Things got hazy as soon as I took the fullback’s foot off my jaw.
One of my teammates tackled him hard, right next to me, and he sort of helicoptered into my face.
Immediately I felt a searing pain in my jaw, and I was seeing stars, but I was so jacked up to play that game. We were in the middle of a really disappointing season, and this was our chance to finally get in the win column after starting 0-4.
So I didn’t care about the pain.
After the first quarter ended a few plays later, I ran to the sideline as each team switched ends.
“I think my jaw’s dislocated,” I shouted as I grabbed an assistant coach by the shirt sleeve.
He turned to look at me. “What?” he asked with a stunned look on his face.
“I’m fine, fuck it!” I hollered over my shoulder as I ran back out on the field.
But I wasn’t fine.
As the referee blew his whistle to signify the start of the second quarter and the offense broke their huddle, I stood staggering at my defensive end position.
The offensive lineman across from me gave me a puzzled look as he took his stance, and suddenly everything started going black.
I stumbled a few feet back into the referee and grabbed him by his jacket just as the quarterback was going into his signals.
“I can’t breathe,” I struggled to get the words out as I fell to the ground.
I remember the ref frantically blowing his whistle and signalling for help, then I went unconscious.
This was back in the fall of 2000, my junior year at Deering High School in Portland.
The year prior we had broken a nearly two decades-long streak of losing seasons for the football team at DHS, but after graduating most of our starters and suffering some devastating injuries to top returning players we were struggling, and barely hanging on to any hope of returning to the playoffs.
After opening the season with four tough losses, we went into our fifth game against an equally troubled Lewiston High team knowing that it was our best chance to win, and that if we couldn’t beat them, also 0-4, then we might not beat anybody.
I was known as a hard-hitting, passionate player. I loved playing football more than just about anything on Earth, and I had dreamed about playing for the DHS Rams ever since I was a little kid. After watching the seniors break the losing streak the year before from the sidelines as a sophomore, I went into my junior season with a chip on my shoulder and a fire burning in my belly.
So when I took that accidental kick to the face in the first quarter of the game on that chilly night in Lewiston, I did everything I could to stay on the field and help my team win, no matter the risks.
I don’t think that made me any different from many of my teammates or opponents either. That sort of toughness and loyalty defines the culture of the sport that we were brought up in, for better or for worse.
After watching the film from the game the following Monday, I realized that I was only out cold for a minute or two.
But I awoke after what felt like an eternity to several of my teammates and coaches huddled over me with terrified looks on their faces.
Trainers from both teams were looking into my eyes and asking me questions, but I was too confused to give them very good answers.
The stadium lights were so bright above me, my head was ringing, and everything seemed to be happening in slow motion.
It felt like I was in a bad dream.
I knew that there was a stadium full of people holding their breath to see if I was ok, and as my thoughts drifted to my parents in the stands I told the trainers that I wanted to get up.
With the help of my coaches and teammates, I hobbled to the sideline as the crowd applauded.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I could have died that night, and all I cared about was getting back into the game.
Roughly 16 years later, the protocol for head injuries has come a long way.
Nowadays a player who goes through an injury like that likely might be out for the rest of the season, if not at least a week or two of play.
We know now that while an initial hit to the head like the one I suffered is harmful and serious, a second hit while the brain is already swollen can be fatal.
By halftime of the game at Lewiston though, I was wild with anger about not being allowed back into the game. I pleaded my case to my coaches and trainers, I threw water bottles around the locker room and punched several lockers.
I never even took my pads off.
While we were exiting the locker room to warm up for the second half, I convinced the trainer to leave the matter up to my parents. As we jogged over to the stands we found them in the front row.
I told them that I was ok, and that the team needed me. My father, looking like he wanted to say yes but knew better, turned to my mother and told her it was her call.
“Absolutely not.” she said without a second thought, looking into my eyes and examining my distorted pupils. “This is just a football game, your health is more important than that.”
Despite my follow up objections I spent the rest of the game on the sidelines, still in my pads, and screaming like a maniac in support of my teammates.
It didn’t occur to me that something really was wrong with my head until a couple of minutes were left in the game. Down by two points, we had driven the ball down the field and brought our kicker on to attempt a 30 yard field goal. It was a long one for a Maine high school football player, but our kicker was solid, and he nailed it to put us up by one.
