Broken by game he loves, ex-Indiana WR Booth seeks peace, purpose after football

Thursday January 19th, 2017

INDIANAPOLIS — Sometimes it hits as he reaches for his alarm clock. Other times, he's on the toilet, and it's a jolt as he stands. On the morning of Jan. 4, it was there when he woke, this ominous, familiar fog. Something unpredictable and defiant stirred in Dominique Booth's brain.

The 21-year-old had spent the previous night with high school friends Brent Lyles, Marcus Johnson and Jared Ruth at Lyles’s parents’ home in suburban Indianapolis. Around noon, Lyles’s mother, Karen, heard a noise from her upstairs bathroom. Booth was sick, vomiting in the shower and unable to stop shaking long enough to come downstairs. Karen called an ambulance.

As EMTs administered anti-nausea medication and transferred the 6’1”, 205-pound former Indiana receiver to St. Vincent Hospital, they asked what might be wrong. The flu? Food poisoning? Booth couldn’t rule out an illness, but he was sure he didn’t have food poisoning; he and his friends had eaten the same Steak ‘n’ Shake dinner the night before. He explained to the paramedics that vomiting, dizziness and headaches had become normal over the past year. Seventeen months after he played his final down of football, Booth by that day was certain: The three diagnosed concussions he’d suffered from 2010–15 had completely altered his health and mental state.

As he waited for a hospital visit he knew would bring little relief, Booth’s thoughts took a turn. Before the concussions, he’d been a mild-mannered, bright kid, a close-to-straight-A student on his school’s advanced track. But since, his outlook has darkened. His self-assurance wavers, and that day, it was at its worst. “I really just felt like I’d be better off if I died,” he recalls tearfully in Lyles’s kitchen two days later. “That’s the first time I really thought about that. My friends and family wouldn't hurt no more, and my future kids wouldn't have problems."

When he returned to his father’s home the next day after bloodwork and tests on his gallbladder revealed nothing, a single piece of mail waited. It was a medical bill from Indiana, a $201.59 charge from a bout with pneumonia. After signing a medical waiver last winter, Booth had been under the impression the school would cover treatments while he remained on scholarship; in the past, he’d paid not a cent for non-football-related procedures like pulled teeth and allergy treatments. His head ached, and he pushed the envelope aside. The sport he loved had broken him, and the school he feels turned a blind eye to his health was trying to nickel and dime him as he wondered if he’d ever put back together the pieces of the person he was.

*****

Mark Booth’s house sits on a cul-de-sac in Pike Township, a blue-collar neighborhood on the north side of Indianapolis. In its driveway sits a trailer full of video gaming equipment, which Mark drives to birthday parties on weekends off from his job as a school administrator. Otherwise, the home is unremarkable; its small lawn is dusted with early January snow, the subdivision a shade more idyllic than the neighborhood that surrounds it.

That calm was what Mark sought when he moved his five-year-old son out of the inner city in 2000. After researching areas with better schools and lower crime rates than Martindale-Brightwood, which in 2014 had a crime index 2.5 times the national average, he settled on Pike. He saved, and the tan brick ranch home on Deep Run Court was the family’s prize.

Booth lived primarily with his father after his parents divorced when he was in second grade. (His mother, Lacheena Carothers, moved to Kentucky when her son was 13, but the two remain close.) Football loomed large in the family’s life; Mark, who played receiver at Taylor University in the 1980s, coached for years on the south side of Indianapolis, and Booth has a long scar on his left leg from falling into a drainage hole on the team’s field when he was five. On Thanksgiving each year, the two dined with Mark’s brother, Issac Booth, who played three years in the NFL for the Browns and Ravens. Whichever game played at mealtime on the TV mounted above Mark’s mantel, they’d pause compulsively, breaking down controversial plays. And so it came as no surprise when Booth emerged as a talented quarterback in middle school.

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Looking back, Booth says he sustained two hits under center he now believes were concussions that went undiagnosed. In seventh grade, he slipped in the mud on a wet day and suffered a hit as he fell, splitting his chin. He played the rest of the game with his face wrapped in gauze and remembers nothing of the action after the hit. The next year, in seven-on-seven, he was pummeled on a blitz by a player who didn’t grasp the rules of the no-contact game. "I'm just out,” he recalls. “I can't remember nothing. I'm done at that point. They just said I got the air knocked out of me. I know I had a concussion because there was this nuke sound in my head."

