July 10, 2012 | by Chris Wallace
Late in the third quarter of a blowout loss at North Torrance High School my junior year I woke up in a blurry huddle. Grids of stadium lighting were smeared on the South Bay night sky as if they’d been moved before they dried. My teammates stood around me in their away whites, the sateen jerseys looking smudged and shabby in the dark. I shouldn’t have been surprised if a star suddenly dilated just to wink at me, such was my loopy state of mind—and my self-regard as a high school quarterback.
A timeout had been called, apparently. There was no apparent rush to get back to the line of scrimmage, run another play. And our coach was in the huddle with us. Oh, thank god, I thought, Coach is playing. I’d never seen him in uniform before, but didn’t think to question it—we needed all the help we could get. Though, standing next to the star receiver with whom he’d traded outfits, he did look a lot taller than normal.
Reassuring counsel was given by someone, maybe me, as we gathered ourselves to go back on.
We settled on a simple play: everyone run as far as you can as fast as you can, and I’ll throw the ball to one of you, ready, break. I stepped under center in a kind of euphoria, took the snap, dropped back and threw our coach—or, rather, the receiver onto whom I’d transposed Coach’s face—a forty-two-yard touchdown, and walked off the field, vindicated and giggling.
A blink and it was two hours later. I was in the visitors’ locker room after the game talking with a couple of doctors. Well of course I knew my zip code, I said, easy. My phone number? Surely—that, and a bunch of other number strings too: my social security number, my best friend’s phone number ...
Whom had we just played, they were asking. Shit. I looked at the signage on the wall, studying the lettering while I tried to think back. Well, I knew their colors were blue and white. Had there been a big mural in the stadium that read SAXONS? Perhaps we had played the Saxons, then, whoever they were, but I couldn’t be sure. I looked away from the sign, the one that read NORTH TORRANCE HIGH, HOME OF THE SAXONS, and admitted to the doctors that I had no earthly idea. I felt panic rising.
I am a steel trap, I reassured myself, thoughts whizzing at the speed of syrup. Usually, I could estimate, within a small margin of error, my statistics for a game moments after the final whistle. I could tell you the coverage and alignment of every snap without having to look at the film. If anything, I was something of a savant, a statistical fetishist, sick with the game’s cabalistic arcana. In the same way sci-fi fans could tell you the genealogies of particular Ents, I could recite, on call, the yards passing, completion percentage, and touchdown-to-interception ratio for nearly every college quarterback in the last four years. So why the fuck couldn’t I remember the name of the team with the USC-bound tight end who kept killing us on middle screens?
Well, because I had a concussion—the first of at least two really bad ones I would suffer in my eight-year career as a quarterback. I say at least because there could have been a half dozen others, less severe concussions that didn’t knock me out, erase my short-term memory, or provide such happy anecdotes as throwing my coach a touchdown. It’s shocking to learn now that I could still have suffered several dozen “sub-concussive” traumas—little bruises to the brain as it whacks against the wall of your cranium—that go virtually undiagnosed in a sport where to admit injury is to, in the charming parlance, have sand in one’s vagina.
In the past five years, though, great strides have been made in at least the awareness and study of football-inflicted concussions. Researching the mushrooming number of former football players going mad and committing suicide, doctors working in Morgantown, West Virginia, have discovered a protein called tau, which results from these head traumas and muddles the brain with dementia and depression akin to Alzheimer’s. This disease, diagnosed in the gray matter of recently expired players, is called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Dozens of cases are confirmed, including that of a friend of a friend, UT All American Shane Dronett who, after a ten-year pro career began to grow increasingly paranoid, fearful, and angry before killing himself with a gun in 2009.
Facing a cascade of lawsuits from former players and the widows of former players who have committed suicide, the National Football League, an eight-billion-dollar entertainment industry, has begun to acknowledge to the public and to its participants that, “Concussions and conditions resulting from repeated brain injury can change your life and your family’s life forever.” They don’t mean in a good way.
Earnest discussions about how to reform the game have begun, but many of the proposed limitations to the conduct on the field are just that, limitations, and restricting the violence in football is kind of like taking the punching out of boxing. As Ben McGrath wrote in “Does Football Have a Future” for The New Yorker, “it does make you wonder about a game whose preservation is couched largely in terms of reducing the frequency with which people really play it.” If the only way to protect football (and its players) is to reduce the instance of contact (and, thus playing at all), is the game worth saving?
McGrath’s colleague Malcolm Gladwell and Buzz Bissinger, author of the high-school-football epic Friday Night Lights, think not, and are convincing others to take their side. In a recent debate over whether college football should be banned, Gladwell’s description of tau-tarred brains (“they look like they’ve been run over by a truck”), and the grotesquerie, portrayed by Bissinger, of adolescents damaging one another for the entertainment and profit of others, proved successful in convincing a large number from the audience to vote in support of banning the sport.
With the subsequent suicide of former USC and NFL great Junior Seau, who, after a career’s worth of concussions and a long struggle with depression, shot himself in the chest last month, we can only expect the enough-is-enough point of view to gain more cachet. How successful that will be, in the face of the revenue generator on par with I don't know what (elite college programs rake in between fifty and seventy million dollars, annually), remains to be seen. But, when and if his brain is studied, Seau may become the tipping point, the highest profile player yet to suffer depression unto death from playing football.
My second serious concussion came in my junior year at Weber State University, during a home game against Humboldt State. We were up big in the fourth quarter, but, instead of “protecting myself” as I’d been coached, I went full-Elway in a scramble toward the end zone, diving over a defender just as I was hit from the side and helicoptering down to the one-inch line. I handed the ball off to our fullback the next play, and, after he scored, walked to the sideline where the trainers flocked to check me out. Of course I was all right, I said, “Thith game ith outh to looth.”
