13 Concussions

It was a beautiful night in late August. We were playing BYU at home in the first game of the season — the 14th season of my career. I was standing there on the field trying to catch my breath and contemplating my next move. We were trailing by 18 with less than six minutes left in the game, but we had the ball on the Cougars’ 10-yard line. I had just thrown an incomplete pass on third-and-three and was hoping our coach would let me and the offense stay on the field. I felt like I just needed one more chance. Yes, I had thrown an interception earlier in the game, but since then I had been slinging the ball around pretty well.

As I waited for our coach’s decision, I did a quick mental check of my body. My back and neck were stiff. My knees had that familiar throbbing pain. Some blood was dripping down my right shin. Nothing dramatic. Nothing that would keep me off the field.

Actually, on the football scale of aches, I was feeling pretty good. My arm was warm, ready to throw 100 more passes, and I was particularly happy about my mullet, now sneaking out of the back of my helmet, lightly cooling my neck. All was good.

We were going for it. As the formation got signaled in from the sideline, everyone started to move. “Ace Right! Ace Right! Ace Right!” I yelled, while glancing quickly from the sideline to the play clock. Thirty-five, I think to myself. O.K., we’re alright.

Receivers buzzed past, lining up, reminding me how open they had been on the last play. I ignored them, as my mind was occupied. It was a crucial fourth-down play.

Take what they give you, repeated in my head again and again. Make the routine play, I tell myself. My eyes flashed back to the play clock. Thirty seconds. Alright.

The play-call got signaled in: Gun Ace Right Z Motion 82 Lasso X Spot F Corner.

Milliseconds after getting the call, I turned around and began to dissect what was in front of me. Scanning from right to left, I hypothesized what the defense was running.

Four-three, Mikes on left and probably Cover 4. Gonna have the flat early, spot if the ’backer buzzes past and maybe the corner late.

Now I need to tell my line the protection and who the Mike is. I lean over the top of my center and point out the middle linebacker. “Eighty-two, Mike is 34! Eighty-two, Mike is 34!” I yelled. My eyes shifted back to the play clock. Twenty-five. We’re fine.

I backed up from the line and took my position behind the center. My toes precisely positioned 4½ yards from the ball. My eyes scanned the field for any late changes in coverage. I took one last look around to make sure my guys were set. Then one last look at the play clock. Twenty-three. Let’s do it. Settling my feet in, I put my receiver in motion and he started sprinting across the field. “Ready!” I yell as he crosses in front of me. “Set-hut!” The ball was snapped. Everything lurched into motion.

At that moment, for me, everything slowed down. The ball floated back from my center toward me as I turned my body, ready to run to my left. I aligned the fingers on my right hand with the laces as my left foot hit the ground behind me. Blurry figures became either comforting targets or dangerous vultures. As my right foot hit the ground, I realized that my first option, the flat route, wasn’t open. My left foot came down again, then my right, as I saw that my second option, the spot route, was also covered. A sickening feeling came over me. The defense was closing in. I had no shot to run for it.

O.K., square your body up and try to hit the corner route, I thought. I swung my body around 90 degrees to put myself in a position to make the throw. My right hand held the ball firmly as the rest of my arm went into motion. Simultaneously, my hips turned around, bringing me off of the ground. One by one, my fingers left the ball, making it into a spiral.

The forward motion of my arm propelled the ball and I watched as it floated away like a piece of drift wood taken by the tide. I felt like I was suspended in mid-air, willing the pigskin to land into my receiver’s hands for a touchdown.

Here on earth, objects fall with a constant acceleration of 9.81 meters per second. When we leave the ground, we’re going back down. At that particular moment, the force coming to bring me back down to earth was a 235 pound linebacker.

The first sharp pain I felt was in my ribs as his forearm slammed into me. Soon the rest of his body followed as he hit me from behind. His other arm wrapped around me and I began to fall forward, my head snapping back violently. For an instant we were both parallel to the ground. I threw my left arm out in front of me but it crumbled under the weight of the two of us. My head smacked off of the turf and everything went black.

The only word I know to describe the first few moments after a concussion is limbo — there are a few moments between the world that you were just a part of and your new brain-injured reality. When I regained consciousness, I knew I was on the ground. My head was seized with tremendous pressure, and that same awful, familiar depression from previous head injuries came over me — like a dark, heavy blanket, swallowing me up.

I tried to fight it: Just get up. Get the hell up!

I opened my eyes. My distorted vision quickly came back to focus, and I saw high-powered stadium lights shining on me.

I realized I was at the game. The other team was celebrating like maniacs so I knew that my pass had fallen incomplete. Hands helped me up, and some of my teammates surrounded me out of concern. As I began to jog off the field, I turned to my teammate and asked what happened. Through his facemask, I could see a confused look. I then realized that my words weren’t coming out in English. After a second or two of unintelligible blabber, I was able to say, “What happened?”

“It was incomplete. You alright?” he responded.

My vision blurred again. Once I got to the sideline and I was met by teammates and doctors. They asked question after question. I responded to most of them with, “Yeah, yeah, I’m fine.” But I knew immediately that I was not. I knew I had just played the last snap of my career.

It was my 13th concussion — a baker’s dozen of brain injuries since I took my first head hit at the age of 11. I understand the weight of this number, and I totally get why people look shocked when I tell it to them. It took 13 for me to finally take a stand and say enough is enough. About a week after I had slowly removed myself from the turf in the first game of the season, I retired from football. A 20-year-old, at the peak of his athletic career, walking away from the game he felt like he had been born to play.

