There was a time not too long ago when waking up foggy and dizzy, even with a pounding headache, even on game day, didn't mean you couldn't play a football game.

Maybe before concussion awareness was heightened, John Robertson wouldn't have known exactly what was happening inside his head, or he would have thought he needed to play anyway. Instead, Villanova's star quarterback stood on the sideline Saturday for an NCAA Football Championship Subdivision quarterfinal against Sam Houston State.

The Wildcats lost a thriller, 34-31, but maybe this one should be remembered as much for what Robertson did, for the message it sends, and for the future of his own brain matter. Let's stipulate that the junior is as tough as they come. Robertson has played with a broken hand and a hip pointer. He's had a concussion before.

"His mind-set this morning was, he felt he was sort of letting us down," Villanova coach Andy Talley said afterward. "But he's had a concussion before, and he knows how it feels. He said, 'I don't feel right, and I'm not sure I'd make the right decisions on the field.' "

Robertson, a favorite for the Walter Payton Award as the FCS national player of the year, wasn't available to talk. By NCAA rules, injured players aren't available, a Villanova spokesman said. The quarterback was on the sideline, often wearing a headset or talking to his replacement, Chris Polony.

A senior with plenty of game experience, Polony did a really fine job, probably better than anybody at Villanova Stadium could have expected. That wasn't Robertson running 36 yards for a touchdown on fourth and 2, it was Polony. Those 31 points Villanova put up didn't happen by accident.

"He really gave us a chance to win," Talley said, mentioning his disappointment that 'Nova's defense couldn't stop Sam Houston State after the Wildcats had gone ahead with 7 minutes, 15 seconds left.

As for how Robertson's injury occurred, Talley said Robertson's helmet had slammed back against the turf when he got sacked the previous week. The quarterback apparently was fine that night but woke up the next day with the classic symptoms. Polony got all the snaps this week in practice. He was expecting to play, he said afterward.

"I think he probably would have continued to practice back in the day," Talley said of Robertson. "You would have been more aware that he couldn't handle the checks. Things that he has to do. Then at that point, maybe you'd say: 'Whoa, he's not right.' "

In this case, Talley said: "I like the protocol because it takes everybody off the hook, and it's safe for the kid. . . . As of yesterday afternoon, it looked like John was going to be able to play. . . . And even though he was cleared to play, he just wasn't right this morning."

Before Robertson could be cleared to play, he had to get hit, which meant putting on shoulder pads on Friday at the end of a walk-through, which doesn't usually feature any hitting. Robertson passed that hurdle, Talley said. He was cleared to play.

"Then this morning, he just did not feel well. He didn't sleep well, he had a headache. He just came to us and said, 'I don't think I can go.' "

There was no protocol necessary at that point, Talley said. Not surprisingly, Villanova waited until about a half-hour before kickoff to release the news that Robertson wasn't going. Sam Houston State coach K.C. Keeler, the former Delaware coach, soon heard that news.

"He's not just the best player, he's the emotional leader," Keeler said of Robertson. But he had faced Polony, too. "No bargain," Keeler said. "No bargain here."

And Keeler also pointed out that when Villanova got into an offensive groove, "they started believing they could win with anyone."

The fact that didn't happen, that a late, 51-yard field goal sailed wide, that a national championship contender was done for the season, it wasn't the time to find a silver lining.

"Someone always has to have a broken heart at the end of these games," Talley said after walking upstairs and leaving what he described as a somber locker room.

Except some solace can be taken that a star quarterback who didn't belong on the field wasn't on the field.

"I wouldn't want to put him on the field," Talley said. "It's just a game. It's just a game. It's his head."

mjensen@phillynews.com

@jensenoffcampus