I didn’t notice the slur or the daze, but I did see the look of recognition in the eyes of the head trainer. I spent the weekend with the trainers (being “monitored”), but I don’t remember getting a CAT scan. As in high school, after the North Torrance game, I sat out practice until a doctor had cleared me for contact. I was still a “game-time decision,” meaning the doctor would have to clear me further, for violent combat, essentially. He did, and we went on to beat the stuffing out of Idaho State, I think it was.
But a year later, having pulled a Kerouac and quit the team to become an artist, I was in Austin, Texas, and romancing the idea of suicide.
I’d gone to UT to study with the preeminent professor of Continental Philosophy, the late Bob Solomon, and when I wasn’t reading Heidegger, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche for our little tête-à-têtes, I was watching 2001, baked out of my brain and considering infinity. To live, I worked at a shitty Tex-Mex restaurant, and on weekends tinkered with a screenplay about an orphan who founds a popular religion as a hoax, to mock the faithful.
Suicide, though, was my main project, and I spent the entire fall plotting to overcome the fear of mortal pain. In the end, I never did formalize a plan. Instead I came home to Los Angeles and took out fifty thousand dollars in student loans to study writing at USC—the Original Sin in a life of brazen profligacy. During grad school, I went to a psychiatrist and, it occurs to me now, bragged about my dark days. As an aspiring writer I was terribly flattered when the diagnosis returned “bipolar,” and I took my Lithium as a kind of spiritual manna that put me in touch with the debauched and deranged scribblers I intended to claim as my ancestry.
It did not occur to me that there might be a link between my depression and my football career. After all, there is no artistic glamour in driving head on into a tanker full of corrosive acid because the little ones are chasing you, as former Pittsburgh Steeler Justin Strzelczyk did. No writer ever committed suicide by drinking antifreeze as did Strzelczyk’s teammate Terry Long, and somehow the annals of players’ post-traumatic madness lack any tinge of the electricity of the Beat poets.
These men are victims of a violent gladiatorial entertainment, not self-mythologizing dropouts looking to make legends of their memoirs. Football players (and thus those in CTE’s swath) are, overwhelmingly, black, underprivileged, working class, and bred from a very young age to develop catlike agility, mutant strength, and primitive ferocity. All of this on top of preternatural—in the good ones—hand-eye coordination, body control, and other Jedi-like senses we have no civilian words for but are described, entre soi, as “field awareness,” “situational instinct,” and, the rarest, “ball hawking,” for someone who appears magnetically attracted to the ball, and vice versa. Before they’ve ever exploited it, or even worked to enhance it, the great ones are born with it.
Indeed, the doctors in Morgantown have not ruled out genetics as a compounding factor in developing CTE—what separates the relatively unscathed veteran from former Bears QB Jim McMahon, say, who says he can’t remember much of anything at all. Since CTE is only diagnosed during autopsy, it is always too early to tell, until it’s not. And, if football and its fallout aren’t contributing factors in my own depressions, maybe my genetics are. My paternal grandfather drank himself to death, his father committed suicide, and, frankly, I’m afraid to look much further up the tree than that.
I was rescued from suicide, like about a million kids who came of age in the sixties—to paraphrase a writer I’ve loved (though I can’t remember which)—by Camus and Sisyphus. But still I ping between maelstrom and torpidity. One day I am an Olympian with preternatural ability. I can do this, yes, and that, and the other thing. But, by the time those tasks are due, I am down off the mountain, stuck in the mud of Tartarus. One week bombast, benders, and wanton socializing, and the next two spent in utter isolation, near catatonia, comfort eating. Bolstered only by my biweekly paychecks, my monthly bank statements would look, in graph form, like an N.
Your mothers and doctors won’t tell you this, but, in your teens and early twenties, if you get the dosage right, self-medication can help to mediate these psychic swells and troughs. After the meh of Lithium, I self-prescribed wine, tobacco, and coffee, not necessarily in that order, and taken all the day long. But this is a path of diminishing returns, and ultimately something will need to keep you steady at the water line: the things that are life affirming. In the same way an adolescent new to love finally “hears” love songs, I now seek out the happy ending, the survivor’s tale. For Dronett and for Seau these were not enough.
As mild as my case is, I have to admit, without self-congratulation these days, that I still require special handling. To slack off on fitness, diet, or cognitive acuity for even a day or two is to lower the bar of entry to lethargy, apathy, and withdrawal. Though it drives my friends, my parents, and my girlfriend batshit, I go long stretches without communicating with another person, allowing myself to languish in cartoonish squalor, blinds shut to the world, lying on a bare mattress for weeks without the strength to shave or wash dishes.
As all great writers on the topic of depression—be it Styron, Franzen, or Flannery O’Conner—will note, this kind of retreat is integral to the experience. You know you are depressed when you want to feel no other way than utterly miserable. When, in O’Conner’s words, you no longer desire experience.
Whether I inherited my melancholia, had it knocked into me, or went chasing it in dusty libraries, I’ve got it now. And, much as I’d like to sit out practice, games, or even quit the team at times, I do want the happy ending. So I’ve made a pact with myself. I’m allowed the periodic timeout. I’m allowed to lie down so long as I get up, offer some reassuring counsel, make a plan, gather myself, and run another play.
And, if I have kids, never to let them on the field.
Chris Wallace is a writer and editor in New York.