Super Bowl frenzy isn’t quite upon us yet, but anticipation is building, and even I am fascinated by the pending match-up between the old sheriff, Peyton Manning, and the young gunslinger, Cam Newton.
I say “even I” because if you’ve been reading this blog a while, you know I have said that I’m through with pro football because of the high incidence of long-term brain injury.
But I’ve found it’s one thing to declare independence from the NFL elixir and another thing to actually set it aside. First, it was impossible to ignore the Chiefs reeling off 10 wins in a row and winning their first playoff game in many years. And then came the match-up between good and evil — Manning on one hand and Tom Brady and Bill Belichik on the other. I watched most of the fourth quarter of that game and was riveted, fearing right up to the Patriots’ unsuccessful two-point conversion attempt that evil would once again prevail.
So, for the last couple of weeks, I found myself back in the quicksand I thought I’d escaped.
But then today, on the front page of The New York Times website, the side of pro football that makes me recoil surfaced again.
It is a heartbreaking story about a 27-year-old former player for the New York Giants, Tyler Sash, who died of an accidental drug overdose at his Iowa home last September.
Sportswriter Bill Pennington recounted Sash suffering “bouts of confusion, memory loss and minor fits of temper” after his playing days. And how he was “unable to seek meaningful employment because he had difficulty focusing long enough to finish a job.”
And then the gut punch…
Last week, representatives from Boston University and the Concussion Legacy Foundation notified the Sash family that C.T.E. (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) had been diagnosed in Tyler’s brain and that the disease…had advanced to a stage rarely seen in someone his age.
Think about that. He was on the very front end of adulthood — a year older than my son Charlie, who is on the way to getting a master’s degree this year — and his brain was well on the way to mush.
Sash had been cut by the Giants in 2013 after suffering at least his fifth concussion. Listen to this description of a concussion he suffered in a 2011 playoff game with the San Francisco 49ers:
“Sash, who was 215 pounds, was blindsided by a brutal and borderline late hit on a punt return by a 281-pound defensive lineman.”
Can you imagine? Even if there had been a mattress between him and the other guy, his brain would have rattled around inside his head and helmet.
When Sash got back to Iowa, “he increasingly displayed surprising and irregular behavior,” Pennington wrote. He was arrested for public intoxication after fleeing from police on a motorized scooter and then running into a wooded area.
Plus, he was in unrelenting pain from football injuries to both shoulders. His mother, Barnetta Sash, told Pennington her son couldn’t sleep on either side and would sometimes go two days without sleeping. She said he realized something was wrong with his brain but couldn’t identify it
You can feel a mother’s aching pain in this quote: “He was such a good person, and it’s sad that he struggled so with this — not knowing where to go with it.”
At 27, he was hopelessly lost in a fog of confusion and pain.
…I can relate somewhat to the fog part. In 2002, I suffered an inner-ear concussion after a quack of an oral surgeon did some “tapping” on an upper left tooth bone as the first step in an implant.
It took a few months and a visit to an otologist — a doctor who specializes in ear problems — to just get an accurate diagnosis. Then, I was in a fog for more than a year. Not knowing if I would ever get better, I sank into clinical depression. Fortunately, with time and treatment the fog and depression passed. But I still tend to relate things to whether they happened prior to or after June 2002, a seminal month in my life.
So, my heart goes out to the Sash family. And it doesn’t surprise me a bit that Tyler’s mother has a different view of football than she did several years ago. And that his older brother Josh probably won’t recommend that his two young sons play football when they’re older.
Particularly at the pro level, football is a nasty business. To me, it’s the ultimate incongruity: how a sport so destructive can be so intoxicating. If Sunday football went away, millions of fans would be absolutely lost.
And, yes, I admit, I’m having trouble putting aside the Kool-Aid. But I’m well into the weaning. The stars I’m familiar with, like Manning and Brady, are nearing the end of their careers. And where I used to know just about every starter for the Chiefs on offense and defense, I’m now familiar with the names of just a handful of players.
Like I said, I’m mildly interested in the Super Bowl. But, alas, I’ll be out of the country and won’t be watching a week from Sunday. It’s just as well. At game time, I’ll try to think about Tyler Sash and how his mother would still be enjoying his company if he’d never started playing football.