As a freshman, Booth was a star receiver on Pike High’s freshman team. On Sept. 13, 2010, the Red Devils played Lawrence Central, and while coming across the field on a slant route, Booth was clobbered by a linebacker. Johnson, who was on the sideline, says he didn’t see the collision—but he heard it. When Booth came to, coaches helped him off the field, and he threw up on the sideline. Trainers put him in a neck brace, and Mark loaded his son into his truck and headed to the hospital. On the drive, the color red agitated the teenager, who didn’t understand how hurt he was. Between yelling and telling his father to turn the car around, he burst into tears at nearly every light or stop sign. When the two reached the hospital, Booth locked his father out of the truck and attempted, at age 15, to drive it back to the school. Eventually, he gave up and was admitted, but when nurses cut the Superman shirt he wore in every game off his body, the hysterics began again.

"That's the crazy thing about this,” Booth says. “I can tell you all these stories, but none of them do I remember being there at. I've heard them so many times that I feel like I know it. I've been told what happened to me. I wasn't really there; my mind wasn't there."

Booth does remember learning his diagnosis: He’d sustained a concussion as well as a subdural hematoma, a brain bleed in which blood is trapped between the covering of the brain and its surface. They’re among the deadliest of head injuries, but because doctors caught Booth’s early, it stabilized. After a night in the hospital he returned home, and he missed a week of school, lying all day in the dark, barely eating while sleeping, he estimates, about 80% of each day.

When he did return to Pike, he was detached. Ruth, who had English class with his friend, describes him as being “spaced out and real emotional.” One morning, Mark found his son perched on the edge of his bed staring into space at the time the two had left for school every day that year. More than once, he locked himself in a bathroom in the middle of the school day to call or send a barrage of text messages to his mother.

But gradually, friends say, he improved, and a month after his injury, Booth passed the mandated ImPACT concussion protocol (after failing it seven times) and was cleared to play. With one game remaining in the season, he suited up for a weekday practice. But as he emerged from the locker room, varsity coach Derek Moyers spotted his jersey from a field away. "No, you're done,” Moyers told him after jogging over. “You'll be on varsity next year; there's no point in you playing right now."

The Pike freshmen, undefeated at the time, lost that final game.

 

*****

"I always think of concussions as a long cinderblock,” Booth explains at a red light in northwest Indianapolis, not more than a mile from the fields where he suffered several. “I think of somebody with a hammer and a chisel at the top, and maybe when I had [the] middle school [head injuries], they were little chips.”

He pauses and winces.

“My one my freshman year, I imagine a big crack in the cement. I imagine a smaller chip from my sophomore year and a smaller chip from my senior year, but that all adds up. And none of us know how long that cinderblock is. Every time I think about concussions, it's how long until I really crack, and I can't be me, and I can't manage it, I can't manipulate it, I can't act like there's nothing wrong with me? Because I can still go around and sit quietly and act like nothing is wrong. I kind of wonder: How long until I can't do that anymore?"

The second diagnosed concussion, the chip, came at Ben Davis High on Aug. 26, 2011, not a year after Booth’s subdural hematoma. His father and grandfather, Richard Simon, had researched helmets and bought the sophomore a special Riddell Revolution Speed model, but even it wasn’t enough to protect his head upon impact with safety Antonio Allen, known as “Woo.” The local standout was known as the hardest hitter in Indianapolis; legend has it he broke at least one helmet that season and caused multiple concussions on clean hits.

"[Booth] had caught the ball, was coming down the sideline, and Woo just came out of nowhere and just smacked him,” Brent Ash, a Pike assistant coach, recalls. “But the hit was perfectly legal. I've never seen anybody hit that hard ever."

Booth bounced up after the hit, but on his way to the sideline, he spoke unintelligibly to Lyles. He stumbled, and Moyers was on him in a second. “The lights were on, but nobody’s home,” the coach recalls, and when trainers diagnosed Booth with his second concussion, he began punching the bathroom door in the visitor’s locker room. Still, barely more than a week later he had passed the protocol.

