Life After Concussions

What is it like to learn the latest information about the effects of head injuries, knowing you suffered a few yourself? Ex-NFL player Nate Jackson shares his perspective of being scared to death while simultaneously craving to play again

(Mike Moore/Getty Images)
Nate Jackson played in the NFL before ‘concussion hysteria’ hit the league and when players operated under a don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy regarding head injuries. (Mike Moore/Getty Images)

By Nate Jackson

My first football injury was a concussion, in my first season of organized football. It was my freshman year of high school and it was in practice. Our free-safety saw red and teed off on me, the pubescent scout-team freshman. He got me in the side of the head as I was looking back and up for the ball. I lay on the field half-dead, half-embarrassed in the mid-October twilight. Once I stuffed my brain back through my earhole, I got up and walked to the sideline. I spent that week watching practice. It hurt to move my head. It hurt to look into the light. It hurt to think too hard. But mostly it hurt to be standing there in shorts while my friends strapped it up. I was back on the field the following week.

It was the most severe head injury I sustained in my football life until the second to last game of my six-year NFL career, when linebacker Willie McGinest caught me in the same temple, producing the same result. This was in 2008: pre-concussion hysteria. I wasn’t treated for my head and I missed no practice time. No one talked about head injuries back then. It was an assumed reality of a life of football. Your head will hurt and you will play anyway. Don’t ask, don’t tell.


Can football change? Will the sport become safer? How are concussions impacting the game’s future?

Introducing an in-depth series where we tackle those questions, starting at high schools and continuing into college and the NFL. Read the entire series.

The context of these two concussions is important when we consider the meaning of head injuries in football. Far away from the spotlight of the NFL and ESPN, from PBS documentaries and exposés, at this very moment, there are kids who can’t move their heads too quickly and can’t look into the light. They got lit up. They went temporarily blind. Their spines were compressed. Their brains were rebooted. And now they sit alone in a dark room, tormented by one thought and one thought only: getting back on the field.

There is something going on here: a dichotomy so counterintuitive that it informs the conventional wisdom of the spectator. Here’s how that wisdom goes: “He knows what he signed up for. I don’t sympathize with him at all. He is a meathead idiot if he believes that a football life will not hurt him. And if he experiences cognitive symptoms as a result, well, that’s his problem.” But if that spectator has paid $1 to watch a football game, he has cast his vote. The “shut up and play” argument holds no water for him, because that vote elects our gridiron heroes, and heroes don’t walk away from burning buildings.

The fan dynamic was a powerful part of being a football player, as it reinforced the social meaning of the game and my status as a member of its highest order. People treated me differently because I was good at football. I understood that clearly. I went to a small Division III school called Menlo College in Northern California, far away from the money, hype and exposure of big-time college sports. But the power of the football moment and the impression it makes on people was alive and well. On a Monday morning after a big win, and in a class I was struggling with, my professor greeted me as I sat down: “Nate, after I saw you make that catch, there’s no way you’ll fail my class.” The message is clear: play well on the field, and everything else will take care of itself.

But that wasn’t all. We only played 10 games a season in college. And in the pros, even counting preseason, there are only 20 games. That’s 345 days a year when there is no cheering. There was something else at work, something elemental. I learned to crave the test of manhood that waited for me between the lines. There was nowhere else I wanted to be, and nowhere else that was more terrifying. It seems to me now, as I sit back and watch the NFL, that this test of manhood is the thing. It’s the attractor. Fans are able to have a vicarious manhood experience by watching a football game. They are stirred by the animal spirit but content to simply observe its roar, to marvel at the power, to say Whoa, damn, and then go home. That is enough for most. But for some of us who were born with a disproportionately athletic body and an athletic mind, that’s not enough. (And make no mistake, it is the athletic mind of the athlete that connects the dots; brilliant performance artists, the lot of them, mistaken as dummies because they never learned to file a report or calculate a spreadsheet. But try visualizing an explosively violent and incredibly intricate physical task, and then DOING it with your two hands, your body, your limbs, your connections, the synapses, the will and the fire, in real time against the most dominant members of the species. That’s genius too.)

I’ve come to understand the NFL’s priorities—protecting the shield from bad publicity—and so I don’t trust them.

