There’s a popular movie trope where someone sells their soul to the devil for some immediate benefit. Good looks, guitar playing skills, it could be anything. Whatever they gain isn’t really the point, the point is that eventually the devil will make his due and those chickens will come home to roost. In a way, I feel like that’s what I and many of my friends did with football. I’m a product of football, so much of my character was formed from the grit of football. The lessons I’ve learned about hard work, determination, dedication, camaraderie, teamwork, and so many others I’ve tried to apply to my life. And looking back, I think they’ve all added something positive to me. But I and I know a lot of others never knew the true cost that would come back years later.
The Journal of American Medicine Association released a report on Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) study that studied the brains of former NFL, college, and high school football players. After studying over 100 brains of deceased players of various levels, 99% of the NFL players tested positive for the degenerative brain disease, 87% of the players of other levels did as well. I played football for…a while, so then the math starts off in my head.
As a center, I played in approximately 50 plays every game, that’s roughly 50 hits to the head. I don’t think there were ever many plays where I didn’t at least make contact, maybe a hail mary in the 4th quarter and that was a rare circumstance. Every week, we practiced in full pads and full contact 3 days, we would run through about 20-30 plays in practice, plus the drills where we would always go full speed. So let’s ballpark it as 60 hits. So 60 times 3, plus 50 on gameday is 230. That’s 230 hits to my head in a week. Multiply that by 10 games is 2300 hits to my head a year, not including camp. Assuming I took the same amount of hits a year means that I probably took well over 20,000 hits over my whole life. I never had a concussion before, or at least diagnosed, but it still makes you wonder if that matters.
Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t naive, I always knew there were risks in football. Torn ACLs, labrums, broken bones, but luckily I never found myself getting any of those. In 2010, when Eric LeGrand from Rutgers became paralyzed from the neck down after getting hit on a kickoff return, there was this spooky feeling in the air at the gym the next couple days. Other than that, there were never times where we all really tried to take into account all of the long term risks. The only thing I expected to pay was the time spent doing it and the alternatives I missed out on. Maybe a couple more hours training in the gym a week, first two weeks in august, some weekends when we traveled, but never this. The cost of playing football might be a few decades more of time than any of us originally considered.
It’s at this point that my mind starts racing a hundred miles an hour and attempts to at least ask all of the paranoid questions my brain can naturally come up with. Am I going to go crazy eventually? The other day when I was a little scatterbrained, was it because I was tired or is it early onset CTE? Am I a ticking time bomb of sadness and pain for my partner in life? Will I become unrecognizable to myself?
It’s at the point of bargaining when you want to look deeper into the study to see if they missed something. The New York Times had an article shedding some more light on the study.
The set of players posthumously tested by Dr. McKee is far from a random sample of N.F.L. retirees. “There’s a tremendous selection bias,” she has cautioned, noting that many families have donated brains specifically because the former player showed symptoms of C.T.E.
But 110 positives remain significant scientific evidence of an N.F.L. player’s risk of developing C.T.E., which can be diagnosed only after death. About 1,300 former players have died since the B.U. group began examining brains. So even if every one of the other 1,200 players would have tested negative — which even the heartiest skeptics would agree could not possibly be the case — the minimum C.T.E. prevalence would be close to 9 percent, vastly higher than in the general population.
So it’s not exactly a set in stone guarantee, but the chance still exists and it varies for everyone. We will only know more the more we study CTE. However, at 9% it still exists enough to the point where at least 1 person has it on the field at any given time.
Nothing prepares you for the idea that your own path in life might become seriously disrupted 20-30 years sooner than you expect. That’s just an overwhelming emotional mountain to stare at. How does one even attempt to climb it? This is the kind of thing that causes you to reevaluate lifelong plans, investments, retirement. Will this cause people to walk away? What will happen when I get older? Perhaps maybe I’ll just pull a “Benjamin Button” and run off to India when I get into my 40s and not allow myself to become a weight to anyone here.
There’s no blood test yet and currently CTE is only able to be diagnosed after death. Ironically, letting this out of my mind is practically impossible. It’ll always be this raincloud following me around for the rest of my life. Every single time I forget where my keys are, I’ll ask, “Is…it why?” I’ve had a couple conversations with close football friends. Some have mentioned to me the memory problems they feel like they’re starting to have, everyone is thinking about it. So I think the question to ask is not whether or not I have CTE, the question is what I would do if I do indeed have it, because I might as well live as though I do.
It’s strangely convenient my last blog post was also a little related to confronting one’s mortality. I’ve been chewing on these thoughts for a couple days anyway, but I’m again reminded that I should never allow anything or anyone get in the way of me living my life to the fullest, ever. So often we let others steal our happiness away. Never let people take advantage of you, but always try and treat others how you want to be treated. Wipe away the tears of other eyes. Never let the sun set on my anger, fix things when I can and treat all goodbyes as if they could very well be the last. Let people know when they mean something to you or have impacted your life for the better. Appreciate the temporary things, because in the end, it all is. Appreciate all of the moments, the ups and the downs, because eventually that’s all that’s going to be left. Appreciation is like turning the saturation knob up on life. The world fills with so much color. Food is more delicious, music sounds better, intimacy is priceless.
In the end, I could walk outside and get hit by a city bus. My heart could pop in my chest in the middle of sets at the gym. I know too many people younger than me already in the ground. Taking all that including the idea of my mind slipping away, the worst thing I could possibly do is let another day go to waste.