rushed to the nearest hospital, where he underwent emergency surgery for an epidural hematoma ─ bleeding between his skull and his brain.

“I didn’t know if I’d be able to resume classes, finish the semester or take my exams.  But the next few weeks really encapsulated my overall experience of the Law School as a tight-knit, collegial, and collaborative community,” Gillenwater says.  “My law school friends looked after me day and night, brought me food, gave me class notes. My professors sent me e-mails, telling me not to worry. Everyone here just rallied around me.”

With the help of this network, Gillenwater finished the semester ─ he took his finals a week late and did well. Then he spent the summer working at Williams & Connolly in Washington, D.C.

In fact, the only thing Gillenwater hasn’t done since his injury is play rugby, a true sacrifice for someone who served as captain of the USA rugby team for three years prior to entering law school.  While playing for the national squad he suffered multiple concussions and was told he should never play again. But the allure of Duke’s graduate sports league was difficult to resist. “Somehow I convinced myself it was alright to play in some games ─ moderately ─ and not really tackle that hard,” he says.

Gillenwater has not formed a single scrum since being injured, but has remained an advocate of the sport.  He has shared his passion broadly during his time at Duke, starting a rugby program for inner-city Durham youngsters during his second year with a grant from the Albert Schweitzer Fellowship Program.  He found the experience richly rewarding.

“None of them had played,” he says of his pre-teen players. “And they picked it up so quickly.  To go out there for a few hours a week and spend time with those kids, and to share something you know and love with them, just brings out the best in you.”  Until his injury he also coached the Duke undergraduate rugby team. 

Gillenwater devoted an independent study project to legal and policy research on concussion prevention in organized sports; Professor Paul H. Haagen, a sports law expert, was his adviser. “What we posit is the need for an independent concussion evaluator at sporting events to work with team physicians ─ someone who would make the final call” regarding how serious a player’s head injury may be, and when he or she can return to the game, Gillenwater says.

They also call for better diagnostic criteria ─ something Gillenwater says he could have benefited from following his first concussion during a 2009 World Cup tournament in Dubai.  “The medical staff did the best they could, and I wasn’t as candid as I could have been,” he admits.  “I convinced them to let me get back on the field the next day.  I aggravated the injury further on the first play.” 

All in all, Gillenwater estimates that he suffered three concussive events during a three-week period.  “I couldn’t read and had to sit in a dark room, as it hurt to go out in sunlight.  It even hurt to take a shower,” he recalls.  “And I’d repeat myself every few minutes. It’s completely disorienting when someone tells you ‘you just told me that.’   You lose all sense of grounding.”

He had, happily, recovered his concentration by the time he arrived at Duke Law, where he is a notes editor on the Duke Law Journal and was runner up in the 2010 Jessup Cup Moot Court tournament.

“James has been a remarkable contributor,” says Haagen, Duke’s senior associate dean for academic affairs.  “In his research, he brought the analytical ability of a well-trained legal mind, the discipline of a high-level international athlete, and the passion of someone with deep personal experience of the issues he was writing about.  It was one of those rare and exciting combinations.

“James was consistently one of the most insightful participants in class discussions ─ until he got kicked in the head.  Then, coming back well before it seemed humanly possible, he was quiet during a healing process but, once healed, was every bit as intellectually ferocious as he had been before.”

Following his May graduation, Gillenwater will clerk for Judge Robert Chatigny of the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut and then plans to return to Williams & Connolly.

“But I’ll always be a Duke fan,” says Gillenwater, returning to his time in the hospital, and the efforts of the Law School to help him keep on track. “This really proves how much Duke looks after its own, and it is humbling that they thought I had done enough good for them to look after me. I’ll never forget it.”

-Paula Edelson