I suppose that’s the crux of the disenchantment then: the suicides, the depression, the regression and the underlying sadness that follows the professional football player off the field and into life. Aside from the science of it all, which I’m intentionally avoiding here, the psychological effect can be the most damning. The task for which I have trained every fiber of my body, solidified with a daily rendering of the mind, capitulated in the soul and exalted by a sub-sect of society, is gone. It no longer needs me. I am unneeded. Make no mistake, I still have the ability to act violently and decisively and crush someone, but I can’t use those skills—the ones for which I was trained and praised. If I do, I will hurt someone and I will go to jail. So that’s that.

The day before I was cut from the NFL for the last time, I was a very good football player. Same with the day after. Same with this very moment, four years after it ended for good. But what else, then? And what do I do with this skill if I don’t want to coach football or go on television and talk about football? The modern reductionist football narrative isn’t real to me: this guy sucks and that guy should have made that play and this guy has GOT to make this play! I don’t buy it.

(Nick Laham/Getty Images)
Nate Jackson thinks about head injuries differently now than when he played, but would still welcome the opportunity to get back on the field. (Nick Laham/Getty Images)

I watched the PBS Frontline documentary: scary crap to be confronted with, football brains being sliced open and containing CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy). Scary and not at all healthy for me going forward. Now I’m familiar with the intricacies of a debate that suggests that my friends and I are probably screwed, statistically speaking. That is, unless I believe the NFL establishment, which says there’s no connection between head injuries and CTE. But I’ve come to understand the NFL’s priorities—protecting the shield from bad publicity—and so I don’t trust them. They recently reached a settlement with former players involved in a concussion negligence lawsuit. A settlement. Well, that sounds nice. But that $765 million does what exactly for me? Apparently, if I want some of the money, I submit to extensive cognitive testing, whereby a medical body determines how damaged my brain is, and I am awarded a dollar amount based on the findings. The higher the amount, the more brain-damaged I am. It’s a bittersweet payday that I don’t want to chase. I don’t want to put myself through it anymore.

But it’s hard to move on, because here I am writing about brain injuries, putting it all into my mind, giving me twisted thoughts. And I swear that when I read about CTE, or watch a story about it on TV, I feel an electrical current shoot through my brain. I forgot where my keys are. Is that life or is that CTE? I can’t find a job. Must be the tau protein build-up. I am sad and I am depressed and suicidal thoughts, like raindrops, come down from the sky on seemingly sunny afternoons. Is this science, or the realization that my life peaked in my twenties? I have no skills other than football and no idea what else to do.

Suicidal thoughts, like raindrops, come down from the sky on seemingly sunny afternoons. Is this science, or the realization that my life peaked in my twenties?

It’s all very heavy to think about, so it’s better if I don’t. But let me also tell you this, brothers. And this is where it gets messy. If my phone were to ring this very moment, and Mike Shanahan was on the other line telling me that they are short at tight end and asking if I’m in shape and if I want to take another shot at this, I would have a hard time turning him down. Even with the electrical shocks shooting through my brain and mounting scientific evidence. Even with the sadness, the confusion and the doubt. Even with an intimate knowledge of the hell that I was dumped in four years ago when I was cut for the last time, a hell that I have finally climbed out of.

Because I know that for those moments that I spend employed by an NFL team, I will be validated. My skills will be needed. There will be no time for the what-ifs. No time for doubt. No time for science. Only time for THIS, brothers. Crack! Smack! Whammo! Unleash the trained beast! Give me a task to complete, with THESE, my two hands! My body, my heart, and my mind. I am a warrior! But there is no more war for me.

In discussing the violence of the game, people often wonder if some player might someday die on the field. Death from a football hit. It could happen, I suppose. The men playing the game are getting bigger, faster and stronger through better nutrition, better training and better technique. They are missiles, built by an industry with an ever-expanding budget. Of course the missiles get more deadly. But that won’t stop me and it won’t stop anyone else who society deems fit to be vicarious vessels for manhood benedictions. Because it feels good to be a missile, even when it leads to my destruction. We all know how the big story ends. If I don’t die on the field, I promise you I’ll die off of it.

Nate Jackson played six seasons for the Denver Broncos (2003-08). His book, SLOW GETTING UP: A Story of NFL Survival from the Bottom of the Pile, published by Harper, is available in stores and online.

