(Project Brain Wave) I often say that I wish I could go back in time and live the life that I missed out on in high school. I wish that, when hanging out with my friends, I would not have moments where I would feel out of place, detached from conversation, and left in a state where I could no longer relate to the memories they shared. I wish that I could have played all throughout my high school years, and that I could have stood alongside those who I considered to be my closest friends, my family, through three seasons of varsity competition. I wish that I could put on the helmet one more time and give it all I have to play just one more game, to look up at the lights shining down upon the gridiron on a Friday night, with my father in the stands, my teammates beside me, and my heart on the field. But as much as these feelings come to creep their way into my thoughts, I still feel that I did the right thing by setting my helmet aside and considering the future that I have ahead of me. And yet it still hurts. It hurts to say that I lived a career that never was.
In 2007, our high school football program had brought in a new coaching staff following the resignation of the previous coach months before. It was a strange moment, for we had all been prepared to play for the previous system, but we were now introduced to one that was innovative, powerful, and decorated with a prestigious reputation. I told myself that I would do anything for this coaching staff, because I believed in them. I understood what they wanted to accomplish with our team, and how they wanted to go about doing it. I bought into their platform immediately to mentally prepare myself for months of rigorous work in hopes of competing for a starting role my sophomore year.
Training camp was something that I had never been involved with before. It was my first year with the varsity program, and as an offensive lineman and defensive lineman, I knew that I had much competition to reckon with. The days were hot in the summer. The hours put into the weight room were long and frustrating, but productive. The sprints up hills challenged us all mentally. But many of us made it through that 2007 summer. I made it through, and little did I know that my name would be included favorably on the depth chart when our guard was injured leading into two-a-days.
Two-a-days were terrible. I cannot explain how much pain my body was in following the first practice of the first day. My muscles were weak, I was covered in sweat, my throat was dry, and my arms were heavy. And yet I was so proud of myself, and I recognized that the coaches had even seen something in me. It gave me a lot of confidence seeing that they noticed how hard I had been working. All along I had that goal in mind—starting on this team, or even contributing actively on the field if I would not be considered a number-one type of player.
That night, during the second practice of the first day, we had been running a team-offense drill where I was playing on the scout team as a defensive end. Following the sound of a blown whistle marking the conclusion of the play that had been just ran, I was blind-sided by our fullback. My body snapped back and my head collided with the ground and I blacked out. When I opened my eyes, they were full of tears, and an immensely painful headache had built up causing me to curse continuously in response to the effect of what seemed to feel like the pulsation of my brain. But I picked myself up and went back over to the huddle, still cursing, until one of the coaches noticed that I was not okay to be in there at the moment. He told me to go see the trainer, so I did.
The trainer told me that I had a mild concussion, and that I was to wait a week to be reevaluated. Her words at the time meant nothing to me. All I could think to myself was, “what the hell is a concussion?” I had never really been introduced to the concept before, and at fifteen-years old, I really could care less what it meant. The only thing that I had set in mind was to get back on to the field. After all, headaches never stopped me from playing before—why should they now?
On Saturday, we had a scrimmage against a nearby Catholic high school early in the morning, and I was to be sidelined from play for the first time in my life. It was a strange experience. I didn’t know whether I was to be thrilled or upset. The headaches had seemed to go away for the most part—they would only come back every now and then but this time they weren’t as severe as before. This was the fourth day after I was diagnosed with a mild concussion, and I was not willing to let this go any longer. I had to be doing something active. After that morning scrimmage, I had a fall baseball game to play in. As a matter of fact, I encouraged my coach to let me pitch in that game, only to find that headaches would return to remove me from play in the middle of the second inning. I didn’t know what else I could do.
The following afternoon, our football team met at the high school to go over some things regarding the scrimmage as well as preparing ourselves for three-a-days, which would begin on Monday. The head coach of our football team talked to my father that afternoon, and asked him if he could sign a paper to allow me to play that upcoming week. My father’s response was no, and that he would not sign anything until I was cleared by an athletic trainer or doctor. This conversation was not brought to my attention until several days later.
Our arrival at three-a-days was definitely intimidating, to my teammates at least—the healthy ones. But I, too, thought of myself to be well enough to play, so I suited up without telling anyone or asking anyone, and approached my coach outside of the gym doors and said, “Coach, I’m good enough to play, I haven’t been having any headaches.” He gave me consent to play. Oh, and a side note, there was no athletic trainer present that morning for the first practice of the day. It wasn’t until that evening when I noticed an athletic trainer to be present at the facility, and the one that was there was not even the one that had diagnosed me six days earlier. But what did that mean to me? I saw it as an opportunity. I saw it as a moment in which I could take advantage of the system to compete again, and nothing was going to stop me this time.
