In the fall of 1983, I was 14 years old and in my third year of playing Pop Warner football. I had made it through the ranks and paid my dues to become a co-captain of the senior team. We were taught to lead with our heads, always seek out the opportunity to make a helmet to helmet pop and gang-tackle jump on the pile after a player was down. Nothing got our coaches more fired up then when we did these drills correctly in practices and in games.
Coaches yelled out, “That’s what I want to hear! More pops!”
Our Head Coach repeatedly yelled, “Everyone is going to know the Salem Rams are the hardest hitting Pop Warner football team in the country!”
Every year from the first football practice in August until the last hit in November, there would be a ringing in my head. Sometimes that ringing would turn into buzzing. It was accompanied by a headache, blurry vision, dizziness, lack of concentration, mental fatigue, and behavioral problems to name a few. I saw many kids concussed, dazed, confused, throwing up and physically injured from repeatedly doing hitting drills which are now banned.
According to The Centers for Disease Control (CDC,) a Traumatic brain injury (TBI) is a major cause of death and disability in the United States. They are caused by a bump, blow, or jolt to the head that disrupts the normal function of the brain. Effects of TBI can include impaired thinking or memory, movement, sensation (e.g., vision or hearing,) or emotional functioning (e.g., personality changes, depression.) These issues not only affect individuals, but can have lasting effects on families and communities.
Parents and coaches raised money so we could have new state-of-the-art helmets in 1983. Coaches told us these new helmets were going to protect our brains and we continued the practice of tackling while leading with our heads and making helmet to helmet pops. We put our faith into these helmets to protect us from a concussion, but when someone showed the telltale signs of a concussion, coaches still told players they just got their bell rung.
There are now warning labels on football helmets which state:
“Contact in football may result in CONCUSSION-BRAIN INJURY which no helmet can prevent. “
It was clear back then getting your bell rung didn’t matter to our coaches. I played offensive guard, defensive tackle and on special teams. Once a game started, I was always on the field until either half time or the end of the game. The more I got my bell rung, the more I kept it to myself because nobody cared about an invisible injury to the brain. Only a running back with a leg injury or a quarterback with a hand or shoulder injury made them concerned.
I remember picking up a fumble during a game and running with it towards the end zone. It was a lineman’s dream to pick one up and score. On my way to the end zone, I took a hard hit from an opposing player and I couldn’t get up because my “bell” was ringing. As I tried to get up again, an assistant coach kneeled down, pushed me back to the ground and said, “Stay down! Our running backs need time to catch a breather.”
I opened my eyes and he was looking at the opposite side of the field where our running back was hit and fumbled the ball. I tried to get up again and he told me to stay down because a referee was coming over and I needed to “fake” my injury to buy more time for the other players. When the referee got to us and asked us what was wrong with me the coach said, “He got the wind knocked out of him.”
I was pissed! My head was spinning from a concussion, other players with visible injuries were given priority over my concussion, and being ordered to lie to a referee took everything to a whole new level of bullshit!
When he finally got off of me and I stood up, I was told by the referee the rule was I had to go to the sidelines to sit out a play. I thought to myself, “Sit out a play? We don’t sit out a play for a concussion!”
Then I remembered it was for “getting the wind knocked out” of me.
While standing on the sidelines I could barely think. Our offense ran one play and then the head coach called for me and told me to run in the play to the quarterback. By the time I got to the huddle I had forgotten the play.
At the end of the season, we were the undefeated Pop Warner Football State Champions. We always looked forward to finding out where we were going and who we were playing in the Thanksgiving Bowl Game. The previous year, we flew to California and played a team from El Cajon. In 1983, we hosted and played an undefeated team from West Warwick, Rhode Island.
Still suffering from the hit that didn’t knock the wind out of me, I suited up for the Thanksgiving Bowl Game and as usual, played every single down blocking on offense, tackling on defense and making key special team plays with what felt like my brain was on fire.
A video of that game surfaced on YouTube in 2013 and it’s worth watching to see how the game was played back then. The commentary was done by coaching staff I would have later in high school. They do an excellent job of calling the game and explaining the culture and history of Salem Rams Pop Warner football.
