In the fall of 1986, after my suicide attempt, I was sent back to high school without an Individual Education Plan (IEP) or any speech or occupational therapy for the multitude of concussions I had suffered from playing contact sports. I found out a family member and a friend met with the Superintendant of Schools to see if he would allow me to be a senior that school year and graduate with my class. Their plea was denied and I had to repeat my junior year.
I found myself back on the high school football team. It was more of a matter of habit than actually wanting to be there. The new head coach looked at me and made me a running back. I had played the position many years prior in Pop Warner football, but I had spent most of my time since then as an offensive guard, defensive tackle, and a special team’s player.
I had other issues to deal with such as my teammates who were angry at me for things I had done on and off the field. The previous year I had quit the team after the last regular season game heading into the playoffs because of a Second Impact Syndrome and then I engaged in risky behavior which put others in danger.
It wasn’t hard to tell they wanted revenge and I had a target on my back. On the way to the practice field they would yell out, “It’s a great day to be alive!” mocking my suicide attempt. During practice, I was the running back who ran plays against the starting defense. It was only a matter of time before the second string offensive line collapsed and I was dead meat in the backfield. I was gang tackled and blew out my right knee. Revenge was had.
I continued to go to practices and games, but I stayed on the sidelines because I was on crutches. I began to notice the benefits of not hitting and banging my head every day playing football. I had more attention and focus and less mental fatigue, I didn’t have the usual difficulty with schoolwork or a slump in my grades and I was looking for ways to build relationships instead of letting impulsivity, depression, anxiety and aggression ruin relationships.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) defines a traumatic brain injury (TBI) as a disruption in the normal function of the brain that can be caused by a bump, blow, or jolt to the head, or penetrating head injury. According to the CDC, an estimated 2.8 million people sustain a traumatic brain injury annually. 52,000 die, 282,000 are hospitalized and 2.5 million are treated and released from an emergency department.
A TBI can cause a wide range of functional short- or long-term changes affecting:
• Thinking (memory and reasoning;)
• Sensation (sight and balance;)
• Language (communication, expression, and understanding;) and
• Emotion (depression, anxiety, personality changes, aggression, acting out, and social inappropriateness.)
A TBI can also cause epilepsy and increase the risk for conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and other brain disorders.
About 75% of TBIs that occur each year are concussions or other forms of mild TBI.
Repeated mild TBIs occurring over an extended period of time can result in cumulative neurological and cognitive deficits.
Repeated mild TBIs occurring within a short period of time (i.e., hours, days, or weeks) can be catastrophic or fatal.
According to the Boston University CTE Center, Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) is a progressive degenerative disease of the brain found in athletes (and others) with a history of repetitive brain trauma, including symptomatic concussions as well as asymptomatic subconcussive hits to the head.
I was relieved the Superintendant denied the request to be a senior because what I needed most was TIME.
I needed TIME to rest my brain after school.
I needed TIME to retake and pass the classes I had failed the year before.
I needed TIME to deal with the demons of Post Concussion Syndrome.
I needed TIME to focus on building relationships while leaving all the macho shit behind.
I needed TIME to address my alcohol and pain pill addictions.
I needed TIME to reconnect with my community and share what I had been through.
But how was I going to accomplish all of this?
Fortunately for me, a guidance counselor and a teacher were trying to get a new school program off the ground called Peer Outreach. Knowing I was in deep trouble emotionally and physically, they took me and other challenged at-risk high school students under their wings in order to train us to share our stories with younger students in the community. The Peer Outreach Program allowed me to meet students from other New Hampshire high schools who were survivors of the circumstances that affected their lives. We were given an opportunity to open up to one another about our terrible experiences and great friendships were formed.
During a Peer Outreach training retreat, I met a girl from another town. Her name was Melissa. We were polar opposites in every way but attracted to each other just the same. We spent time together whenever we could and our friendship grew. She was there for me at the right time with the right knowledge and friendship to help me move on from football and concussions.
One Saturday morning I was at her house. She knew I had a football game and asked me, “Why are you here and not at the game?”
It was because being with her was like being in a Human League vs. being in a Sports League. It was a totally different way of life than I was used to and I was fascinated by the way she lived and what her priorities were. There weren’t any contact sports, games, practices, repetitive collisions or concussions and she showed me there was actually a world where I didn’t have to repeatedly bash my brain against my skull to get ahead. That I could be still in both body and mind, eat well, exercise safely in moderation and enjoy the here and now.
I was used to going to ball fields and parks to kick and throw balls, run and think about my future. Instead, she held my hand while we sat still, meditated and lived in the present moment.
• I was poor and used to shopping at local discount stores. She took me to the outlet stores in Freeport, Maine.
• I was used to surviving off of school lunches for nutrition. She took me to fancy restaurants.
• I used to skip school with my friends to ride the Boston subway system and end up in places like the combat zone. She drove me to Boston in her car on the weekend and took me to places like the Museum of Fine Art.
• I always wore athletic apparel and in the winter I wore heavy sweatshirts and sweatpants. She bought me a nice wool coat to keep warm.
• I had trophies, medals, and ribbons hanging on my bedroom walls. She had framed Ansel Adams pictures hanging from her walls.
• I talked about going into the military after high school. She talked about SAT’s and going to college after high school.
My priorities changed and my focus was now on academics, relationship building, and fitness. To make up the credits I needed to graduate high school, I had a class every period and took classes at night. It was hard at first, but as time went on I found a groove and stuck with it. When the time was right, I began running several miles per day and lifting weights again. My Uncle David was a Marine Corps recruiter and I got to PT and drill with his Poolies.
Eventually, the time came where I had to bid farewell to Melissa. I had enough credits to graduate high school and I joined the United States Marine Corps. When my name was called to receive my high school diploma at graduation, I was over a thousand miles away attending Marine Corps boot camp in Parris Island, South Carolina.
Ever since I was a little boy I wanted to follow in the footsteps of many of my relatives who served in the military. Not once did I ever dream of playing college, minor league or professional sports. Never in my wildest dreams would I have ever thought that contact sports could’ve delayed or prevented me from going into the military.
A decade’s worth of repeated blows and multiple sports concussions weren’t necessary to become a man or a Marine and the long term effects of them hurt me every step of the way in my military career. It occurred to me that military service members with prior sports concussions could possibly have a negative effect on the battlefield if they sustained another traumatic brain injury in combat.
I wasn’t the first or the last recruit to ever join the military having had multiple sports concussions. In an interview on July 25, 2014, Retired Army General Peter Chiarelli explained, “But that was one of the huge issues that we saw in the Army was that most of our folks came into the Army having already suffered concussions from playing football, lacrosse, soccer and other kinds of contact sports.”
I lost contact with Melissa for almost 30 years and recently reconnected with her on Facebook. I was glad to find out she graduated college and has been working as a Clinical Social Worker. As for me, according to my VA Neurologist, my “presentation and history is entirely consistent with severe post-concussion syndrome (or worse) with permanent neurobehavioral sequelae.”
For over a decade I’ve been sharing my traumatic brain injury experience with Veterans, athletes and their family members and helping them improve the quality of their lives as Melissa helped improve mine so many years ago.
Thank you, Melissa!
Read the first installment of In The Dark.
Photo Credit: Getty Images