July 10, 2016

Football Concussions: The point of impact from personal experience

       Now that the NFL & NCAA football seasons are well underway, let's talk concussions.
Yours truly, during his fourth football camp.  For the record, yours truly had four concussions, a broken foot, a separated shoulder, a sprained back and whatever else as a result of football.  In fact, he once started and ended a football game with a 102.4 degree temperature, and  even intercepted a pass at the end of that game.  So, you can play full speed in that condition and stay in rhythm.  We did push ourselves to the breaking point, between phases of dogging it and pacing ourselves.  In fact, some of us went past that point and cracked like glass in the end which usually happened during a special teams play.

The following article is a result of the press dedicating time and space to the topic of football head injuries.  The ultimate purpose of this article is to share with you the actual experience of incurring that type of injury.

The danger factor in football head injuries is that, at least half the time, they're extremely pernicious things.  One concussion might result in you seeing flashing lights, while being accompanied by zero pain and no impairment.  Another might involve pain, but is rapidly following by a feeling a instant recuperation.  Things look a little foggy, as if you are looking through a vignette filter.  Yet, you felt functional enough to go back out on the field.  The one exception for me was my first concussion.
It was followed by a chronic headache, day after day.  However, the splitting headaches might have been my sensitivity to the nearby pines.  The following year, our football camp was not held near the rows of pines, and I had no headaches.  Only two concussions that year.

When you get a back sprain, a torn ligament, or a broken arm, you feel it and you know that you won't be playing football the following day and even for the rest of the month.  You feel the pain
as you try to move the injured area.  With head injuries, most of the time you feel that you can go back out on the field at that very moment.    You're a little groggy, but you're not in pain.  So, you have to employ your own sense of rationale to know that you should give yourself a bit of recuperation time and cease full speed contact for at least a short while, lest you cause lingering damage to yourself.

Concussions were not uncommon occurrences

I wasn't the only one to go the concussion route during that time span.  In fact, one of the guys on the team had to be taken out via stretcher, with a neck brace firmly attached to him, during a special teams play.  He was the leading scorer in the entire county, returning a kick-off.  So, perhaps he had a bull's eye on him.  None the less, my worse concussion was during a special teams play.  This is probably because there is a lot more running room on a kick-off and punt play, allowing guys to reach higher speeds than during regular scrimmage line plays.

Another one of the teammates was carried to the sidelines via stretcher, the night when we beat the champs on a rain-soaked field.  He shortly came back to consciousness, leaped out of the stretcher, and went into a high-kick sprint down the sidelines, upon which everyone in the stands was cheering at him and not at the players on the field.  He ended up going to the Air Force Academy, to play football.

There was another player who went the route of multiple concussions.  He was one of the two starting half backs.  He was forbidden by doctor's orders to ever return to a football field, on account of his  concussions.  Ironically, after he left football, he returned as an adviser, took me to the side and showed me the trick in going full speed into any defensive player with an added punch.  From that point on, I never had a head injury again, except for that fateful punt play on the last game of the season.  All in all, when it came to football concussions, I wasn't alone. 
Football head injuries and the media exposure they have been getting

A number of journalists, writers, and web hosts have maturely reported, conjectured, and commented on the phenomenon of football head injuries.  After all, there is an instantaneous concern to it, as it applies to energetic youth who had the discipline to train well enough to be able to take all sort of hits, from all sorts of directions.  However, none of these reporters were able to tell you what it was like to get concussion after concusion after concussion.  All in all, no matter how disciplined and in shape you are, your head remains very vulnerable and you remain completely mortal.  The tragic endings of a few NFL football stars remind us of this.

The Immediately Needed Partial Remedy for the NFL

The NFL needs to bring back its 300 pound weight limit.  Some players today are entirely too big for safety purposes.  The NFL managers of decades prior realized that behemoth players were not conducive to the good of a league that provided role models to many an American youth. 

During those rare plays when my helmet would come off

I can only speak from my experience on the following matter:  On those plays when the hitting was such that my helmet would come off, I felt zero pain.  I didn't even feel my helmet come off.  I simply suddenly noticed that it was off.  Sometimes, I actually saw it rolling.  After the play, I would go and get my helmet, while thinking to myself, "How did that come off?"  That is to say, I never felt the exact hit which dislodged it.  And remember, when you're carrying the ball, you are getting hit by three to six guys in a single play.  Some of those guys are your own players crashing into you and getting pushed into you.  So, I never knew what hit dislodged my helmet from my head.