Without thinking I ran out onto the field in celebration, but after several steps another assistant coach grabbed me and pulled me back to the sideline.
“What’s the matter with you?” he demanded. “There’s still two minutes left in the game man, you coulda’ gotten us a penalty!”
His eyes went wide and he cocked his head as I responded, “oh, I thought the game was over when we made the kick.”
As the words left my mouth, the look on his face caught me off guard, and I realized how crazy I’d been acting since the injury.
After the game, as we rode the bus victoriously back to Portland, one of my teammates sat down next to me.
“You alright Shorr?” he asked concerned.
“Yea man, I’m fine. No sweat,” I responded.
“You know, you were screaming like the entire second half man. Like, even when nothing was happening. It didn’t even make sense most of the time. I’m kinda worried about you,” he said over the hoots and hollers from the other players.
“I’m fine man, really. I coulda’ played the second half,” I muttered unconvincingly.
“Ok dude,” he said, “if you say so.”
While head injuries in sports have been taken seriously for years now, around the turn of the century was when we were just starting to realize the damage that they have on the human brain.
In fact, up until my middle school years it was still deemed acceptable for a coach or trainer to use the “how many fingers am I holding up?” method, where as long as you could decipher between two and three fingers you were right back in the game.
So on the Monday afternoon following the Friday night game at Lewiston, my coaches expected me back on the field for practice. I would have been out there too, but my jaw- which I thought had been dislocated- was actually sprained from the kick in the game, so the trainer kept me out of practice for two days until that Wednesday.
Even though I had been concussed to the point of unconsciousness just days before, the only reason I didn’t return immediately to practice was because of an injured jaw.
It’s tough for me to go back to that time and really be able to understand how the head injury affected me going forward.
I imagine it was due to a complicated combination of factors, but in the months following the Lewiston game, I changed.
I became angry, depressed, and confused. I made some really stupid decisions, became uncharacteristically quick to throw a punch, and even got kicked out of my house for several weeks.
Until a few years ago I always figured that I had just been going through a difficult growing up period, and attributed my behavior to immaturity- which very well may have been the case- but as the revelations about brain injuries and the effects that they can have on the people who suffer from them have come to light, I wonder more and more.
It would have been one thing if it had been an isolated incident, but as is the case with most athletes who suffer from a head injury, I also had several other concussions over the course of roughly fifteen years of competitive football and lacrosse play.
There was the time when I was ten and playing youth football in Portland. The kid didn’t even tackle me that hard, but when I landed the back of my head slammed into the ground. My head was spinning as my coach stood over me, “how many fingers am I holding up?” he asked.
I must have gotten it right, because I was back in for the next play — at ten years old.
Then there was the time I was playing lacrosse in college and the goalie for my team accidentally pelted me in the side of the head with a pass intended for another teammate 30 yards downfield, but I was only standing a few feet in front of him.
The side of my helmet cracked and gashed my ear as I went down like a wet rag, knocked out cold yet again.
Thankfully, by the time that one happened the protocol for head injuries had become much more strict, so I sat out for about a week before suiting up again.
It wasn’t until 2011 that I really started paying attention to the growing research surrounding head injuries, and the apparent effects that they have on people, specifically football players.
That was the year that retired National Football League player Dave Duerson committed suicide at the age of 50. After leaving a suicide note requesting that his brain be used for research at the Boston University School of Medicine, he shot himself in the chest.
In an incredibly heartbreaking and tragic, yet unarguably heroic act, the reason that Duerson preserved his brain and requested it be sent to Boston is because they’re doing some of the leading research for chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) at BU, and he knew that it would provide a rare opportunity for researchers to examine a former football player’s brain posthumously.
Just about a year later, in May of 2012, legendary NFL player Junior Seau took his own life after battling with severe depression. He also shot himself in the chest, and like Duerson, was found to have suffered from CTE, which is defined as a progressive degenerative disease of the brain found in people with a history of repetitive brain trauma.
In the past few years, as more and more information about CTE has come to light, I’ve become increasingly alarmed.
The whole idea of massive head injuries being the only time brain damage occurs from impact has been thrown out the window. Granted, concussions play a huge role in the development of CTE, but it’s being thought of more and more frequently in terms of an accumulative effect.
In other words, everything from the most brutal hit to the head in a big game, all the way down to simple blocking drills with teammates in practice takes a toll.