24 comments
Theanimal
Theanimal

Nate Jackson has created the most intimate and thoroughly enjoyable page-turner about life in the National Football League since Pete Gent's early 70's sports masterpiece North Dallas Forty.  Although the latter is purportedly a work of fiction, it is obviously based on Mr. Gent's years playing wide receiver for the Dallas Cowboys.  Mr. Jackson's description of his six years as a  member of the Denver Broncos  is relayed with brutal honesty, humor, and great poignancy. Though he finds himself literally and figuratively torn at the sudden ending of his days as a player, it appears he is just on the threshold of a long and successful writing career.

creed18
creed18

Great article that really gets down to the heart of the concussion dilemma. Even for non-professional athletes this is a huge issue. Playing lacrosse in college and being a senior, I know that I only have so many games left. If I were to get a concussion this year, it would be extremely hard to pull me off the field. I've played with torn ligaments and broken bones, but this one would have to be a decision that I took very seriously. Honestly, I'm not sure what I'd do.

Brucru
Brucru

Exceedingly well written. I'm getting the book.


OraPike
OraPike

oh--now we discover that football is a violent game??? and with lawsuits??? wow

StephenGrange
StephenGrange

I was 17 in just another rugby game against another school..(I played at least 40 games in any given season between school, club County and representative rugby that we better players were invited to)...I saw a punt (different but similar) about to go up and went up to block it, full layout as I was an ATHLETE.

Instead, he pulled the ball down and drove his knee into my temple (right side).. I think it was deliberate but was in no condition to ask..or speak..or walk..

I don't think I went out..just a lot of yellow..copper in my mouth and an inability to move in a direction of my own volition....I staggered off, sat down , had a bucket of water dumped on my head by a well meaning friend..and tottered back onto the field....Hospital for 24 hrs (I was found bare ass naked searching for a pint of Guinness..I think I was messed up some)..

I was playing two weeks later  Could not BEAR not playing even tho the buzzing was kinda loud at times...

Rugby is different..No-one hits another guy head on 50 times (or on every snap)..It's less frequent  and there is more restraint because we don't wear armour for protection that all too often is used as a weapon..But when those head hits happen? 

Last game was decades ago...I don't get headaches, I do deal with depression..I have memory lapses that concern me (just getting older? Is something finally happening?) I do have less feeling on my left side of my body..The assumption was that hit, but it may have been the others..I was one of 'those guys" that ran skull into skull (accidently but OUCH) The other guy would fall, I would smile and run to the next play..I was indestructible (I was 17)..I also lived on aspirin..

I have arranged for full body donation after I pass..I have no clue if I have the issues discussed on Frontline...I know I have had "stuff" but was it THAT hit? Was it just life in general being messy and growing up? So many unknowns...

I would do it all again...Hell yes I would....


My point in sharing is that those of us who were exposed to violent events in high school etc should also consider donating to medical research..It's not just pro athletes that will benefit, it's the military, car wreck or any violent head trauma victims...They need a large baseline of "healthy" or "possibly unhealthy" brains to look at too, to differentiate between the Mike Websters and the rest of the populace.


Thanks for reading...







espnrefugee0218
espnrefugee0218

Great article, I bought his book on my Kindle a week ago and read it within a few days.  

Obviously if Nate thinks his career peaked in his 20s he could hopefully have a 2nd career in wrting.  The book was incredible, very well written and informative.  

InstaDerek
InstaDerek

"I have no skills other than football and no idea what else to do."

Nate, you have definitely have skills other than football. One in particular is abundantly evidenced here, i.e., you can write. Not just "write" in the ordinary pen-to-paper sense — I mean in the professional-level writer sense. You can flat-out write. Your compositions are frank, accessible, and evocative of a keen self-awareness. 

You say you don't have a job; I don't know if that's an example of the depression talking or an assessment that others share. But in either case, I hope you're getting paid well to write the articles of yours I've read so far, because you're worth it. I'm gonna buy your book now, too, so I hope in my own small way I can contribute to your writing career. From other writers I know, I'm thinking even if you didn't get a big advance for your first book, hopefully the response to it and sales will earn you a big advance for your next one. 

Be well. And hey — Pioneer High and Menlo College? South Peninsula representin'! Palo Alto High right here, and my Dad taught at Menlo back in the day (before your or my time).

flatironette
flatironette

Great article - maybe best I have ever read about the dilemma any athlete has, but especially football players. The love of the sport, and all that goes with that, camaraderie, dedication, is very powerful. Hard to just give up, maybe even more so as you move up the ladder from HS to college to pro - beating the odds and becoming one of the few.

