Notes from a Hitter: How Football Battered My Brain
Jan 30 2013
The author in action on his high-school team.
By the age of 18, I had undergone enough head trauma playing football to cause irrevocable damage to my brain. The three (documented) concussions I experienced resulted in a seizure disorder I will deal with for the rest of my life. I don’t discount my own role in the seizures I’ve had—some of them were partially due to poor decisions, lack of sleep, and excessive alcohol consumption—but according to my neurologist, my condition is undoubtedly caused by brain injuries suffered as a high-school linebacker whose only goal at the time was to prove to his toughness to his teammates, coaches, and himself. That meant hitting people, and that meant harming my brain.
I consider myself lucky. Lifestyle changes and daily doses of an anticonvulsant have rendered my seizure disorder latent; its effect on my life is now minimal. More importantly, my mental faculties have remained intact enough to allow me to launch a (so far unsuccessful) writing career. Many NFL players aren’t nearly as fortunate—some have committed suicide, presumably due to the mental deterioration caused by their lengthy careers, including Dave Duerson, who shot himself in the chest rather than the head so his brain could be studied by neurologists after his death, and Junior Seau, whose family is suing the NFL. I hope that every player on the field during the Super Bowl lives a full, long life and doesn’t suffer any mental difficulties as a result of his career—but I know some probably will, and some will have much worse problems than I do.
My current neurological deficiencies were precipitated by what now, in hindsight, increasingly feels like a psychological illness: I enjoyed the violence of football. Hitting was my greatest talent and I reveled in the attention it afforded me. Toughness, as measured by a player’s capacity to both inflict and endure pain, was a precious commodity I was eager to reap. Concussing an opponent was never a concern of mine—in fact, on one occasion a coach applauded me for doing so. Likewise, I frequently downplayed the severity of posthit dazes, because “getting my bell rung” was not the same as being concussed.
If my former penchant for gridiron violence or the brain impairment I now suffer unsettles you, then I must assume you belong to the increasingly small portion of the American public that pays no mind to football—not even the Super Bowl—lest you be a hypocrite. Football is an inherently violent sport, concussions are an inevitability of that violence and you, the passive fan, tacitly endorse the human cost by watching.
Are you pumped up by this Ray Lewis highlight reel? Are you less pumped when you think about how many of these hits might have caused concussions and brain damage?
Do boys get drawn to football because they’re violent, or does football make them so? Trying to determine a causal link between the two is as pointless as trying to blame Activision for the Newtown massacre. It’d be irresponsible to make a sweeping generalization about whether youth football leagues attract the naturally rambunctious or whether years of encouraging boys to hit one another as hard as possible molds them into reckless savages. I know for me, however, that the latter was definitely the case. I entered the sport a sniveling little wuss and left it a hulking mass of bellicosity.
The affluent Chicago suburb I grew up in was the polar opposite of Odessa, Texas, the conservative, football-crazed town of Friday Night Lights. It was a limousine-liberal enclave mostly disinterested in the sport. Youth football funding, and thus equipment, was hard to come by. My first coach decided that the most senior and/or talented players would get first dibs on the best equipment and so on down the line as more was acquired. How delighted I was on the first day of practice to learn that I wouldn’t be getting a helmet and therefore couldn’t participate in tackling drills.
Or so I thought.
See, Coach thought it necessary to “set the tone” for the season. It was “time to separate the men from the boys,” and this meant a one-on-one tackling drill. I watched in awe as boys eagerly volunteered to annihilate each other while I milled about the crowd of teammates who oohed and ahhed with each hit and did my best to become invisible.
Eventually, Coach instructed me to come front and center. He was excited to see me hit because since I was a fat kid, he assumed I would be a force on the defensive line. (This is perhaps an underrated aspect of youth football: It gives otherwise awkward, overweight kids the opportunity to make a significant contribution to a sports team.) I temporarily borrowed a helmet from a teammate, while Coach brought out “Peanut.”
Peanut was a legitimately dangerous person. (Last I heard he was in trouble for drug trafficking. This could just be part of the Peanut lore, though.) Even the boys who had been playing for several years were terrified of him. He was the fastest, hardest-hitting kid on the team by a wide margin and started both ways—running back on offense, and on defense he played the “Devil,” a free safety-type position that the defensive coordinator tailored specifically to Peanut’s unbridled athleticism (that is, he gave Peanut free reign to line up anywhere presnap and terrorize ball carriers however he saw fit).