Also for the record, at no time during my four concussions did I ever see stars.  A concussion is a matter of lights out ... not stars out tonight.

Concussion #1:
When a coach allows a football drill to turn into assault and battery upon a Freshman

During summer camp of my freshman year, the head coach was present while the senior backs were taking turns, giving me violent shots, during a summer camp drill which went awry.  If that type of thing would happen today, it would be on YouTube and that coach's career would have been terminated.  He happened to have been the brother in law of Steeler quarterback, Terry Bradshaw.
The coach's form of football was basically blood thirsty animal thuggery.  Very little technique was taught by him.  Yet, he would obsessively have us redo a play or two during practice, to get it right.
Well, if he taught us more technique, he wouldn't needed to have us practice those plays over and over again.

Incidentally, for those unaware, such as my readers in Turkey, Western Europe, and the Ukraine, Terry Bradshaw possessed four Super Bowl rings.  He was the American football champ four times in his career.  None the less ...

During that summer camp drill, the seniors went out of their lines and proceeded to give me shot after shot after shot, in the same one drill, giving the phrase "football drill," new meaning.  They were absolutely drilling my head ... fracking me and practically fragging me ... and no other freshman had to go through this.

It was that I had a brother who graduated the year prior, and those seniors didn't like him at all.  My brother was the second string fullback the year prior.  This meant that the third string fullback was now the starter and he was ruthless to me.  My brother, incidentally, became a military officer, up to the rank of colonel.  Anway . . .

My course of action at the time was to literally do the Christian turn-the-other-cheek thing.  I conscientiously employed the turn-the-other-cheek policy, as a moral obligation.  So, why was I playing a sport as violent as American football?  Oh ... because there were cheerleaders on the sidelines and fans in the stands.  You would be surprised how many girls would magnetize to you, simply because you were a football player.  None the less, in my freshman year, the seniors took their hatred of my brother out on me.

During that one solitary drill, I would take a shot, and go down to the ground.  Yet the coach, Terry Bradshaw's brother-in-law, wouldn't blow the whistle.  So, I would get back up, only to take yet another hit when I wasn't even 3/4 of the way up.   In fact, I would keep getting up and have to fend off another series of hits.  Never was I given the opportunity to stand up and get set.  I was lunging forward and meeting the hits, because I would get hit immediately upon trying to stand up.  Bam! Over and over again did this happen.  Moreover, this was only the second or third day of camp.

The coach let it go on for an amount of time that was entirely too long.   I even remember seeing the sneering face of one of the seniors, as he made a perfectly aligned helmet-to-helmet hit on me, followed by others taking turns in hitting me at full speed, time after time.  A few days later, I was diagnosed with my first concussion.   Nice guy ... my head coach.   Just what I needed.

I was still playing full contact football during the time between the drill which went awry and the day before my diagnosis. That wasn't a smart thing to do.   I was playing full contact football with a concussion not being given the opportunity to heal.

Incidentally, I went to the doctor because of a chronic headache that wouldn't subside.  Needless to say, I missed the first scrimmage of the season.  But, during the second scrimmage, the following week, I wasn't gun-shy on the field, at all.  For some reason, I was revved-up.  I was so in-tune that I would place one hand on the front-center shoulder pads of the ball carrier, and the other hand on the back-center should pads and literally throw the guy down to the ground.  Something clicked, because of having of been so severely attacked and refusing to quit the team, despite the full-blown physical harassment of seniors.

None the less, during my freshman year, there would be times when, without warning or cause, a senior would hit me full force in the head, during scrimmages.  There was even a time during a scrimmage when the whistle had blown, and everyone stopped, except for the senior wingback, who clipped me at full speed rom behind, resulting in me getting a separated shoulder.  Ironically, the following year, I became the starting wingback  . . .  and right side cornerback.

