Concussions, and Why Football Players Are Insane

7 Jan

The alarm goes off. You roll over—you always sleep on your back—to check the time on the alarm clock sitting on top the night table to your right. This seems like a fairly silly thing to do given that you set the alarm the night before to go off at the time it just did—7:30 am—but you do it anyway. You then lie in bed for a minute, half-asleep, half-awake, preparing your mind and body for the arduous task of pulling the blankets off your limbs and rising out of bed. Before this, though, little by little, you slowly regain consciousness, thoughts, feeling, memories.

Today, you say to yourself, is going to be the day. Today, you say to yourself, there will be no headaches. 

It’s been like this for the past 18 months. Every day, a mixture of headaches that, like snowflakes as the saying goes, are never alike. Sometimes it’s a throbbing in the forehead so bad that no amount of Advil can help. Sometimes it feels like someone with the Rock’s strength is using both his pointers to squeeze each of your temples as hard as he can. Sometimes it’s a numbness in the head. Occasionally you get dizzy and lightheaded. Nauseous, too. It’s like you’re suffering from all the side effects that those TV commercials for “enhancement” pills warn you about. But at least in those cases these symptoms come—hopefully—along with some pleasure. In this instance, not so much.

For the first six months, you were extremely sensitive to light. You couldn’t read or watch TV or look at a computer screen for extended periods of time. When you did it felt like there was pressure building up in your head. Sort of like being on an airplane, except  worse. Quickly averting your eyes became something your brain forced you to do. It provided a relief, like pausing for a minute in the middle of a five-mile run.

Everyone would always tell you to remain positive, to keep your head up. What most didn’t realize is that getting out of bed in the morning was actually the most optimistic thing you could do. Because if you woke up and immediately felt the way you often would an hour later, after the brain had some time to start working, and, subsequently, tire, you would never have gotten out of bed.

It happened while playing basketball. The guy I was guarding drove to his right. The bottom of my chin took an upper cut from his left shoulder. Not the softest of hits, but not the most violent strike you’ve ever seen on the hardwood, either. Watch any game of basketball and you’ll see this happen to defenders multiple times. For some random reason, though—and here’s the crazy thing about concussions: we don’t know shit about them so why mine was “worse” no one can say—this specific blow happened to have a major impact on my brain. It has changed my life and lifestyle. I still get headaches. Not as bad as I used to but I still make sure to bring Advil with me anywhere I go, and I still ingest more of it in one month than most people do in a year. Now my doctors think that the concussion may have unlocked a sort of migraine syndrome in my head. I’m taking medication for that now, too. All this because of one errant shoulder.

I bring this up because I’ve been reading about Denver Broncos wide receiver Wes Welker, who missed the final three games of the regular season after suffering a concussion for the third time of his career—at least that’s the official number; he’s probably suffered at least twice that many, if not more—and yet is still going to play this week against the Chargers. This coming after three Kansas City Chiefs players were forced out of their Wild Card game Saturday night due to concussions. I have no doubt that, if left up to them, every single one of those players would have chosen to step back onto the field.

And every single one of them is out of their effing minds.

My concussion was a one-time occurrence, and it happened while playing basketball and on an inadvertent hit. These guys have all, most likely, been concussed multiple times, and all play a sport where the object is to knock another guy to the ground. There is no chance that Wes Welker’s brain is not reacting to the violent blows that have caused his multiple concussions in a worse way than mine did to the benign shot that shook me. And yet, come Sunday night, Welker will be on the field, sprinting over the middle of the field, shifting around in an effort to avoid getting viciously knocked off his feet. It’s a task he won’t succeed in. Most likely Welker will wind up with having his “bell rung”—a horrible euphemism meant to cover up the true damage that such hits have on the brain—at least once, if not more, and most likely, we won’t hear a word about it.

I hope that I’m wrong about what I assume to be the mental and physical troubles that football players are forced to deal with every day, but I doubt I am. I love football and the NFL, but sometimes, you can’t help but question all of it. Of course, not enough to keep me from being glued to the TV this weekend. Maybe I’m as much to blame as anyone. I don’t know.

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