What An Opportunity

On concussions, and why I’m not sure I’ll let my kids play football

In Life, Sports on September 23, 2013 at 2:03 am

Me hanging out with Zack (left) in a Boston hospital this past winter. I have a 16 (his football number) tattooed on my back. Inside the numbers is his favorite Bible verse: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

I have known what I should write about all week, but I have been putting it off. The topic is painful to address, and sometimes, if I ignore it, I can pretend it doesn’t exist.

Earlier this week, a high school football player from my area died after sustaining head injuries from a helmet-to-helmet hit during a game. His name was Damon Janes. Here is a column from The Buffalo News’ Bucky Gleason on how the Brocton community is handling the devastating situation: Hearts are heavy in Brocton as a community mourns Damon Janes.

This situation hit me hard; it hit me right in the stomach. Head injuries sustained during football games are a scary, scary thing. I learned that when I was 16 years old – the same age Janes was when he died. I was in high school and was at a bon fire with my senior class on a Friday night when a friend called.

“Zack is hurt,” he said. “It’s really bad.”

Just how bad, I had no idea. Zack McLeod, who my friend was referencing, is one of my dearest friends. We grew up together.

The year was 2008, and Zack was a star defensive back on his high school’s football team. That night, in a scrimmage, he dropped to the ground.

Zack suffered a serious brain injury from a hit in the game. He collapsed to the ground and had to be Mercy Flighted to the trauma unit at Boston Medical Center (he lives in Massachusetts). There was a blood clot in his brain and it was swelling.

The weeks that followed were emotional. He was in a medically induced coma for three weeks. Nobody knew if he’d survive, much less walk or talk again.

It has been a long road since then. Zack learned to walk again – though not perfectly – and put together a few phrases. Then he fell off his porch this past winter and hit the same part of his head he had injured before. He’s still fighting his way back.

He can’t speak very well – though he does the sign-language signal for “love” quite a bit – and an IQ test labeled him mentally retarded. What he can’t say in words he’ll express with high-fives and bear hugs. He can still type, and sometimes he’ll send Facebook messages. Here is the last one he sent me:

“Hey there aaron I beleoive and hope that our great great great god has been working incredible wonders In and out of thine ebeautful life Hey i .liove a dub you to The illestt littlee bit ovet ythere brlther bear”

When I look into his eyes, it’s hard to explain, but I just know he’s the same person. He understands everything that’s going on. He laughs at every joke. He’s there. He just can’t communicate very well.

I could go on for hours about Zack, and if you met him, you would do the same thing. He is legitimately the best person I know, and he is my inspiration every day.

But his life will never be what it should have been. It makes me angry to think about it. He was such a talented person and such a good person, too, and everything he could have done in life seemed to disappear after that football game.

Don’t get me wrong – he is still an incredible man, and he impacts people on a daily basis. He hung out with Tim Tebow before and after the Denver Broncos’ playoff game in New England two years ago. Everyone who hears Zack’s story wants to meet him, and with good reason. But all his athletic pursuits and all his educational and career possibilities – the chance of him living a normal adult life and supporting himself – were taken away because of a violent football collision.

That’s why I’m not sure I’ll ever let my kids play the game.

I love you, Zack. Rest in peace, Damon.

  1. Almost every sport involves risks. When my son was nine, he was pitching and was hit in the chest by a line drive hit by one of the better, stronger players. The kind of hit that kills a kid if it hits in just the right spot on his chest. Fortunately, my son is fine ten years later.
    But football seems particularly designed for gruesome and life-altering injuries. Don’t know if you saw the Packers game yesterday, but there was a play when one of their receivers was hit, I think it was a legal hit, and he got up and couldn’t walk in a straight line. He was clearly out of it. It was scary. I don’t know how people continue to play after something like that happens. Not him, but the rest of the players. How do they keep hitting and getting hit? It amazes me. I’m glad neither of my boys ever expressed much of an interest in football.
    Nice post, by the way, about your friend. It’s a shame but it also sounds like he has an incredible attitude.

  2. […] “On Concussions, And Why I’m Not Sure I’ll Let My Kids Play Football” from G…. Another very touching personal […]

  3. […] I have many conflicting feelings about this idea in general, so I’ll try to voice them all. First, I am a high school basketball coach – this whole “I am a man, I am indestructible and you can’t stop me” idea is not exclusive to football players; it is pervasive in many sports, including basketball. The difference is that football is the sport known for its concussion issues, known for causing brain problems among former and current players that could lead to suicide. I have written about the problems with contact in football on this blog before and explored my personal experience with the dilemma – On concussions, and why I’m not sure I’ll let my kids play football.  […]

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