Concussions, Sports, Psychology of Sports Injuries, and Brain Trauma
Yes, on one sunny afternoon during high school football practice I smashed into Doug helmet to helmet. We crashed to earth, I blacked out for a moment, and then I awoke and saw the stars of Heaven. Damn, I felt drunk and drunk enough to play again. Our coach pulled us aside.
Doug kept his mouth shut as he walked as normally as he could without wobbling. He was smart and played cool. Me, I played doofus dork and insisted I saw stars. They whirled around my head. With eyes open, too.
“What happened?” asked Coach Fore. Coach Skeeter Fore, as he was called. He was locally famous for being a ferocious winner and a gracious loser. Coach was a caring, generous, funny man and the opposite in body type from a li’l bitty mosquito. He simply didn’t know much about brain injuries back in those days either.
It was the mid to late 1970s in Farmville, Virginia. Late Summer-early Autumn of 1976 to be exact. I was a senior in high school, Class of 1977. I played varsity football for the Prince Edward Academy Wolverines, and I was the smallest person on the team. I played primarily defense, often as a nose guard, and ran on kick-off. I rarely played offense, but I was a rascal of a nose guard. I’d throw my little ass across the legs of those big brutes hulking over me and logroll ‘em good. I’d dart between giant cavemen-like high school students who look like they should’ve graduated three years ago and try to tackle somebody before I got stomped. I loved wearing my orange-and-black Wolverine jersey with the black and white lettering. Even if I got stomped by trolls.
Doug was a far superior athlete than me. He was blessed with a natural grace. There were a handful of students who were so perfectly proportioned in strength, speed, agility, and power they played football, basketball, and baseball. Not me. I’m a li’l bitty ass squirt. Or was back then. I played football to impress the girls, though that didn’t work too well. They would come up to me and somehow my tongue would swell six times too big, a zit would rise up from my nose and knock my glasses askew, and my hearing aids would whistle. Those lovely young lasses, and I had crushes on most of ’em at one time or another, would find a polite excuse to quickly trot somewhere else.
Bah, sports! I was too short and wild for basketball. After I got beaned in the head by a softball I was too gun shy around catching baseballs to play that game anymore. In college I played lacrosse and ran cross-country, and in grad school discovered I was pretty good in outdoor adventure sports. But Doug, he could swim between big, muddy brutes like a fish in a flash.
We had team practice every afternoon. That afternoon Doug raced down the far side of the field with the football tucked tight. I was fast, too, so I charged ahead and aimed straight at him. Now, to be clear, I liked Doug, and I think he respected me for what I got and who I was in spite of my limitations. It wasn’t my intention to hurt him or allow myself to be injured. None of those thoughts entered my mind. I was here to play football, to show the guys I was good, and I’ve been jogging down country roads to get in even better shape. So, yes, I intended to tackle Mr. Doug. Hard.
I ran right toward him as hard and as fast as I could run. Doug saw me charge and ducked his head, turning his helmet into a metal bullet. I lowered my head, too, and slammed into him like a bull. People on the other side of the field heard our helmets clash cranium to cranium.
Doug and I fell into a heap and rolled ass backwards onto the grass. It happened so fast. Darkness followed by blazing sunshine. Dazed, I looked up at the sky going round and round. Then I saw them. Stars. The stars of Heaven. Red stars. Yellow stars. Blue stars. Green stars. White stars. Heaven! And more stars. They went around and round and around and round just like they did in those stupid cartoons on television.
We both picked ourselves up as if nothing had happened, grinned at each other, and staggered over to the other guys.
“I saw stars!” I told Coach Fore. “Green stars! Blue stars! And yellow and red stars! All colors! White stars even!”
The other guys on the team started snickering. Doug claimed he was fine. Well, shit, I was fine, too. I was just seeing stars. I was really seeing stars! Coach just grinned. Jokes were made about this all the way to the end of school.
Coach warned I probably had a concussion so be careful. I don’t remember if I kept playing or sat out the rest of the game. No, he kept me on the sidelines so he could cock one eye on me from time to time. I was a little dazed for a while. Had a banger of a headache, too. Somehow I drove seven miles home after practice.
Over the years I’ve tumbled out of trees and bonked my head, flipped upside down in kayaks and banged my brains around. My battered helmet has engraved proof. Once in North Carolina I flipped in a rapid, tucked to roll, but whammed my head on a rock before I could roll up. My fellow boaters swore my entire upside-down kayak lifted a full foot out of the water. Deep bear claw marks gouged my helmet. Wrecked my mountain bike and thrashed my brains again. Ran down basement stairs in Seattle, smacked my forehead into a low-hanging beam, and knocked myself unconscious for a short bit. Dayum. I’ve prayed all my concussions were mild and without any permanent damage. I didn’t really …have that…many…right?
I was a birth trauma baby as my skull was twisted apart during a messy, forceps delivery. Came out blue, a blue baby, so I required oxygen. Apparently I almost died several times from resultant infections and was kept in the hospital two weeks after my birth. I can recall about a dozen concussions, too, meaning I was dazed for two or three days afterwards.
The latest acronym used to label a host of brain injuries with resulting diseases and disorders is TBI, or Traumatic Brain Injury. Look up “TBI” on the Internet and the result feels overwhelming. Especially those gross pictures.
Recent research demonstrates a clear link between concussion in football and increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s Disease and other forms of dementia. The brain ricochets around inside the bones of the skull, tearing, bruising and damaging soft tissues as hematomas form. Cognitive impairment increases, and each new injury appear compounded upon older ones. The rate of concussions, brain injuries, and cognitive impairment is even higher with soccer than American football. (By the way, in case any Postmodern young folks haven’t figured it out, it was the latter I was playing.) Heading the ball is traumatic, too. Luckily for me, I only played soccer once in my life. It was an intramural sporting event in college, and I got kicked in the face.
Well, I sighed with belief, I never played professional sports or did anything that required repeated smashing of my brains. Oh, I forgot. Once in eighth grade typing class I got so frustrated at the tediousness of the drills, and in part, I confess, to impress my classmates with how crazy I could be, I smashed my forehead on the typewriter.
OW! Another…big mistake. But flushed with the hormones of puberty I morphed in my own eyes into one tough, heroic warrior. And I never ever did that again.
Still, as I rush around spluttering over where I last put down my glasses or where my cell phone is, or why am I suddenly standing in this store or what am I planning to write down with this pen, I wonder, “Hey, what’s gonna happen to my brain?” What already has?
William Dudley Bass
5 October 2009
28 March 2012
NOTE: This article was originally published in my older blog, Cultivate and Harvest, at
http://cultivateandharvest.blogspot.com/2009/10/i-smashed-my-brains-and-saw-stars-of.html then revised and reposted here this March 2012. Thank you.
Copyright © 2009, 2012, 2016 by William Dudley Bass. All Rights Reserved until we Humans establish Wise Stewardship of and for our Earth and Solarian Commons. Thank you.