The following year, for reasons that still puzzle me, the level of my play dropped off. I was bounced from the first string to the second string. This, despite how the coach had told me during pre-season he expected me to be the bedrock of his offensive line. I remember doing blocking drills with my father, who’d come home from work, grab a six pack, and take me outside to practice. During one of these drills, my father crumpled to the ground. I had blocked him, smacking into his shoulder. Withering in pain, he knew immediately something wasn’t right. We drove off to the emergency room, where we discovered I had separated his shoulder—which, to a fourth grader, sounded absolutely grisly. Likely, he just hadn’t set himself properly to absorb the impact of our drill. He bore no grudge against me, and I enjoyed, briefly, the ferocious neighborhood celebrity status that comes from being known as the kid who separated his father’s shoulder. But from then on, the ferocity I took with me onto football fields must have decreased, because I just wasn’t very good after that.
I thought of this today upon learning that another youth football organization, Pop Warner Football, just settled a concussion-related lawsuit. Joseph Chernach played Pop Warner football from 1997-2000. His parents allege that, while playing Pop Warner football, Chernach suffered numerous concussions. He would have been about 12 years old when he stopped playing. Years lately, likely as a result of the numerous concussions he sustained, he developed chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
We’ve luckily, as a society, become much more aware of the long-term dangers and risks that come from brain injuries. Because of the nature of brain diseases and the troubles in diagnosis them, definitive diagnoses often don’t come until someone has died and medical experts can examine their brain tissue. And yet, with CTE, we’ve learned to recognize some of the symptoms: dizziness and disorientation that leads to memory loss, erratic behavior and social instability. As the irreversible disease progresses, the subjects’ speech becomes slurred. They experience tremors and vertigo. The dizziness some experience becomes so bad they have difficulty walking. They fall into depression, become reckless, are psychologically more apt to court risks, experience suicidal thoughts. In recent years, former NFL stars like Junior Seau and Dave Duerson committed suicide, unable to cope with the disease.
Until recently, we thought one could only develop CTE after undergoing years upon years of repetitive concussions and brain trauma. That, sadly, does not appear to be the case.
I know of a guy who played high school football in Southern California in the late seventies/early eighties. Compared to most of the people who played the sport, he was scrawny and downright under-sized, and yet he was tenacious as nails. He played linebacker and safety, defensive positions where his penchant to ram his body into receivers and running backs was an asset. He excelled at the high school level, playing in high-profile high school all star games in the Los Angeles area. At the time, there was serious thought of him playing college football. But, for a host of other reasons, that didn’t happen.
Up until a few years ago, he was a successful businessman, a multi-millionaire who routinely appeared in the media to offer business and investment advice. Even then though, there were times when he seemed a bit, um, *off*. His hands would shake when he spoke as if he had, idk, Parkinson’s or something. His speech sounded off, too, as if he was always under the influence.
At his financial zenith, he might have been worth twenty five million dollars. Honest. Maybe even more.
And then, things fell apart for him. His investments became reckless, his moods and behaviors more erratic. His wife divorced him. He started drinking heavily, probably also began abusing drugs. We watched from afar, aghast at what was happening. He’d send seriously deranged emails at 2, 3, 4 o’clock in the morning. He spiraled into bankruptcy. There were run-ins with the law, crazy-ass but possibly true allegations of him being abusive towards prostitutes. I’m not making this up. Some of the ugliness made local newspapers. One night, he sent me an email hitting me up for serious money. Needless to say, I don’t have serious money. Nor would I have been inclined to blindly loan or give serious money to a man that, back then, seemed intent on throwing his life away.
At the time when all this was going down, we couldn't understand how his powers of logic and reason abandoned him, seemingly, all at once. His decision-making skills were totally hay-wired. We all thought his problems stemmed from willfully bad and outright stupid choices he was making. I mean, what do you do when someone continually does stupid things? One or two stupid things you might shrug off and say, “Dude, calm it down, okay?” But a whole slew of them, in nearly every facet of their life? None of us suspected there might be something more might be behind his problems. Each morning, I’d Google his name to see what trouble he’d gotten into overnight.
Today, his life might be a little better. For one, he’s no longer in jail. And I think he might have kicked his substance abuse issues. But I worry about him— because of some of his physical symptoms, I seriously think he’s a CTE victim.
This is what you might call a “reach out” moment.
I’m worried he might not click the link to this blog post when I email it to him. I hope he seeks medical attention, but I’m also worried what medical experts might say. I’ve read a couple of articles recently about possible CTE sufferers (Jim McMahon and Bernie Kosar) who’ve been able to seek some level of relief for their symptoms through alternate medicines and therapies.
Of course, I hope I’m dead wrong about all this. I hope my friend is perfectly healthy. I hope I’m going overboard. I hope he’s all right. But if he’s not, I hope he seeks help.
I’m concerned for others who unknowingly are suffering from CTE. If you can get CTE after playing just a few years of football as an 11- or 12-year-old, it’s very likely that in the quiet corners of our nation, there are hundreds if not thousands men are suffering with no knowledge why their lives are spiraling out of control. I’m not a doctor, not a brain researcher, but I wonder if there are degrees of CTE, that even if one or two concussions don’t develop into full-blown CTE, maybe the long-term consequences might still be measurable through reckless behaviors and failed businesses.
I’m wondering if some of the uglier aspects we’re seeing during this election cycle can be explained through the prism of CTE. Namely, the crazy reckless bullying junk Donald Trump says at almost every opportunity, and his supporters penchant to physically abuse protesters. Today, in North Carolina, Trump's goons are punching people in the face. Are we, as a nation, experiencing a CTE moment? How else are we to explain these ugly incidents?
UPDATE: Another of my short stories will soon appear in Entropy magazine. This one's called "Princeton Prison Experiment." As the title suggests, it's about a prison experiment (think Stanford Prison Experiment) that goes seriously awry. Embedded within the story are a few statements about the nature of violence in our society that I've been mulling over in my head for a long time. I'm curious to see what, if any, reaction this story might provoke.
Also, I'm about 11,000 words into the novel I started last week. In my previous novel-writing attempts, the 8,000-word mark always seemed like some magical threshold. Whenever I reached that word count, I've managed to carry the project to completion. But, man, I can't tell you how many times I've flamed out at about 7,500 or 7,800 words. So hopefully, if I can continue my present pace, I might have something resembling a finished draft in May. Won't that be grand?