As was previously mentioned, if those things happened today, I would have gotten a hefty settlement, the coach would have been fired, and the school would have been placed on some type of probation.I took a beating that year.  What made things even more difficult was that my mother was dying and she would be gone during the following calendar year.

Incidentally, whenever a player on the other team would get injured and be unable to take himself off the field, those same seniors would clap and cheer.  Today, that would have incurred a 15 yard penalty and disciplinary action.  That anti-sportsman mindset prevailed throughout that graduating class.  In the years to follow, however, the seniors would be much more civilized.  In fact, one of those abusive seniors (during my freshman year) was recently indicted for a major, high priced fraud. That was a vicious graduating class, to say the least.

Concussion #2:
This one was fascinating.

Concussion #2 happened in the same year, during a Freshman game.  It was played against the one school locally known for its gymnastic talent.  Anyway, I went to the sidelines, only to see in my peripheral vision, two flashing lights that looked like neon signs.  One of them almost looked exactly like an arrow sign that you see when passing a stretch of road under construction.  That is to say, the design of the flashing light was organized and continuous, not morphing into any other design.  None the less, there wasn't any hit that I remember which was hard enough to trigger the flashing lights.   In fact, I wasn't in pain.  I simply saw the flashing neon light phenomenon and knew that it was time to stay on the sidelines for a while.

Concussion #3:
The one which occurred when I was carrying the ball.

This occurred in the middle of my second year.  There was no pain attached to this one, either.  It occurred at practice.  It was a standard, off-tackle run.   The line of scrimmage was a traffic jam.
So, I put my head down and plowed through.  My problem was not using my forearm to absorb some of the contact.

If my memory is correct, I made it past a linebacker and a safety who were were playing the role of welcoming committee upon my person.  However, neither one could make a center-mass hit on me.  So, I went to then end zone.  Then suddenly, it felt as if I were waking up and suddenly materializing on the field.  I turned around a looked at the line of scrimmage which looked like a photo taken in a vignette filter.  It was one of those things when you find yourself thinking in total silence, "Oh no.  Not again.  Another concussion."

Concussion #4:
Walking unconscious

This was the last game of the second season.  It was during a punt play on a Saturday afternoon, when a defensive end collided into the side of my head, in an attempt to block the punt.  I went entirely unconscious, yet I was walking ... instinctively walking toward the sideline, with my right hand on the right side of my helmet.

While coming back into  full consciousness, I heard the sound of a buzzer that sounded like the type you hear in a game show when a contestant gets a question wrong.  In fact, when I came to consciousness, I thought that I was waking up, to go to the game.  Next, I faintly heard cheering.  Then, I loudly heard cheering.  Suddenly, I saw the punt returner headed directly toward me.  About four guys made the tackle fifteen yards away from me.

When I did come back into consciousness, I momentarily experienced the worst pain in my life ... even when compared to the day I was caught between two 2,430 lb steel beams at the heal ... even in comparison to a number of vicious asthma attacks, my separated shoulder, my broken foot, the -30 degree wind chills I endured, the 106 degree Oklahoma weather I once endured, etc.  The pain disappeared when the elongated buzzer sound vanished.  I would then attend two more football camps, in the years to follow ... free of any further concussion.

Now, as far as would go any lingering effect, I had none that affected any mental functionality.  But,  safety improvements are still needed in organized football,  to remedy an eminent danger in a sport that's violent in nature .. unless if the authorities decide to cancel the sport, altogether.  None the less, despite four concussions, I managed: 1} to get published at the age of twenty, along side a handful of laureates, 2} to later get published along side a multiplicity of laureates, 3} to play impressionist poly rhythms in studio piano class, 4} to score a 100% on a national standardized collegiate accounting exam issued by an Ivy League school, 5} to get inducted into what used to be called the National Languages Honors Society, 6} to make the dean's list more than once, 7} to get inducted into the International High IQ Society.

Keep in mind that I had all of my mental faculties almost immediately after incurring each head injury.  The fatal error in a head injury scenario is going back out on the field, instead of heading to the locker room ... or to the team doctor.  In the words of any successful poker player, you gotta know when to fold 'em.  I did, three out of four different concussions. 

The rare summer football camp death in the general area was a matter of course.