“That’s Ted Stachulski again. This boy Stachulski has impressed me, Bob! He’s made an awful lot of tackles out there. He’s done an outstanding job. He’s been particularly impressive to me.”
In the video I see myself coming across the line of scrimmage in pursuit of a running backs and being struck helmet to helmet by an opposing player. I see myself at the bottom of piles while my teammates jump on them. I see myself on one knee during time outs with my brain on fire.
I hid many concussions that season (like the previous two seasons) even though nobody was looking for them. Knowing what I know now about concussions, I should’ve stopped playing tackle football, but I didn’t.
My sophomore year in high school I played my ass off and made the Varsity football team. My junior year I made it all the way to the opening kickoff of the last game of the regular season. While playing with a concussion I recently got in practice, I suffered a second impact syndrome while making the tackle on the kickoff.
Recently, I went to the library in the town where I grew up and found the newspaper write up of the high school football game in which I had my second impact syndrome event. Just another game where I shouldn’t have played, but having had six years of being a professional at the Hide and No Seek Sports Concussion game, I did anyway. And there it was in black and white! Our running backs were being sat out with visible leg injuries to get rested up for the upcoming playoff game, while I had once again suited up to play with an invisible traumatic brain injury.
Surviving the second impact syndrome and having to deal with it on my own was living hell! Because of that I never showed up for practices for the playoffs and then dropped out of high school not being able to do my school work. Several months later, having had no medical help at all, I tried to kill myself.
Even after all of that, I foolishly went back to play high school football the following year while nobody (players, coaches, trainers, doctors and parents) connected all of the hits, concussions and second impact syndrome to what was happening to me because they weren’t looking to make the connection. Not a peep out of anyone in command and just like that I was back in pads and back on the football field.
Ironically, the new head coach made me a running back and I injured my knee early on in the season during a practice. I had a visible and physical injury which prevented me from playing and no questions were asked of me. After attending a few games standing on the sidelines with crutches, I decided to exit the game of tackle football forever.
Back then, players, coaches, trainers, doctors, and parents were Hide and No Seek Sports Concussion Champions!
Looking back at my Pop Warner and High School football experience, I’m still looking for the good (if any) that came out of it like all the players, parents, coaches, trainers, doctors and sports writers talk about when they defend the game. Sure it teaches teamwork, but it also teaches players how to hide injuries, cheat, bully, lie to officials and other unspoken problems which go against the main point these people are trying to make in defense of football.
People can argue the rules have changed since then, but are we that naïve to think that what’s been done in the past just simply went away or that people’s attitude about the invisible injury has changed?
Most football players never make it past playing in high school. There are former players at all levels who have problems with drugs, alcohol, gambling, anger, rage, domestic violence, finances, crime, cheating, impulsivity, mood swings, depression, anxiety, fatigue and thoughts of suicide. Children also have problems with doing school work.
Only when someone is suffering from a concussion (or many,) do they realize all that help that was supposed to be there for them is nowhere to be found. It’s no different for people who are seeking help for a concussion after a motor vehicle accident, fall, assault or combat. Finding a knowledgeable medical professional can be especially hard for people who live in rural areas of the country.
The Number One question I’m asked all the time from athletes, Veterans, and their family members is:
Where can I go to get treated for my concussion(s)?
If your child wants to play or has been playing football, I suggest you contact the Brain Injury Association in your state and talk to an Information and Referral Specialist about traumatic brain injury doctors and rehabilitation therapists are located in your community. Don’t wait until your child already has a concussion!
To learn more about concussions and traumatic brain injury, go to your nearest brain injury support group and listen to Brain Injury Survivors tell their stories of:
• Having trouble finding competent and knowledgeable doctors, not being able to pay for treatments because of medical insurance coverage problems and high deductibles.
• Not being able to do their work as they once were able to do, having to deal with people who think they are faking or not injured that bad.
• Being put on massive amounts on medication for pain, sleep, depression, anxiety, mood disorders, seizures and other complications secondary to traumatic brain injury.
