Thirty years ago, I abruptly quit playing high school football while my team was preparing for a playoff game in which the winner would advance to the 1985 New Hampshire Division I-High School Football Championship. My teammates and coaches were upset at me and confused as to why I just stopped playing football. I had no idea how to tell them the truth and rumors ran rampant.
No, it wasn’t because I couldn’t get a ride to and from practices or games.
No, it wasn’t because I just woke up one morning with a plan to ruin all of my relationships and make myself an outcast.
No, it wasn’t that I wanted to devote all of my time to becoming an alcoholic and a drug addict.
No, it wasn’t because I wanted to end my athletic career on the lowest note possible after having devoted so much time and effort winning many ribbons, trophies, and championships.
I’d racked up 13 concussions from age four through 16 and got most of them while playing sports. Football and soccer were the major contributors. I went to the hospital after my first few concussions, but then I began hiding them so I could keep playing. I stopped playing soccer in middle school because of concussions. I should’ve stopped playing football for the same reason after winning the 1983 New Hampshire Pop Warner Championship Game, but I kept on playing in high school.
I didn’t know how to tell anyone I had a concussion because I was brainwashed into believing that concussions didn’t harm the brain and all I needed to do was suck them up like visible physical injuries. I was learning the hard way that wasn’t true because after every new concussion, my symptoms were worse and it took longer to recover. I was also learning that concussions had a negative impact on my athletic ability, academics, and relationships. I was losing the “real me” and I didn’t like who I was becoming. Neither did anyone else.
The truth was, I was hurt mentally and physically from a concussion I had gotten during a recent practice. I should’ve told my coaches, trainer, teammates, and mother about the concussion, but I kept it to myself like I had done so many times before. To make matters worse, just two days after receiving this concussion, I took to the field to play in the last game of the regular season. It turned out to be one of the worst decisions I’ve ever made in my lifetime!
As I lined up for the kickoff, I was in so much agony, all I could do was tell myself to suck it up and run as fast as I could in order to make the tackle. I was used to playing injured and thought I would always be tough enough to pay the price when the time came. No one should ever be so in the dark about concussions that they feel they can never give up or stop playing.
The football was kicked and I made a vicious hit on the receiver. As I stood back up I realized my living hell got worse! The bright stadium lights were so overwhelming that I couldn’t look at them. The cheers from the fans and music being played by the marching band in the stands behind me were so overwhelming that I couldn’t block them out. I had the most overwhelming sense of anxiety and depression and I couldn’t make it stop.
For the first time ever, I hid on the sidelines not wanting to go back into a game. I suffered alone while surrounded by hundreds of people. Some of them were my closest childhood friends who needed me beside them on the field. At halftime, I walked to the locker room having successfully kept myself out of the game. However, I was in so much physical and mental pain that I thought I was going to die! I sat on a bench in the locker room trying to keep it together. It got to the point where I was so afraid of having a meltdown in front of the team and coaches that I hid in a bathroom stall and prayed for the concussion symptoms to go away. They only got worse!
I managed to not play in the second half and for the first time ever, I got a ride home from my mother instead of riding the bus back to the school with my team. After suffering alone in the dark in my bedroom the entire weekend, just like I had done many times before, I made up my mind that I couldn’t continue playing football with a concussion. I just didn’t know how to tell anyone.
The following Monday afternoon I went to football practice and sat with the team in the locker room to review the game film with the coaches. The head coach stopped the film after the kickoff and said, “The coaches and I have never seen a player run so fast down the field on a kickoff!”
My teammates proudly pointed to me and called out my name. The head coach smiled and nodded at me and then continued the film. A few seconds later he stopped it and looked back at me with an odd look on his face. He said, “When the coaches and I reviewed the film over the weekend we realized you weren’t in the game!”
I told him I got a bloody nose while making the tackle he had just shown on the film and it wouldn’t stop bleeding so I couldn’t return to play. He gave me a long look like I was full of crap and then he went back to reviewing the film with the team. I wanted to tell him the truth that afternoon, but I didn’t know how.
