The doctors talk about the brain as a mystery. What I realized in those sorrowful days is how holy the brain is. It is a temple that houses our fragile selfhood.
—Steve Almond, author of Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto
Those of you who read my first blogpost, “Should I feel cheated?,” may remember my litany of forbears who lived beyond eighty. This led me to ponder which grandparent might have carried the early-onset Alzheimer’s gene. I zeroed in on my paternal grandmother, an immigrant from Dalmatia who died young as a result of a childhood illness that weakened her heart. My dad recalled his mother as a sweet-tempered soul. But she seemed to be the only suspect.
Over the past several days, I have been pursuing another possibility, one that has nothing to do with my family tree and a lot with the games and sports I played in my childhood and youth. My only diagnosed concussion occurred around age six, when I fell off the back of my brother’s bike and was knocked out. I woke up in the back seat of our Buick, en route to the doctor’s office. Could that single incident foreshadow my difficulties almost a half-century later? I doubt it.
But from an early age, my friends and I often played touch football on our school’s asphalt playgrounds. Being incredibly limber at that age, we endured the occasional painful collision with the ground. If there was sufficient snow on our playground – rare in Puget Sound – we tackled each other. In one snow-related mishap, I banged heads with another boy. I felt no pain, but I did notice a curious smell, similar to rubbing alcohol.
By sixth grade I was playing Boy’s Club football, and three years later I was a wide receiver and a defensive back on the freshman team at my high school.
It’s hard for me to overstate how important football and other sports were to me. I was an under-achieving student and an over-achieving athlete.
The annual football game between the city’s two high schools drew large crowds. I had been plagued by injuries during my sophomore and junior seasons, but as a senior I was a starter on both offense and defense.
If someone were to ask what was the happiest day of my life, I would have a ready answer: September 21, 1979, the night that we upset our football rivals by a single point. The short version is that I happened to play the best game of my life when it mattered most.
The other day I experienced an epiphany: My diagnosis of Alzheimer’s may not be hereditary after all. I have been in contact with a former high school teammate who also has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. He told me that one of his doctors believes that a serious concussion as an adult is responsible for the disease.
This led me to reflect on all the head-banging I did as a football player—in practices as well as games. Just before the start of the NFL season in 1978, Darryl Stingley, a receiver for the New England Patriots, sustained one of the most gruesome injuries in the league’s history. Stingley was almost entirely paralyzed. Very quickly, college and high school players were admonished not to lead with their heads when they tackled. But there were other ways in which we teenagers were at risk.
When I was playing football, there was much more “live hitting” (i.e., simulated game conditions) than is permissible now. The notion, it seemed, was that the more banging of heads during practices, the better we would be prepared for the real thing. As an old friend and teammate remarked recently, many of us, particularly offensive and defensive linemen, might have experienced many “sub-concussions,” too subtle to detect without sophisticated technology.
My teammates and I, as teenagers, understood that concussions were serious matters. But many of us also felt a perverse pride when we hit with our helmets hard enough to see stars. After Stingley’s catastrophe, the directive was to slide our heads to one side when we made a tackle. But many teenage boys – then, and I presume, now – have a hard time acknowledging that they are mortal.
More than a decade later I wrote about this phenomenon in a fictional context:
The coach stood with both hands on the boy’s shoulders, peering through the rectangular gap in his face mask. It was the are-you-still-with-us look. Once, in turnout, the coach had to ask me who my girlfriend was, and I could not remember her name. I recall nothing of that collision, but there were other times when I’d get slowly to my feet and see a celestial shower at the margins of my vision, an aura of ephemeral light.
Keep in mind that this appeared in a work of fiction. But I did think it was cool to see stars, just as many of my friends did.
The weird thing is this: If I could live my life over, there are some things I would do differently. But in the case of that first-day-of-autumn football game in Bellingham, Washington, thirty-six years ago this month, I would want everything to turn out exactly as it did. The sport of football was so exhilarating for me, I would have been miserable if I had been told I could not play.
My current mental condition, I concede, is a rather dear price for youthful glory – assuming that the sport is to blame. But let me be clear on one point: If I could do it all over again, I almost certainly would.
Maybe my dementia is more advanced than I thought.