During every summer camp season, I expected, as matter of course, to hear news broadcasters report one or two local football-related deaths.  Usually, it was a blood clot in the brain which was the cause.  At least that's how it was registered in my memory.

When the news of the first death of the season would be reported, there would be an impromptu team meeting, headed by the team captains.  Coaches made sure that we wouldn't be deprived of water on the field.  So, we evaded the ultimate football tragedies.  None the less,  I would end up getting four concussions before I would sew my first football letter on to my school jacket. 

A quick note about the team photo above, being
that there was one historic element to our team.

Concerning the photo at the top of the page, the guy to my left was the fastest guy on the team and a bit track-and-field champ.  The gentleman to my right was the starting quarterback.  The taller team mate behind my left shoulder wasn't a lineman.  He was the second or third string quarterback and one of the most personable guys on the team.  The one ace up his sleeve was the distance he could throw a football.  He was also a golden gloves boxer.  But, he just didn't have the speed to be a starter.  The guy behind my left shoulder played defensive and offensive end.  Perhaps you know that phrase:  "A defensive end is someone who can tear a refrigerator apart, while an offensive lineman can tell you how to put it back together, piece-by-piece."  In fact, the worst beating I ever took in my life was at the hands of a defensive end, in a game we won 63-6.  He was revenging the lopsided score on my rib cage.  He beat me ruthlessly on that field.  The more we would score, the more violent he would get.

I already mentioned that our head coach was Terry Bradshaw's brother in law.  He's the one seen celebrating on the field with Terry, at Three Rivers Stadium, in the famous Immaculate Reception film clip that made Franco Harris an icon.  At last count, he was an assistant college coach, to former NY Jet head coach Joe Walton, on the college level.

Pittsburgh Football was, once upon a time, in the image and likeness of its steel mills

Keep in mind that I was raised in the Pittsburgh vicinity ... in the specific borough that once had the largest push button railroad in the world.  Pittsburgh was the King of Steel,  as was evidenced by a 21 mile stretch of the Ohio River whose east and west banks housed some of the steel mills that were arrayed throughout the general region.  In fact, the 21 mile steel line only ended at the property line of the largest push button railroad on Planet Earth (at the time.)  Pittsburgh, at present, is the king of bridges, even more than Venice.  The other thing about Pittsburgh is that it was known as one of the three quintessential football venues in America ... at the time, with Ohio and Texas football being as iconic.

The Pittsburgh vicinity was the home of Dallas star Mike Ditka, Heisman trophy winner Tony Dorsett, New York Jet Super Bowl quarterback Joe Namath, record-setting Miami Dolphin quarterback Dan Marino, Miami Dolphin star Mercury Morris, NFL Hall of Fame running back Curtis Martin, all-pro Chicago Bear lineman Jimbo Covert, all-pro Buffalo Bill lineman Bill Fralic, Cotton Bowl quarterback Kevin Scanlon, Steeler head coach Bill Cowher, Washington Redskin Rich Milot, Notre Dame star Terry Hanratty, four-time Super Bowl quarterback Joe Montana, Oakland Raider legend George Blanda, and others.  In sports, you only become as good as your competition.  These stars had the competition to fine tune their skills and fortify their wills.  Even at that, it was my understanding that Ohio football was tougher, in the contact department. 

Pittsburgh football didn't make you arrogant.  It humbled you.

If you were a multiple letterman in Pittsburgh, as well as someone who played in the formal venues of summer league baseball, one thing was guaranteed.  You would have a number of team mates who would eventually make a national mark in football.  For example, my former team mates included an all-pro lineman who earned a Super Bowl ring, as well as someone who started as quarterback in a Cotton Bowl game, and someone else whose name I heard on ABC television, during an Orange Bowl game.  One team mate would go to such and such university to play football, while another one would go to another American university, to do the same.