" It seems to me now, as I sit back and watch the NFL, that this test of manhood is the thing. It’s the attractor. Fans are able to have a vicarious manhood experience by watching a football game"

This is something I recognized in my 30's and did not like then or now. The violence is a huge part of the attraction of football, The vicarious thrill fans get, the armchair macho attitude that demands the players go out and sacrifice their bodies (exactly what they are doing) so the fan can get a hard on. Just don't understand that, don't like, and is maybe the ultimate reason I got turned off. It is truly amazing to see/ watch fans at games  or at home(often drunk) who are basically out of their minds.

The players I understand, the fans not so much.

bralinshan
bralinshan

There is a non-stop assault on football by SI and it's writers. We get it now...football is dangerous. If football is such a barbaric sport then why do you cover the games and bring attention to the glory of it all? If you truly believe that football players from the earlier days didn't know that what they were doing was dangerous? Then your a fool...guys got paralyzed on the field...that didn't stop anybody.

SI should stop with the hypocritical garbage. Either line up behind the "ban football" crowd and stop covering a sport that is so dangerous...or, shut up. Because this non-stop assault never ends. Football is dangerous, you can get head trauma that lasts, yada yada yada...there is nothing new except pointing at new victims. What's the end game here? Seriously, what's the end game!?

FYI, EVERY player in the current NFL knows the risks and they are all still playing. I don't see any retirement announcements. Because they love the game, know the risks, and get paid huge money. You know what else? All of those "victims" that SI keeps trotting out would play tomorrow again if they could. SI is fast becoming an anti-football website that still makes money off of covering all of the games and the glory that comes with it. 

Paul Sousa
Paul Sousa

Nate - great book I purchased it two months ago - between work, everyday life, family time and putting kids to bed I still managed to go through this book in 3 evenings.  It was such a great, page turning 'I don't want to go to sleep yet because I want to see what happens to him next' type of book. 

Geddy
Geddy

Nate, I read your book and loved it. I consider myself well-read and it was one of the best sports books I've ever picked up...well-written and incredibly informative. Don't believe it when you tell yourself you can't do anything but play football. Keep writing!

EdJohnson
EdJohnson

Nate:l

I bought (kindle version) and read your book.   Your depiction of the paradox of being a pro football player, knowing the cost to your body, yet craving playing the game at its highest level is compelling.  I don't have any words of wisdom for you, but please know that a lot of us are out here rooting for you.

brentmar2635
brentmar2635

the writing sounds like that of an anthropologist.  being very well written, i thought that mr. jackson could have a talent in journalism. then the closing caption stated that it was from his new book, which leads me to believe that he spoke and somebody else crafted the writing part.  if that's not the case, mr. jackson you have an exemplary skill set that you could continue to build upon.

CMFJ
CMFJ

@bralinshan

"If you truly believe that football players from the earlier days didn't know that what they were doing was dangerous? Then your a fool...guys got paralyzed on the field...that didn't stop anybody."

First, the argument, which has been clearly stated and was the basis for the lawsuit that was settled by the NFL, is that although the dangers to body have always been well understood, the dangers to mind were actively denied by the NFL.  That is, the NFL said, repeatedly and vehemently, that concussions were NOT dangerous to mind.  

Second, no one is trying to take away the choice to play football.  However, it is important to inform.  This "hypocritical" reporting has been essential to going where the NFL was to where it is now and where it will go.  That is, from denying concussions were bad to changing the game to diminish the chances of concussion and, more importantly, to treating players that suffer a concussion appropriately.

Your arguments essentially rest on willful ignorance and name calling.  That's it.  No substance or meaningful thought.  Gibberish.

InstaDerek
InstaDerek

@bralinshan Read the article and try to understand what it says before you spew into the comments about arguments that it directly addresses.

BigEl
BigEl

@bralinshan ...said the person who saw the title and clearly did not read the article.

AustinRoth
AustinRoth

@BigEl @bralinshan Well, I read the entire article, and it is indeed very well written and make its ppoints clearly and succinctly.

However, bralinshan has a point, two salient points at that.


1. What is the end game? Football inherently cannot be made safe. In fact, a strong argument can be made that every effort to make it safer actually leads to more devastating injuries when they occur. Players would not and did not launch themselves for head-to-head shots prior to the advent of the helmet. Your career would last one game. The new rules are already leading to an increase in knee injuries. So what is the end game? Flag football with no contact allowed? Elimination of football as a sport? It is a serious question that needs to be answered, because the answer to that question then drives what the next steps are to take in modifying, or eliminating, the game.

