It was August and I was heading in to my third year of CIS Football. I was all set to become a full-time starter for the first time in my university career and I was in the best shape of my life. I was bigger, stronger, and faster than I had ever been. When I showed up for camp, the coaches were happy to see me in such great shape. Training camp started off great and I played the best football I ever played. I got tons of praise for my play from the staff. During a drill in camp, I got caught off guard and was knocked off my feet, bouncing my head off of the grass. I got up and felt a lot of pressure in my head for the next two days and some dizziness. I didn’t say anything because that’s just not what you do in football. Its in the culture, you play through everything. You hear the quotes and the slogans all the time. They tell you its all or nothing, you need to be dying to win. I had a coach actually tell us he wanted us to be robots, to feel nothing, and to just “do football and nothing else.”
Mid-camp, a pair of teammates fell awkwardly on the back of my leg during a play. I was sidelined with a knee injury that left me hobbling from place to place for two weeks. This injury exposed me to the darker side of university sports. On our team, with our staff, if you weren’t one of the “star” players and you were injured, you were treated as less than human.
Being ignored by the people who control the team, and who you look to for guidance and help, is mentally debilitating for young athletes.
After a week, I was starving to return to the football field and to be at least acknowledged again as a valuable person. This led me to return to play probably before my knee was really ready to do so. The week before the regular season began I wasn’t even able to do full contact for the first two practices. I managed to play in the first game nonetheless. I was a sitting duck out there and got the snot kicked out of me for most of the game. We had not done well the year before and the pressure was on from everyone on the team, coaches especially, to win. After the game I realized I likely had a concussion from all of the head on head hits I had taken. After having gone through the experience of being injured and being ignored just the week before, and with all of the pressure not to let my teammates down because we needed to win, I was not about to say anything and lose my hard fought for starting spot.
So I continued to play seemingly with no negative consequences until the middle of the season, when another head on head collision left me dizzy and disoriented in the locker room at half time. Still I said nothing, because that is just what you do. A friend and teammate who had missed a game with a serious concussion had told me before the game he was still experiencing symptoms but he was playing anyway. I knew other guys on the team were doing the same thing at other points in the season as well. For me it was like, “Well we’re all in this together, we want to win. How can I let my friends down?”
The coaching staff told us all the time, “Win at all costs, sacrifice.” It’s very militaristic. They tell you if you sacrifice for the team, we will do something special together, we will be remembered or whatever. Like we are soldiers in a war or something. But when you get so down that you can’t even play any more, they don’t remember you. They don’t care. You’re yesterday’s news. They just want to squeeze everything they can out of you to win. So I kept playing.
The next week when we were playing a night game, I pretty well had a breakdown. We were playing under the lights and the glare was too intense for me. Around the third quarter, I started screaming for them to turn the lights off and I was trying to shield my eyes. That’s when they pulled me out of the game and I finally got some kind of medical attention. I ended up having to miss another two games after that incident. Again, I returned to sub-human status in the eyes of the coaching staff. When I was concussed I had to come to every practice and every meeting. The trainers said if I felt bad I could go home, but I knew what the coaches would think if I was not there. There was a real disconnect between the power of the coaching staff and the (lack of) power of the trainers. You couldn’t really follow the precautions or medical advice you were given without the coaching staff getting angry you weren’t practising. I saw several times players miss practices because of the advice or judgement of the trainers—the actual trained and paid medical professionals— and then a coach would go and complain to the trainers saying something like, “Oh, he can play through that, I did it when I played.” This creates a serious tension for players who are ultimately accountable to their coaches, and not the trainers, for their football lives.
After two weeks of missing practices, I was determined to start playing again, symptom free or not. I just couldn’t take the way I was being treated. I wanted to get back in to the good books, so I lied about my symptoms when I was going through the return to play process, and soon enough I was cleared to play. It didn’t take long to run in to another problem. The last game of the year, I took another big hit to the head in a game that we were getting crushed in. In retrospect, there was so absolutely no reason for me to even be playing or to keep playing, but I stayed in because it was the only thing I knew to do. It was just what you did.
After about a week of trying to just shrug off the symptoms and get started on my off-season, I swallowed my pride and went to see the trainer. This time I couldn’t do physical activity for four weeks. Meanwhile, I had exams and papers to write. I slogged through the end of the term and by around Christmas time my symptoms had receded to the point where I could start lifting again. I went on to have a fine off season and could do everything that everyone else was doing, but just before the end of the semester, my symptoms returned after a spring practice. I had to sit out another six whole weeks of physical activity, missing spring camp. During camp I was again a sub-human, garnering zero attention from the staff, and being asked to stand on a tall ladder and film practice while I was dizzy and disoriented.
Summer came and I flew back home like I always did. The entire summer no one ever followed up with me. No coach ever asked me how I was doing or anything like that. Mid-July, I started feeling my symptoms returning after being okay for six weeks. I tried to call my head coach to tell him I didn’t think I could play any more. It was a big thing for me to do that. I had decided it was too much, one too many times. My whole life had been football since I was 10 years old. At the time I thought it was the only thing I had going for me. I didn’t realize till after I stopped playing that I had so much more I could do in life. So I called my head coach, and told him I still had problems and that I couldn’t play. He said something to the effect of, “I can’t accept that, you are coming to camp.” I didn’t know what to say. I tried to quit and he just said no. I found out later that one of my teammates at my position had quit for similar concussion related concerns and that another teammate had also quit. I think that since they were down so many guys the coaches just wanted the odd chance that I would be able to play. They really didn’t care how messed up my brain was.
I still don’t really know why, but I showed up for training camp, not really knowing what to expect. I wasn’t going to practice while I was still feeling symptoms. It only took about a week or two for them to realize I wasn’t in playing shape and I wasn’t going to be able to play. Once they had that figured out, I was asked not to come around anymore. A week later, I tried to talk to the trainer about my symptoms and she told me that since I wasn’t a varsity athlete anymore she couldn’t help me. I was cut off. That trainer/physical therapist was the person I had developed a repertoire with during my previous concussions, but I was forced to go elsewhere. I got bounced back and forth between different doctors and was referred to different specialists. All of it I had to schedule on my own, while struggling with symptoms, and while also in school full-time. Never once did a coach follow up with me about how I was doing after they cut me off from the team.
My friends on the team were mostly the only friends I had, especially since I was going to school half-way across the continent from home. It was a very close locker room, and when you are not in it, you are left out. I still saw my friends around on campus, but when you’re not there in the locker room or on the field, it’s just not the same. At a time when I was going through some serious brain health issues, I was really cut off from my friends and from established networks of support.
A lot of the return to play protocols are left to the discretion of the players. I think this a really bad system because that player has potentially just experienced a traumatic brain injury and should not be asked to make judgement calls. Secondly, there is a lot of pressure on a player to play through any and all injuries. Few people will directly tell you to play through a concussion, but your entire career you are told to, “suck it up” for every injury, and from my university experience, treated very poorly if we’re injured. This type of environment pressures kids to return to play too soon. Also, when you are traveling far away to university, typically the only people you know are your teammates and coaches. If you think about leaving the team, you realize you lose out on almost your entire social network and you don’t have the same support you have when you’re at home. From what I could tell, there is no standard or established way to treat people with concussions in the CIS. There’s no organizational support. No one is overseeing how people are being treated. There is no accountability; it’s like the Wild West out there. Athletes are being seriously let down.
I think its important to break down the macho culture of men’s sports and make it clear that it’s okay to talk about what’s going on with your mind and your body. That’s why I was really interested in SAMHI. I think what they are doing is really important to improving the standing of student-athletes. Even just giving athletes a voice can make a world of difference.