It’s been a year and a half since I made that decision. I still feel the lingering effects from my many concussions. Life is a balancing act now. Some days it’s hard to wake up before noon. Sometimes I don’t want to leave my bed at all. In high school, I had a 3.9 GPA. Now I have trouble focusing and performing well in my graduate-school classes.

I am 22 years old. My back, neck and knees shouldn’t hurt as badly as they do. I get headaches occasionally and migraines if I cry. My eyes hurt when I roll them up and to the left. At times I feel isolated and forget all about my supportive friends and family. Most days, my mind races in a panicked frenzy. On the outside, you would have no idea there was anything going on. I look like a normal 22-year-old college grad. But like a duck peacefully cruising along in a stream, I appear calm even though there are two feet paddling at full speed just under the surface.

I want to be happy. I want to be stronger than this force outside of my control that is holding me back. This is the hardest part. Sometimes it’s nice to admit that things aren’t O.K.: “Hello, my name is Casey, and I have anxiety and depression.” It may be permanent. It may be just the beginning. I don’t know what the future has in store for me and it will be some time before the medical field can paint a clearer picture for me. I may have CTE right now. I might have dementia at 50. My entire future is uncertain.

I am not alone. There are millions of athletes (regardless of sport or gender) who already have, or who will soon go through, similar experiences. I hate that this is my reality, but I truly believe that everything happens for a reason. I think that I have gone through all of this so that I could see the ugly side of sports. As a kid, I felt like I was crazy. There was pressure on me to be on the field, and because of that I would convince myself that I felt fine after suffering a head injury even when I didn’t. I tried to ignore whatever concerns I had.

But I was not crazy.

And neither is anyone with a similar experience.

It is smart to worry to about your health and well being. It is smart to ask questions. I often hear people say that football players know what they’re getting themselves into — it’s part of the job.

I disagree. Those who play football, particularly those who begin in their youth, are given a glamorized version of the sport – one where camaraderie, discipline, toughness and leadership are highlighted and the wretchedness is ignored and swept under the rug. As a result, we fall in love with and value the good and push aside the bad. In a perfect world, the goal of any given collegiate football coach would be to take an 18-year-old “boy” and produce well-rounded, well-equipped, strong and confident man. Sadly, this ideal is far from reality. There are many cases when a lifetime spent playing this game results in a person becoming mentally and physically battered, more confused about the world than when they came into the sport. In that sense, many of us feel used.

Thankfully, the science community has our best interests in hand. We now know that repeated head trauma can lead to devastating brain diseases, including CTE, dementia, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. The evidence is so strong that even the NFL has conceded the link between CTE and football-related head trauma.

Of course, I miss the sport and the life I decided to walk away from. From time to time I’ll catch myself daydreaming, picturing myself throwing a perfect dime to the back corner of the end zone, threading the needle between two defenders for a touchdown. Then I’ll visualize that indescribable, out-of-body experience of an entire stadium of fans leaping to their feet in celebration. I’ll scan the crowd and see old women high-fiving drunk college students, or middle-aged men embracing in a giant bear hugs, their beers spilling as they jump up and down. However, those daydreams are usually spoiled by the thought any of my number of concussions.

I would always tell myself that one day football would end and it would only be one chapter of my life. Because I thought this way, it allowed me to look at the sport with a critical eye. There are problems with the game that need to be addressed. As it is played right now, tackle football — with its pads and helmets — puts players in harm’s way, all of the time, regardless of age and ability.

I want to say to all former, current and future athletes who have or will suffer a concussion: Do not hide it. Tell your coaches, medical staff, parents, friends and teammates. Get treatment. The cycle of silence hurts more and more people each year. I probably should have stopped playing football in eighth grade after my third concussion, but I was afraid to speak up. Afraid of disappointing people who had invested in my career. Afraid of who was I was without football. I wish I hadn’t hid the three concussions I had in one week during my junior year of high school, but I was afraid that college recruiters would find out. I definitely should have said something after smacking my head on the turf while playing SMU during my first collegiate start, but again, I was afraid. Afraid of what was beyond the familiar realm of the gridiron. Afraid of the unknown.

I’m not afraid anymore. I don’t feel trapped inside of a game. There is life outside of the white lines. A lot of life. Stepping away from football was one of the scariest things I’ve ever had to do. I felt lost for a long time. For a little over a year, I felt like I was somewhere, deep in the ocean, being pulled by the currents. But what pulled me back from the depths was hope. Hope that things would get better. So I began to say to myself the same thing I said to myself while I was laying on the field after the last play of my career. Just get up. Get the hell up! So I began to swim. Sometimes against the current and sometimes with, but I kept moving. And after a while something amazing happened. I found my passion: being an advocate for player safety.

I have talked in front of legislators at my state capitol, spoken on a panel at SXSW, was the keynote speaker for the Brain Injury Alliance of Connecticut’s annual conference and been on numerous television and radio shows. I am writing a book and trying with all of my might to get on the speaking circuit. I will be donating my brain to the Concussion Legacy Foundation. This summer I am going to drive cross-country. I also have a luscious mullet-mustache combo, play guitar, do yoga, hike, swim, golf, work out, read, and meditate. Yes some days are tough, but a positive outlook is possible and necessary. Life is good, never forget that. If you have a passion for something, go after it, no matter what anyone says. Most importantly, wake up every morning and thank the wild and wacky cosmos that you have another chance to kick some metaphysical ass.

If you feel alone, you aren’t. Chances are, there are a lot of people out there who have some idea of what you’re going through. Just keep looking. Reach out. My email is caseycochran12@gmail.com. One day at a time, we can make a difference.