By the third practice of the first night, I had fallen to a knee, screaming in pain. The pain inside my head had become unbearable as I gripped tightly on my facemask and yelled and yelled for no reason other than to dismiss the excruciating feeling developing within my skull. It was almost as if my brain was trying to creep out of my skull. I had no idea what was happening, but I knew that something had gone very, very wrong. It just so happened that my father had driven up to our facility (which was over an hour away from my home) to check out the practice, and when he found that I was on the sideline in the pain of yet another concussion in six days, his instinctual reaction was to take me to the hospital.
I don’t remember the trip to the hospital, being at the hospital, or leaving the hospital. I don’t remember returning to three-a-days after being at the hospital, but I do remember waking up. I woke up at the crack of dawn with my head coach blowing a whistle in my face, which ultimately was the noise intended to round up the team for the morning run. Of course I wasn’t going to participate in this run, for I was concussed beyond my own belief. I never knew the pain could have gotten that bad. I woke up with a headache, walked down the hall feeling distorted and having trouble balancing myself, approached the stairs, and as I walked down the stairs, a spell of dizziness consumed my attention. If this was what a concussion entailed, then why did no one ever tell me about it before? I couldn’t help but think why this happened to me, how this happened to me, and what was going on with me.
But all of that did not seem to matter to anyone else. For the remainder of three-a-days I was treated like I was no longer a part of the time. In fact, every injured player was outcasted from the team—an act that was coordinated by the head coach himself. The injured players could not talk. The injured players had to stand along the sideline during practice, and everyone had to be five yards separate from those next to them. The injured players would have to walk around circling the field for extended periods of time at times. The injured players could not sit with their friends on the team at meals—the injured players had to sit at a table designated for the injured players, only. The injured players were the only ones who had to carry the equipment onto the field. The injured players were the only ones who were to fill up the water bottles for the team. The injured players were the only ones to clean up after drills.
Even during the regular season, (the season that never would come to be for me) the injured players were treated as degenerates in a way. We once had a game that was three hours from home; a game that we were all thrilled for because we felt it would be an automatic win for us. As we exited the bus and walked toward the grass of the field, our coach stopped. He turned around. And then he pointed to the injured players are said, “injured players, you sit in the stands today.” My jaw dropped. I was ready to just unleash weeks of anger upon my coach when he told me, and the other injured players that we could not stand on the sideline with our teammates. Rather, we were exiled to the bleachers. Are you kidding me?
Another time, towards the middle of the season, our head coach made the injured players help the school custodians carry heavy equipment to a storage room inside the school. I was told to carry a volleyball net pole-and-base, which was very heavy, and was assisted by another injured player. As we carried it down the hallway, the base of the pole snapped off and crushed my foot. I was then taken to the hospital only to find that the incident had shattered two bones in my foot. As I sat in the emergency room with my father, I thought that I was going to throw up, for I was still concussed. My head was going crazy, and the pain in my foot was throbbing intensely. Again, all I could do was ask myself a question, and that was “why was I made to do that?”
This decree that almost criminalized players for being injured disgusted me. I finally got the picture that everyone is expendable in football. I understood that this was football—a side to football that people don’t really pay close attention to. I had gone from being a leader amongst my peers to a good-for-nothing pussy that was faking it and didn’t want to have to practice. I was the joke.
Really, I was faking it? It occurred to me that the people that I had considered to be my friends, essentially my family, were not willing to understand the personal hell that I went through for six consecutive weeks. Each and every one of those days, for over a month and a half, I woke up with a headache and went to bed with a headache. I couldn’t walk up the stairs without getting dizzy. I would walk into rooms in my own house and come to wonder, why did I even walk in here? I couldn’t read in school. I often found myself re-reading paragraphs over and over again until I finally would realize that something was wrong. I couldn’t even hold conversations with people because I would quickly forget what I was even talking about. I had difficulties being out in sunlight because the headaches would come back to have that powerful pulsating effect whenever I was exposed to open skies. I was depressed, and there was no hiding it. Everyone had turned on me—my friends, my coaches, and even my own body. I came to feel that I could no longer control my own life, for nothing that I could do or say would make my own personal situation any better. I was trapped, and no one even believed that this hell that I had endured was actually happening. Apparently this was a stunt. Still to this day I don’t fully understand.