Even an occasional guy you would compete-against in track would end up on this WFL team here, while one you faced in summer league baseball would end up on another football team there.  In as much, you would think that coming from an environment such as Pittsburgh would make you arrogant.  The truth is that it made you very humble.   Yet, it wasn't the hits which made you humble.  You could take the hits after your first year of apprenticeship.  The humility factor was in you not being as conditioned as the stars-to-be ... or not as fast ... or not as able to turn the corner without sliding down to the ground ... or not alert enough to avoid from running into your blockers, from time to time.  Do not be deceived.  I was built like an Adonis and was very acrobatic, even to the point of winning an organized summer league batting championship and base-stealing championship on a team of men who became champs of their football division.  Despite this, there were a number of guys against whom I competed who put me to shame.  Pittsburgh was that athletic of a place.  So, I learned a great deal about humility in a place once called the City of Champions.

It Wasn't Always Head Hunting, though

When a defensive back goes head hunting on you and he misses, you are on your way to the goal line.  So, during one particular game, in hometown of Mike Ditka, a linebacker wanted to do little more than make sure that I wasn't going anywhere after catching a short pass, not wanting his coach to lambast him for missing me in an attempted head-hunting play.  So, he would wrap his arms around me so tightly that breathing became a difficulty until the ref blew the whistle.

I spent the entire game as a wing back, going five yards and out, catching five to ten passes in the process.  The same linebacker tackled me every time.  He was a human vice grip as he wrestled me down.  He was just doing his job and played by the rules.  But, I dreaded his grip.  I would have preferred that he take full speed shots at my head, in the attempt to dislodge the ball from me.  But no.  He had to be the human vice grip.   So, he played prevent-defense throughout the entire game and it worked. 

Some opposing players do take revenge during a game.

We played a team in West Virginia during my freshman year and beat them 63-6.  I played right end for the entire second half.  The opposing defensive end beat me to near death.  He kept targeting my rib cage, and even when I cross body blocked him to the ground, his knees would drive into my ribs.  So, I spent an entire half holding my right arm to my right-side rib cage.  The lesson is, just because you win a game in a whitewash, it doesn't mean that it will be a painless experience.  I never took a beating on a football field that badly.

The Coach's On-Field Disciplinary Tactic

When you're a running back and the play doesn't involve you carrying the ball, you have a way of acting as if you're not in the play, meaning that you occasionally miss your blocking assignment.  Well, one day in practice, after having missed my blocking assignment, the coaches decided to do the Pittsburgh version of an intervention.  They called the exact same play, but I was going to be the ball carrier.  They then told the offensive players to not block for me.  They next told the defensive players what the play was and that the offense wasn't going to block for me.

For some reason, I thought to myself, "Oh well. Who cares?  Let's get this over and done with." 
The quarterback called the signals.  The ball was hiked.  It was handed-off to me, and the entire offense went on vacation for the play.  So, who made first contact on me?  A defensive end, of course; ... the one who later went to play for the Air Force Academy.  Next came a few others, and then came everyone else.  I went down facing the sky ... and it didn't hurt at all, because all the other defensive players were absorbing the impact, and because the first defensive end simply wrapped his arms around me and started pushing me backwards, upon which I eventually went down like George Washington's cherry tree.

Of course, I wasn't going to tell anybody that it didn't hurt, lest the coaches call the same play and send the offensive players on another hiatus, in order to "teach me."   This was during my freshman year. 

The injury process on the football field sometimes 
backfired on the player attempting to inflict pain on you

The injury process on a football field can work in reverse.  For example, during my Senior, while I was running an end-around play as a half back, yet another defensive end spiked me as hard as he could in the kidneys, while I was being stood-up by a few defensive players.  He was the one who had to go to the sidelines in pain.  I went back into the huddle, only to be informed by a guard what happened.  I didn't feel it, at all, even though he came at me full speed from behind.  After all, there was more than one guy hitting me, and when that happens, all of the different feelings of impact cancel out each other one.  None the less, in trying to drive me to the ground as hard as he could, the defensive end ended up hurting himself.

American Football was basically legalized venting, unless if you were a pass receiver in the path of a linebacker.  Well, it was venting for the linebacker.  When you went up for a pass, you were completely defenseless, as the hits made upon you were designed to dislodge the ball from your hands.  When you keep taking those kinds of hits repeatedly, something eventually gets dislodged.
       
Junior Year:  My first track meet as a hurdler.  Football players commonly
went out for track or played summer league baseball.  Hurdlers were
the coordinated guys who didn't have the flash speed of a sprinter, 
but who were faster than everyone else.