Knock to the Head
The Huffington Post
Something felt terribly wrong. At first I was just a little woozy. Five minutes later I threw up Taco Del Mar all over the locker room floor, and then had the unfortunate aim of collapsing in it. It was clear that this was unlike any concussion I had received in my past.
The next morning I woke up in a hospital room gasping for air. Oxygen tubes lining my throat were making it harder to breathe. The cranial deposit tubes shoved into my skull were dripping blood onto my hospital gown making me so nauseous that the prospect of walking to the bathroom seemed utterly impossible. Luckily for me, a urinary catheter was painfully snaking through the tip of my penis to the base of my bladder. As I slowly regained consciousness I began to hear voices from the other side of the room. Dr. Sweeney, the neurosurgeon most credited with saving my life, was explaining to my terrified mother that I had sustained a subdural hematoma -- medical lingo for severe bleeding of the brain.
I wanted to write this article for my many friends who are playing football in college right now, and to the younger athletes out there playing high school and youth football. This is the article I wish I could have read back when I was in your shoes; back when I still had a chance to become the person I wanted to be. Also, this is a confession to the closest people in my life whom I have never shared the full extent of my suffering with.
Subdural hematomas result from Post Concussion Syndrome, an aptly-named injury that occurs when the brain sustains one concussion, and then endures another before the first one has had time to heal. From fifth grade to high school, I sustained seven concussions. The last two, which resulted in the subdural hematoma, occurred during my sophomore year. That was the injury that ended my dreams of gridiron glory for good. Although I am grateful to be alive, I did not walk away from my long history of head injuries damage-free. Depression, suicidal thoughts, skull disfigurement, a higher risk of developing dementia, and a severely plummeting scholastic GPA are some of the most prominent side effects of having sustained so many concussions. The bottom line is I am only a fraction of the person I used to be. And that's what hurts the most.
The first thing to know about concussions is that they occur far more often than you might think. According to a study conducted by the National Center for Injury Prevention, 47 percent of high school football players are diagnosed with a concussion each season, with 35 percent of those reporting multiple concussions in a single season. But those statistics are just the tip of the iceberg. Saying that the number of concussions that occur each year in high school football can be represented by the number of concussions that were diagnosed by doctors is like saying that the number of Americans that speed in their cars per year can be represented by the number of people who have received speeding tickets.
The reality is a lot more drivers are speeding, and a lot more football players are receiving concussions. The American College of Sports Medicine estimates that some 85 percent of concussions go undiagnosed.
There are many reasons for this lapse. Speaking from personal experience, I can testify that reporting a concussion to your coach can be counter-productive to your advancement as a player. What people outside the sports world might not understand is that a sports team is like a highly competitive corporation where every employee is desperately working to get promoted, or get moved to a "first-string" position. As a player who would religiously spend 365 days a year lifting weights, running sprints, and dieting like an Olympian, the last thing I wanted to do was tell my coach that I had to sit out for two weeks because I got my "bell rung." Just like a corporation, CEOs -- or coaches -- rarely show genuine loyalty towards their employees -- or players. As soon as an employee/player becomes unable to perform he is tossed aside, and the next player in line is promoted to take over. He is also unlikely to receive his hard-earned position back after taking a week or two off. The bottom line of a sports team is winning -- just like the bottom line of a corporation is making money, generally regardless of ethical or moral concerns. This ideology is ingrained into athletes -- in the guise of being a "team player" -- so pervasively that they become convinced that it is selfish to consider the health of their own bodies before the success of the whole team. This alarming trend of not reporting head injuries to coaches or training staff accelerates the rise in traumatic brain injuries.
"A concussion is called a mild brain injury, but there's nothing mild about it," insists Douglas Smith, director of the Center for Brain Injury and Repair at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School. "They're just mild compared to severe brain injuries that land players in the hospital with tubes in their head for days or months." In other words, sustaining a concussion is not as benign as simply having your "bell rung" or getting a little "cussy" as my old football coaches used to joke. Regardless of how it is romanticized by ignorant football jargon, the word concussion is synonymous with brain damage. Back in the glory of my pigskin days the perspective held by my teammates and myself was that concussions were routine, normal, and even a sign of toughness. We peacocked our head injuries as if they were stripes on a soldier's uniform that mark military accomplishments.
Here's what nobody explained to me until it was already too late: concussions damage an important part of the brain called white matter, a vital part of your central nervous system that delivers information from one part of your head to another. To sum it up; the more concussions you get the less clearly you think. Exposing yourself to head collisions on a regular basis is like playing Russian roulette with your brain, and each time one of those collisions results in a concussion another bullet is added to that spinning gridiron chamber, increasing the odds that your next concussion will be your last. Some players like me kept pulling the trigger until it was too late.
Fortunately, the severity of my injury was not as detrimental as it could have been. Many who have endured my same injury are now permanently mentally disabled. I was lucky to be able to walk away mostly intact, but I did not get away unscathed.