From that point on I just stopped going to football practice and began taking the bus home after school. During that time of day, I was usually running plays at full speed and hammering people into the dirt with my body. Hits that many of my former teammates recently told me were the hardest hits they had ever received from anyone while playing football.
I had tremendous guilt, anxiety, depression, sensitivity to noise and light and other concussion symptoms. I was so tired during and after school all I could do was go into my bedroom and sleep in the dark. I couldn’t concentrate in class or on my homework and quickly fell behind academically.
I lost a lot of friends and was ridiculed in the high school halls for betraying and abandoning the team. I had become accustomed to being called an Athlete, Offensive Guard, Defensive Tackle, Linebacker, First Baseman, Pitcher, Hurdler, Relay Racer, Sprinter, Defenseman, Forward, Captain, Co-Captain, All-Star, Varsity and Champion. For the first time ever I was being called a quitter and even the people calling me that said it in a way that they couldn’t believe the word was rolling off of their tongues. They were angry at me and I wasn’t providing them with an explanation. I guess it was better to be called a quitter than a pussy.
I was held after a class by the head coach after they had lost the championship game. I knew “the talk” was eventually going to happen. He asked me several questions and I avoided answering them truthfully because I wasn’t going to tell him about my concussion problem. I just wanted to fade away rather than deal with my concussions. I don’t blame him at all for what happened next because I didn’t disclose my concussions to him.
All of my grades dropped to all F’s and I dropped out of high school half way through my junior year. I was engaging in risky behavior that was hurting me and a lot of other people. Family and friends tried to help me, but I was so depressed I just wanted to end my life. An uncle found me sitting on my bed all alone in the dark with a loaded shotgun held to my head. I am alive today because of him.
I was sent to the mental ward of the hospital where I had been treated many times for sports injuries such as stitches to the head, broken fingers, concussions, etc. This time, like the times before, they didn’t want to talk about concussions and they drugged my mind into oblivion. I spent a month in a drugged induced fog. They released me back into the world in the worst physical and mental condition I had ever been in and just in time for football double sessions.
I showed up for football practice for the 1986 season like an alcoholic looking for another drink or a drug addict looking for another fix. The new head coach looked at me and made me a running back. After a few weeks, I decided my heart wasn’t in it. I was at a major crossroads and needed to make the right decisions to move forward in the right direction.
Even though my sports concussion experience was 30 years ago, athletes are still following in my footsteps due to the same stigma and stubbornness I had in which I failed to realize that the brain isn’t that tough and it can’t “suck up” the damage from repeated blows and concussions.
You Might Be Tough, But Your Brain Isn’t!
People feel the risk of injury outweighs the gain of winning a starting position on a team, a game or even a championship. Well, that’s not true when it comes to your brain and it’s great to see many athletes are finally speaking out about their falls from grace because of concussions.
Athletes, parents, and coaches need to realize that brains are needed for other important things throughout a person’s lifetime. That there are short term and long term consequences as a result of repeatedly bashing a brain into the jagged interior of a skull or forcing it to shear while the body dishes out and receives punishing blows over and over and over again during practices and games.
Along the way, many players lose themselves like I did. They can’t stand the person they’ve become and some resort to committing suicide. It wasn’t easy finding hope and I had to dig deeper than I ever had to before in my lifetime to find it. I just had to hold on for dear life not knowing what was to come next.
Over the next 18 months, I took on a full schedule of classes during the day and some at night just to have enough credits to be able to graduate in 1988. During that time I developed meaningful relationships with others that didn’t solely revolve around sports. I became one of the first high school Peer Outreach Counselors in the State of New Hampshire and told my story to children in elementary schools. I went to the prom and had a great time.
In June of 1988, I received my high school diploma while I was attending Marine Corps boot camp. During my military career, I was meritoriously promoted and honorably served our country. I got married, raised a family and had meaningful employment as an Electronics Technician and a CDL Driver.
I created the Veterans Traumatic Brain Injury Survival Guide in 2006 to help educate Veterans, their family members, VA medical staff, veteran service organizations, nonprofit organizations and several federal and state agencies about concussions and traumatic brain injuries. In 2007, I received the State of Vermont Traumatic Brain Injury Survivor of the Year Award for outstanding commitment, perseverance, and advocacy.