I was swiftly destroyed by Peanut, of course. I remember walking around the perimeter of the drill afterward, pretending that I “had the wind knocked out of me.” In reality, I didn’t want to anyone to see me whimpering like a little bitch.
This continued for weeks. And as painful as it was getting my ass kicked nightly, it was likely worse for my father, a former high-school football star, a walk-on linebacker at the University of Illinois, and all-around hometown legend in Springfield, Illinois. Whenever we’d visit Springfield, his high-school friends would regale me with stories about, “Ooh, boy, you shoulda seen your daddy play, boy.”
One night, after watching me continually reposition myself in tackling drill lines so that I wouldn’t have to face the team’s largest players, my father enrolled me in his crash course on proper tackling technique. After practice, instead of going into the house I was told to wait in the minivan and keep my pads on. My father went into the garage, took a foam mattress from storage, rolled it up and fastened belts around each end, and made me hit this makeshift tackling dummy in our backyard for the next 45 minutes, routinely demanding I “get mad!”
I don’t recall the exact moment it clicked, but at some point, I realized football was far more enjoyable if you stopped accepting blows and began delivering them. I started to “get mad” at the fact I was routinely getting my ass kicked. The transformation into a good hitter was mental, not physical: Hurling myself at someone headfirst went against the risk-averse philosophy my mother had been instilling in me since birth. But the idea of disassociating myself from the present in order to partake in some reckless behavior fascinated me. I had always been (and remain) an overthinker, and thinking critically about the potential physical ramifications of tackling renders one useless on the football field. Hitting let me turn off my analytical impulses, channel my frustrations, and “live in the moment.” I understood what athletes talked about when they said they were “in the zone.”
As I incrementally became a better tackler, I slowly garnered more respect from teammates and coaches. I also began to get angry. It turned out that the madder I was, the better I was at football, and as I got better, the more this rage was encouraged. I aspired to be angry and violent.
By the time I was a freshman at Oak Park-River Forest High School, I had earned a reputation as a wild man. I relished being moved from the offensive and defensive lines to fullback and linebacker, positions renowned for attracting only the most reckless players. My physical development started catching up to my tenacity, too. Hormones, dietary supplements, and a heavily supervised weight-training regiment ballooned my body to 230 pounds at just 17 years old. (For comparison, I’m 200 pounds and 25 years old now.) I also learned that the two physical characteristics I had always been the most self-conscious about—my large, block-like head and equally large ass—were actually advantages in football, and I began to use them as such.
By that time, any insecurities I had—on field and off—were eradicated. I wasn’t the hardest hitter (or the most talented) on the team, but I was lionized for my fearlessness. My high school coach, who loved repeating meaningless phrases, always told us to “be the hammer, not the nail!” and gave out hammers for big hits. I received two in my career, and they still rest on a shelf in my childhood bedroom.
The author in high school.
Another keepsake of my playing days was less visible—beneath my strutting, sculpted, creatine-enhanced exterior was a brain being badly, permanently bruised. I vaguely remember a practice my sophomore year where I continued to scrimmage after suffering a mild concussion. Afterwards, my teammates found me walking toward a building that was closed for construction. I had forgotten where the locker room was. It wasn't my first or last concussion. I can’t say how many I had because I frequently lied to coaches, trainers, and myself about how my head was feeling. Being tough means never letting anyone know you’re hurting.
It wasn’t until months after I played my last football game—a teary-eyed first-round playoff exit—that the ramifications of the multiple concussions I suffered began to surface. The day after a long night of senior-year boozing, I came to in the back of an ambulance, flailing about as a firefighter struggled to hold down my oversized frame.
I had had a seizure. Several months later, I had another.
A trip to a neurologist revealed what should have been obvious: I had acquired a seizure disorder from years of football collisions. I was given a prescription and strict instructions to sleep eight hours a night and not binge-drink. My own cockiness led me to ignore the last two pieces of advice throughout college, but, miraculously, I avoided another epileptic incident. My life is painfully normal thanks to this condition. Whether my life will be normal in the future remains uncertain—as Junior Seau discovered, it sometimes takes years for football-acquired disorders to reveal themselves.