One of the common lingering effects among players who receive traumatic brain injuries is depression. There are plenty of seemingly logical reasons to feel depressed after sustaining the caliber of brain damage players like myself have endured -- not being able to participate in previously enjoyed activities like going tubing, snowboarding, dirt biking, roller coaster riding -- anything that may potentially cause trauma or sudden jolts to my brain. Most days I feel nervous enough just driving to school. My life may seem together on the outside -- healthy family, a roof over my head, and a new Chevy Spark in the driveway. Yet my history of concussions has rewired my brain to make me feel depressed for neurological reasons that expand beyond the reach of my control. Last year, shortly after my eighteenth birthday, my battle with depression culminated with me pointing my uncle's gun to my head while bawling in the kitchen. I was not planning on pulling the trigger, at least not on that day, but I was considering the option enough to make me curious of what it would feel like to have a pistol pressed against my temple. Gradually, I have fought to gain control over my emotions through willpower and concentration, but this is a mental war that I must wage everyday. Statistics show I am not alone. A study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health found that "teens with a history of concussions are more than three times as likely to suffer from depression as teens who have never had a concussion."
These days I am trying my best to live a healthy lifestyle; I exercise six days a week, drink kale smoothies for breakfast, and study for hours on end every night. But there is still not one hour that goes by in which I don't think about the person I could have been. There isn't one night that I lay in bed and don't think about how many IQ points I may have dropped over the last few years, or how much more likely I am now to develop Alzheimer's disease later in life. Every time I take a shower and rub shampoo over my head I feel the dents in my skull which remind me of how lucky I am to be alive, while making me wish I was dead at the same time.
At this point in my story, maybe you're wondering if I think it was all worth it. Considering all the undeniable pleasures football had to offer -- those Friday night lights, scoring touchdowns while the crowd cheered, being included in the most elite social groups in high school -- was playing football worth it? The answer is no. Not by a long shot. Undoubtedly, football played a constructive role in shaping the young man I am today. Daily doubles taught me about dedication, running sprints in the hot summer sun taught me how to push myself, and tackling running backs twice my size taught me how to be brave. But there are other ways to obtain such life lessons that do not involve a risk of permanently damaging your brain.
My intention here is not to vilify football, a game I revere and respect to this day. Rather, it is to tell you truthfully that playing football took something away from me that I can never get back. It robbed me of the potential to utilize the brain I was born with, and instead I must now live the rest of my life with the fear of growing up to be like Mike Webster. Webster, who some say was the best center to ever play in the NFL, was a member of the Pittsburg Steelers who developed a brain disease shortly after his career called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) -- brought on by too many blows to the head. Webster died at the age of 50 from the disease. I have to wonder daily. Will I be dead at 50?
Back when I was on the team roster, our team trainer would issue warnings about the dangers of concussions at the beginning of every season, but I would merely shrug them off because I was convinced that one day I would play in the NFL, and the lucrative glamour of the professional athlete life out-shined the possible risks of potential brain injuries. But what I didn't realize at the time was that my odds of actually making it to the NFL were next to zero. Statistics on NCAA.org show that only 0.08 percent of high school football players will make it to the NFL, whereas every single high school football player could suffer some degree of irreversible brain damage. I may not be able to do mental calculations like I use to, but the math on this one is simple enough for even myself to understand. Playing football is a bad gamble. It may not seem like it while you're in it, but it is jeopardizing the things that are most important to you and your future. Things like being happy, developing critical thinking skills, retaining memories, and all other forms of basic cognitive function that are necessary to maintain your sanity.
Even though I have developed strategies to help supplement my deteriorated cognitive abilities, the progression of my life is still at a deficit from all of the years I lost trying to figure out how the hell I was suppose to be "normal" again. Last term, I received straight A's for the first time since my brain surgery; an accomplishment that makes me happy, but only until I remember that I did so while attending community college. Had this injury not occurred I would already be attending a university pursuing my new found dream of becoming a journalist. Instead, I am playing catch up with what my life could have been.
Earlier I said this is the article that I wish I could have read before it was too late, but now that I think about it, I doubt that I would of listened. Instead, I would have read this and said f**k that. I'm going to keep on playing. This guy may be talking about other kids, but he's not talking about me. No, I am talking to you. It is certainly not my wish to dash any athlete's dreams. If your heart's calling is to play football and there is no way you can be swayed by scary statistics, then go ahead and play. I know what it feels like to love the game more than anything in the world. The talent, the adrenaline, the strategies, the bonding, the failures, the triumphs. It all used to mean a lot to me, too. But the next time you're out on that field pushing for that first down or tackling that running back and you start to see stars, feel dizzy, or develop a headache that won't go away, don't ignore the signs in order to stay in the game. Think about having tubes shoved down your penis. Think about having dents in your head. Think about crying yourself to sleep while trying to decide whether or not to buy a shotgun off of craigslist and blow your brains out.
If you think you have a concussion, consult your coaches, and If your coaches belittle your symptoms like mine usually did, then consult your team trainer. If the trainer decides to return you to full contact before you feel 100 percent be prepared to refuse until you've seen a doctor. Don't sacrifice your long-term health as an individual for the short-term success of your team. Take it from me -- it's not worth it.