Smashing helmets with teammates to get psyched up before a game takes its toll. The impact from tackling and being tackled takes its toll. It all adds up over time.
This revelation is particularly frightening for someone like me with such a history of head trauma, because even though my football playing days are long gone I still worry about day-to-day accidents and mishaps.
Even just a little bump to my head and I start feeling dizzy, so times like when a frozen block of chicken bonked me in the chin at the meat packing plant years ago, or the time an errant buoy nailed me on the side of the head on the lobster boat, can be really scary.
What really worries me though, beyond the feeling that at any minute I could get another concussion just from doing something clumsy, is thinking ahead to my future.
I’m 32 years old, already dealing with the increasing aches and pains of a not-so-youthful body, but hoping to still have about another 50 years or so of decent health in front of me.
But when I look to Duerson and Seau — not to mention guys like Justin Strzelczyk and Jovan Belcher, two University of Maine alums who took their own lives after playing in the NFL at different times — I wonder what sort of struggles I might go through as time passes.
I’m fortunate to have not suffered the level of trauma that the above mentioned players dealt with, obviously high school football is a lot different from the level of ferocity that can be seen in the NFL, but it seems as if the more we figure out about CTE and the long-term effects of head trauma, the more likely it seems that even regular people like me could be in danger as we age.
I already deal with random episodes of dizziness, hypersensitivity to bright light, and nonstop ringing in my ears that has lasted for years.
I don’t know for certain that these issues are directly related to my past head injuries, but it’s my belief that they are at least partially caused from my concussions and accumulated long-term brain trauma.
More notably, since around my junior and senior years of high school I’ve dealt with occasional bouts of depression, sometimes mild and sometimes severe. This sort of thing tends to run in my family, so again it’s difficult to know how much my past head injuries play into it, but it’s hard to believe that they aren’t at least partially to blame for the periods when I’m feeling really down.
The thing is, even with all the injuries I’ve had and the uncertainty that I have about my future health, it’s tough to say that I’d do things differently if I could go back in time.
Playing football taught me so many incredible lessons about life, and provided me with some of my fondest memories from my youth.
From the grind of practice, to the exhilaration of playing under the lights in front of thousands of people, to the camaraderie in the locker room- there’s just nothing like it.
So even though I fear for my future, there’s not much that I wouldn’t take back.
It’s probably hard for anyone who’s never played football to understand that, and even for some who have, but it’s how I feel.
That doesn’t mean I’m not conflicted about the sport and the injuries that it causes though, and if I ever have kids of my own I’m not sure how I’d feel about them playing, especially at the youth levels.
I do think that the growth of flag football at youth levels is a good thing. Although I think it’s important for kids to grow up learning proper tackling technique, I also think that learning the flow, language, and moves of the game are the most important thing for kids in middle school and younger, so maybe if we keep the sport mostly contact free until sometime around 7th or 8th grade then it would help lessen the level of accumulated impacts for players of all ages without damaging the overall skill and talent levels of the game.
More needs to be done to educate the general public about this topic, and the NFL is the entity that should be leading the way.
It’s encouraging to see the measures that the NFL has taken to lessen head trauma, but their main focus has been to reduce the big highlight reel hits while ignoring the smaller hits that add up over time.
Of course, at the end of the day football is a violent sport and injuries are just a part of it, and I’m certainly not advocating for high school, college, or professional leagues to switch to flag football or anything close to it, but it should be the responsibility of the NFL and the NCAA- above all other entities- to make sure that the younger generations of football players- and athletes in general- are properly educated about the risks involved with all types of head trauma.
Personally, it would have been nice to know about the seriousness of head trauma when I was a kid, but at this point I just hope that enough medical advances are made over the next couple of decades to ensure proper treatment if I ever do develop signs of CTE or other cognitive issues stemming from my past head injuries.
Sadly, I don’t think we’ve seen the last of the tragedies to occur as a result of CTE. There are just too many current and former NFL players who are suffering from it already, not to mention all the people like me who never played professional sports, but still have early signs of something possibly being wrong with our brains.
But thankfully, due to advances in research and awareness, the game is safer today than it was all those years ago when I was playing, which will hopefully lead to fewer and fewer cases of long-term, accumulated brain damage in the coming generations of athletes.
Hopefully being the key word there.