I don’t watch much football anymore, but my gradual disengagement with the game has been largely circumstantial. Shortly after coming to New York City a year ago, I moved into an apartment with three girls who aren’t the slightest bit interested in the sport. I don’t have cable, either, and as a result I saw less football in 2012 than any other year of my life. (I’m convinced my father made me watch Illini football games as an infant.) If I still lived in Chicago with male roommates I would’ve spent at least six hours every Sunday last fall watching NFL RedZone.
The unanticipated benefit of this waning interest has been the emotional distance necessary to rethink whether football has had a net positive impact on my life.
The game and the attitude it instilled in me made me an insufferably arrogant asshole in high school and might lead to early onset Alzheimer’s in the future. But it also transformed me from a passive, socially inept basement dweller to a self-assured team captain. It made me physically, mentally, and emotionally strong at a stage in life that’s confusing for so many. Most importantly, it broadened my worldview in ways nothing else could.
Oak Park-River Forest High School has always fancied itself a beacon of racial and socioeconomic diversity among a wasteland of culturally homogenous suburban schools. It’s current student population is 27.3 percent black, nine percentage points higher than the state average and significantly higher than most other nearby high schools. Hinsdale Central High School, in the same athletic conference, has a black student population of 2.4 percent, for example.
But beneath the demographics was an institution brimming with de facto segregation. Lunchroom tables and advanced-level courses were divided along racial lines. Due to a policy called “clustering,” black students were placed in honors classes in groups of three or four so they wouldn’t feel isolated. If you were a white student enrolled exclusively in accelerated courses (like me), you could go an entire day without interacting with a single black student in a school that was approximately a quarter black.
Those racial divisions didn’t exist on the football team. I don’t know the exact breakdown, but it certainly felt like the team was half black, half white. It was a meritocracy that forced me to spend my formative years with people whom I likely wouldn’t have befriended otherwise, whose backgrounds were worlds apart from mine. One of those friendships has been the single most rewarding friendship I’ve ever had.
The impact football—and sports in general—has had on my social life goes beyond teammates. Sports have been a focal point for nearly every male friendship I’ve ever had. I don’t plan on playing fantasy football next year, and I know this will render certain relationships virtually nonexistent.
The social capital gained from football does not outweigh its physical cost, however. As research on the long-term effects of not just concussions, but repeated sub-concussive hits continues to mount, it’s impossible to ignore that even in its purest, rules-abiding form, football causes accelerated mental deterioration in all its players—from NFL stars to unremarkable high school linebackers. It’s also become clear that as a fan, I’ve been indirectly promoting the brain damage I deal with daily.
When I graduated high school, my English teacher gave me a card with the quote, “Nothing is so strong as gentleness, nothing so gentle as real strength.” The poignancy of that line was lost on me at the time—I figured it was nonsensical doublespeak passing as wisdom. But I realize now that one of the greatest measures of toughness is accepting difficult truths that contradict what you’ve believed so strongly for so many years. Toughness isn’t sitting out a few plays for the stars to clear from your eyes; it’s accepting that a sport you love causes more damage than benefit.
If my 18-year-old self were to read this, he’d call me a pussy. He’d tell me that the only thing I was suffering from was a piss-poor attitude. And he’d definitely tell me that I need to hit the gym.
But I know things he doesn’t. I have questions he has yet to ponder.
Is there plaque growing in the crevices of my brain? If so, will someone invent mental floss to scrape it away? Is that ringing I hear in my ear around 11 each morning a distant audio frequency only I can perceive, or proof that my brain circuitry is on the fritz? When I pour myself a glass of water and can’t remember where I placed it just a minute later, am I merely being absentminded, or am I losing my mind? Are the relationships I’ve forged through football valuable if I can’t recognize my former teammates’ faces by the time I’m 50? Is there a buildup of tau protein in my brain? Do I, or will I, have chronic traumatic encephalopathy?
These are the questions I ask myself when I should be sleeping or when a YouTube clip of a vicious but legal hit comes across my Twitter feed. I plan to watch the Super Bowl out of professional necessity—I write about advertising for a living—but for the first time in my life, I will be thinking about what exactly it is we’re all cheering for.
John McDermott is a writer living in Manhattan. He's a staff writer at Ad Age and has written for the Chicago Tribune, Playboy Online, and Wired. He writes fiction when no one is looking. Follow him on Twitter at @McDermott
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