Despite the fact that doctors had told me that I would have my season terminated that year, I never gave up. I showed up to each practice, studied the playbook weekly, assisted coaches when I could, and did all else that I could to be knowledgeable of what was going on with the team. I wanted to learn, and to make sure that I would not fall too far behind the rest of the team intellectually because I knew that I wanted to come back and play my junior year. When my symptoms subsided, I put my heart into all that I ever did regarding football—the weight room, the playbook, and the maintenance of relationships in the locker room. This game meant the world to me, and I was not going to let that change. My junior year would be my chance to shine, for the bitter taste of my sophomore season was a tool for motivation.
Thankfully, I had gotten through two-a-days during my junior year with ease. I was confident and felt that this was my year, and that this was going to be my chance to redeem myself and prove to everyone who treated me like garbage the previous year that I could compete with them. But as history tends to repeat itself, I suffered another concussion the evening of our first day of three-a-days, with only a scrimmage under my belt to define my football career. It was done. I knew that third diagnosed concussion would be the decisive factor in marking an end to something that I had cared for and loved for so long. Football was no longer mine to hold on to.
The jokes still prevailed, the team went on, and my life had changed significantly. When I sat in the trainer’s room at my high school a few days after my third concussion, I broke in tears. I felt so betrayed by the game of football. I felt betrayed by my “friends.” I was not ready to let go of football, but I did.
I was scared after that. My third concussion did not leave me with the most severe post-concussive symptoms, but it sure left me with the longest lasting ones. I just never felt right. In school, around my family, and out around my friends, I was a happy person. It seemed as if my life was going just fine, and that I had nothing to worry about, but inside I was falling apart. A bout of depression kicked in and literally worried me so much that I felt that my thoughts were no longer mine. There were times when I would wake up at night and think about slamming my head against the wall over and over until everything would just stop. There were times when I would be driving home from work and wonder what it would be like if I would just let go of the wheel and let my car drift off. I hated myself. I hated life. This was not me, and thankfully time persisted to allow myself to get back up on my feet, from a cognitive perspective, to allow me to live a life that was no longer consumed by post-concussion syndrome or depression.
In response to the course of events that had led to the downfall of my high school football career, I dedicated my time towards understanding an injury that has been misunderstood for too long. I wanted to completely dissect concussions and how they relate to contact sports. I wanted to make sure that what happened to me would never happen again to anyone walking through the halls of my high school.
I had the chance to speak to my former teammates, coaches, athletic trainers, and parents about my experience with mild traumatic brain injury, and how it affected my life, and how I did not want to see any one of them go through what I had to. After doing so, it was, in a sense, pleasing to see tears run down my former coach’s face after I told my story. It was a way of closing a door that had been left open way too long with regards to the relationship I had with him following the events that led me to be where I was then.
I spoke to our district’s middle school program about the effects of concussions and why they should be taken seriously. I held a flag-football tournament fundraiser that went towards the purchase of new Schutt DNA helmets for our school’s football program. I met Christopher Nowinski of the Sports Legacy Institute and shared with him my story, and in return was granted an interview with him. I gave a presentation at my high school on head injuries in sports. I have been on news networks speaking about my story. I had the pleasure of supporting Pennsylvania State Representative Tim Briggs’ concussion management legislation by speaking at a press conference at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania discussing why it is so important that we protect our student athletes. I met Dr. Micky Collins and Dr. Anthony Kontos of the UPMC Sports Concussion Program in Pittsburgh and finished as a top-ten finalist to be Collins’ clinical assistant as the only freshman in the University of Pittsburgh’s Neuroscience program to apply for that opportunity. I have spoken to, shared, and became a part of the stories of other individuals who have gone through situations worse than my own. I have had the tremendous honor of being an author for The Concussion Blog, which ultimately led to the birth of Project Brain Wave.
All of this has been a healing process. I hope to see more people involved in contact sports step up and do what is right with regards to the sports concussion crisis. The information—the medical and scientific research—is plentiful. I hope to see such resources made available to everyone to understand that concussions are no joke… a concussion is a brain injury.
I once told my former teammates that “I would give anything to trade in this shirt and tie for a helmet and a pair of shoulder-pads,” but I see a need that is larger than myself. What I want is for people to understand the severity of this injury, and why proper management is key to the protection and preservation of our athletes’ careers.