According to the Concussion Legacy Foundation, Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) is a progressive degenerative brain disease found in athletes, military veterans, and others with a history of repetitive brain trauma. Brain trauma can cause a build-up of an abnormal type of a protein called tau, which slowly kills brain cells. Once started, these changes in the brain appear to continue to progress even after exposure to brain trauma has ended.
Today, more people know about traumatic brain injury and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) because of the reporting of athletes who killed themselves, public comments from retired athletes, advocacy from groups created by parents who lost a child to suicide who later found out they had CTE, spouses of current athletes speaking out about concussions and published research that’s been done. Professional athletes from many sports are now openly writing, blogging and making videos about their traumatic brain injury rehabilitation, while others are suffering alone in the dark and limiting their public appearances because of anxiety, depression and behavioral problems.
Even with all this openness, advocacy and outreach about concussions, non-concussive hits, and CTE, hiding concussions is still an accepted practice for players and family members are encouraged to keep silent, making all of them Hide and No Seek Sports Concussion Champions!
I hear it all the time from fans who say that they don’t care if a professional athlete gets a concussion or CTE because they should know the risks associated with playing the sport and they are getting paid lots of money to play. They have the same attitude about college players in that they are receiving a college education in return for playing a sport.
The fans see concussion protocols in several leagues are bullshit! Any cracks in the protocols witnessed by fans during the regular season are quickly smoothed over by the front office. They resurface again during the playoffs when dazed and confused superstar players who took incredible hits are allowed back into the game. We all know it happens because everybody wants to see their big money players making and receiving those huge, head first hits, but nobody wants them sitting on the bench with a concussion when a championship is at stake.
A loss of a few yards or a few minutes in a penalty box will never offset giving an opposing player a traumatic brain injury. If your player was on the giving end you are happy. If your player was on the receiving end you are pissed off and cry foul!
The mixed messages sent to children reinforces that they can lead with their heads to make a tackle, don’t have to take concussions and traumatic brain injuries seriously, don’t have to play by the rules and don’t have to report a concussion because nobody is looking even when they say they are looking. Just like the Pro’s, when the game is on the line, young players are going to lead with their heads to make a big hit on an opponent. No matter how much they are taught to keep their heads up, you can never take the head out of the game, stop someone from leading with their head or prevent someone from being hit in the head.
Even today, when a well-known child athlete in the community goes off the rails and kills himself, it’s immediately assumed it was due to mental illness. There’s nothing to see here. Move along!
One of the first things Traumatic Brain Injury Survivors want others to know is that a concussion or traumatic brain injury isn’t a mental illness. A TBI is caused by a bump, blow, or jolt to the head that disrupts the normal function of the brain. The child may have also had the beginning stages of CTE.
Brains of former child athletes who committed suicide were examined by researchers and they discovered these brains had the beginning stages of CTE. Some parents of these children want other parents to know CTE isn’t just a professional or college football problem. Athletes have to start somewhere racking up concussions and repetitive hits and many did so playing youth and / or high school tackle football. They strongly recommend schools and recreational leagues add information on CTE and how to donate a brain to a brain bank to their mandated concussion information packets and training. Every minute counts when it comes to donating a brain and knowing what to do ahead of time is key!
If it wasn’t for the saving grace of God and the intervention of an uncle, school guidance counselor, teacher and peer mentors, I wouldn’t be alive today to write my concussion legacy experience. People need to protect their brains because a brain is who you are and it has to last a lifetime. The risk of temporarily or permanently injuring your brain isn’t worth anything in return. Period! The bottom line is that over the past 30 years I’ve seen change in contact sports which has resulted in no real change at all. It’s the same old pig with new and improved lipstick slapped on it while children and adults are still racking up traumatic brain injuries and possibly CTE.
No matter what I did in my youth, I was still going to become a man. However, the things I did in my youth which were taught to me and encouraged by adults, while having false hope in so called state of the art equipment that couldn’t prevent a concussion, and not receiving timely and proper treatment, rehabilitation and education for my traumatic brain injuries ensured that I was going to live my life a brain-injured man. I believe this still holds true for our young athletes today and future generations.
Read the first installment of In The Dark, and
Photo: Getty Images