2. Certainly the sports press is being self-serving and hypocritical about player safety. All major football sports shows still feature clips of the big hits, they are still admired, though now they have to temper their enthusiasm if helmet-to-helmet contact occurs. But if it does not, them all praise the big-hitter. I see this hypocrisy as equivalent to baseball back in the 80's and 90's. Everyone from the Commissioner of Baseball down the the lowest beat writers KNEW the players were jacking up on steroids and other PED's, but the ratings they got were too big to be ignored, until the problem was too big and prevalent to hide. But it was not altruistic concern for the players that finally made the press report on the issue, now was it?

BigEl
BigEl

@MTBinDurham @AustinRoth @BigEl @bralinshan I agree with many of the suggestions above.  I also think that banning launching tackles and teaching arm tackling would help.  Also, making the field wider would reduce injuries.  These athletes are bigger, stronger, and faster than every and they're still playing on fields that are the same size.  Make the field wider by 10 yards and there will be more open space.

MTBinDurham
MTBinDurham

@AustinRoth @BigEl @bralinshan  Dr. Z, before his own brain issues took him out of the game, addressed this well.   They used to call unnecessary roughness a lot more -- if you hit a guy with excessive violence when you could have just made the tackle, they threw a flag.  Now they put you on SportsCenter.  

The NFL's rules changes for "safety" are window dressing, and don't address how the game has gotten more dangerous in recent years because it's now more "exciting."  Football today is radically different than it was in the 70s for a lot of reasons.  Here's a number of rule changes that would largely make the bleacher bums scream bloody murder but would dramatically reduce injuries:

1.  Dr. Z's "no cutting unless face up."  This isn't even concussions, but the complicated rules for cut blocking today are meant to protect the big aerial assault offenses that the NFL loves to promote rather than the safety of the players.  O-linemen shouldn't be able to cut block unless they're face-up on the D-linemen.

2.  Let cornerbacks get back to actually defending receivers.  The whole "no touching" before a catch isn't to reduce violence or injury, it's to make big 40-yard deep balls more common.  Cornerbacks have no choice but to try to hit receivers as hard as they possibly can on the reception in order to try to jar the ball loose.  Make receivers fight to the open spots, then ban huge hits on the reception.  Johnny Unitas and Otto Graham managed to complete passes that way, make modern QBs do the same.

3. No more running backs lowering their heads.  10 yard penalty if an RB leads with the head.  Make them get low in the legs, not just bend their waists.

4. Change legal tackling rules.  We've banned horsecollar tackles and face masks, we can ban missile launches and forearm shivers.  Set your feet, square your shoulders, wrap up, and take the guy off his feet like you're supposed to.

5. Most importantly, start calling unnecessary roughness again.  Yes, it's a violent game, but it's possible to play it without coiling and striking.  No more Warren Sapp blow-up hits.  No more Rodney Harrison bone crushers.  Block and tackle like you're playing a game, not like you're on WWE.

Yes, this will "change football."  It will make it less "exciting."  But it's that "excitement" factor that's ruining the game, not the core physicality.  With this, football would be a less dynamic, less vertical, less adrenaline-pumping experience, and ratings would probably fall, which is why they won't happen.  But it would still be football, it would still be very physical, and it would get back to being a game instead of violence theater.  In fact, it would make it look a lot more like it used to look, before "entertainment value" was considered all-important.

Bucky182
Bucky182

@AustinRoth @BigEl @bralinshan It seems as if the NFL keeps making rule after rule after rule to clean up the game and make it safer. Are the rule changes really that effective in promoting player safety? Keep the helmet hits out of the game but instead of implementing a plethora of new rules, stiffen the penalties. Fines aren't going to bother guys. Take away their paycheck and they'll listen. Stiffen the penalties, expand the rosters, and cut the preseason down to two games. 


Rules will be broken, guys will pay fines, and move on. Suspend them. Take their pay. Bigger fines and suspensions would probably have a greater effect on deterring head shots than rules changes. Knee injuries, even before the high hit rules were in place, were prevalent in football. They will always be prevalent regardless of the rules. Accidental head shots will happen, I understand that. It is the blatant shots that need to be more harshly penalized. A $30,000 fine isn't going to stop a guy. Two games and losing $200,000 of compensation is much more likely to stop the head hunters than a 'measly' $30,000.

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