I’m 46 years old now and according to my neurologist at a Veterans Affairs Polytrauma / TBI Clinic, I suffer every day with “severe post-concussion syndrome (or worse)” from the cumulative effects of those 13 concussions and a few others I had received in my 20’s and 30’s. I’ve spent over a decade in rehabilitation for vision, hearing, balance, speech, swallowing, muscle spasms and other damage to my brain.
I continue to advocate for Veterans with Traumatic Brain Injuries so they too can live long and meaningful lives. I’ve provided a lot of suicide prevention and saved a lot of Veterans lives by drawing upon my personal experience from 1985 through 1988. Those Veterans have gone on to help other Veterans break the STIGMA and get help for their INVISIBLE injuries.
Like Veterans, brain-injured athletes need a safe and supportive way of getting the help they need to heal and return to play or end their careers if they choose to do so. A healthy and honorable alternative to the old way of having stigma and peer pressure force them to play hurt, end their careers alone in shame or commit suicide.
I’m a member of the Krempels Center, a nonprofit organization located in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, dedicated to improving the lives of people living with brain injury from trauma, tumor or stroke. In partnership with universities and community volunteers, they offer programs that engage members in meaningful and productive experiences and provide ongoing support and resources to survivors and their families. The staff and other members participate in a group called “Man Cave” where we talk about men’s issues and what it really means to be a man. I thank each and every one of them for giving me the inspiration to write this article which I’ve wanted and needed to write for such a long time.
After receiving a traumatic brain injury in 2001, I developed Post Trauma Vision Syndrome and Auditory Processing Disorder. My brain was overstimulated by visual and auditory inputs and it prevented me from doing many daily activities which people take for granted like going to the grocery store, sporting events and my children’s concerts.
In 2014, my neurologist, Dr. James Whitlock, gave me a referral to a vision specialist, Dr. Kevin Chauvette at Merrimack Vision Care in New Hampshire. After 40 sessions of vision therapy, I was once again able to see in 3d and listen to music as loud as I wanted. It was amazing being able to make it past the 2nd aisle of the grocery store and attend all of my children’s school and sporting events!
I heard the song “In the Dark” by Billy Squier on the radio and found it easy to put my concussion legacy to the words. I contacted Billy Squier and asked him for permission to use his song lyrics along with my commentary to raise awareness about sports concussions. I’m very grateful to him for giving me permission to do so. I hope our words together will educate people about the dangers of not disclosing and seeking help for sports concussions. I hope our words can help athletes out of a bad situation if they are currently in one like I was 30 years ago.
You can read his song with my adaption by clicking below.
(reprinted with permission by Billy Squier and Alfred Music)
Photo: Top/GettyImages Others supplied by Author
For more Good Men Project Sports coverage of concussion-related issues in the NFL and youth sports, check out:
- Ex-NFL Player Talks Brain Trauma, Greed and Blame: Part II (November 18, 2014)
- Ex-NFL Player Talks Brain Trauma, Greed and Blame: Part 1 (November 17, 2014)
- Is the NFL’s Culture of Violence Causing a Crisis of American Masculinity? (November 10, 2014)
- Athletes’ ‘Killer Instinct’ – In Words. In Pictures. And In Your Face (November 5, 2014)
- High School Football Deaths Stir Memories of Ugly Youth Football Moments (October 10, 2014)
- The End of Football for Men and Boys? Readers and Experts Discuss Where We Go From Here (Oct. 5, 2014)
- The NFL’s Concussion Problem Just Got A Lot Worse (Sept. 30, 2014)
- Roger S. Goodell, Will You Please Go Now? (Sept. 22, 2014)
- We May Be Right. We May Be Crazy: Musings on the NFL’s Violence Problem (Sept. 16, 2014)
- The National Football League: Too Big To Fail? (Sept. 13, 2014)
- The Man Whose ‘Crusade Could Change Football Forever’ Speaks With Us about Concussions and the NFL (Nov. 17, 20140
- Against Football? An Interview with Steve Almond (June 29, 2016)