That year, Booth led Pike in all receiving categories, and scholarship offers poured in. As a junior, he set school records for receptions (67), receiving yards (856) and touchdowns (11). By the end of the season, he was living every high school player’s dream, juggling offers from college football’s premier programs, including Alabama, Clemson, Florida State, Michigan State, Tennessee and Wisconsin. Concussions barely crossed his mind, and he was healthy all year, with no reason to think his medical history figured into his future.

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But during training camp before his senior season, a hit knocked him unconscious. A Pike defensive back, Anthony Greene, was covering Booth, and as the taller receiver jumped to snare a pass, Green followed in an upward trajectory under him. His helmet caught Booth on the chin, and the receiver was down. Though he wasn’t diagnosed with a concussion, Booth missed about a week of practice, and the mental effects were severe. “After that, I disliked football, had no motivation in school and didn’t appreciate anything I had going for me,” he says. "I wanted to be done with football. I wanted to be done with school. I wanted everything to be over at that time. That's just never how I was."

Reminiscing about Booth’s senior season three years later in a meeting room at Pike, both Moyers, now the offensive coordinator at nearby Warren Central High, and Jimmy Graves, who was Booth’s offensive coordinator and is now Pike’s head coach, at first say they noticed no such change in their star player. But as they continue talking, the two men make eye contact. Graves recalls a few meals at Buffalo Wild Wings where he remembers feeling as if the teenager were adrift. Booth maintained his 3.5 GPA and was engaged at school, often helping players who were close to academically ineligible get back on track. But he seemed indifferent to his own fate. “Those responses and the things that he was feeling, the ups and downs, the one day he's good, and the next day he's kind of down a little bit,” Moyers says, “concussions probably did have something to do with a lot of that."

On Aug. 30, 2013, about a month after the hit, Pike traveled to Cincinnati for a game. Graves called a play, Trips H Boston, a bubble screen with three receivers lined up on one side of the field, which was Booth’s specialty. But the senior was nowhere to be found. “Where the hell is Dominique?” the coach hollered. Booth had taken himself out of the game. "That was never me,” he says. “I really just felt like crap. In the moment, I'm about to cry because I don't know why I can't be the person I was."

*****

Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire/Corbis via Getty Images

Having always been a grade ahead in most subjects, Booth was set to graduate high school after the fall semester of his senior year. For months, he’d planned to sign with a program that would let him enroll early, and by the spring of 2013, he had his heart set on Tennessee. What happened next was a bureaucratic mess; Booth committed in July, in the fall Tennessee said he’d have to wait until summer to join the team, and by the time he decommitted in December, he had limited time to pick a new program. Indiana had a space available for the four-star recruit in the spring, and so Booth joined the Hoosiers.

His freshman year, Booth played in all 12 of Indiana’s games and started the final six, finishing with eight receptions for 70 yards. That November, Moyers and his two sons drove through an ice storm to see him play at Ohio State, where he finished with two catches for 18 yards. The next spring he was Indiana’s most experienced returning receiver. But in a scrimmage on Aug. 11, 2015, Booth suffered his third diagnosed concussion on a hit by linebacker Clyde Newton. In trainer Craig Tweedy’s notes, included in Booth’s college medical records which Sports Illustrated reviewed, Booth is said to have presented with an altered mental state, a glassy-eyed stare, dizziness and blurry vision. Sent home to the apartment where he lived alone, he spent the night vomiting and woke the next morning with a fuzzy memory of the scrimmage and a throbbing headache. When he reported to class, he realized he could no longer focus long or well enough to read.

Two days after the concussion, Tweedy indicated in his notes that Booth had spoken to Indiana’s team physician, Dr. Terry Horner, with concern that he’d suffered too many concussions to continue playing. According to the note, Horner reassured him that was not the case.

On Aug. 27, more than two weeks after the hit, Booth spent 20 minutes on a bike, and after presenting no ill effects was cleared to run. He recalls jogging for 20 minutes on Aug. 28 and sprinting for 10 minutes. Tweedy’s note indicates he was then sent for a “light weight high rep” workout, but Booth recalls pressure to advance faster than the protocol dictated. He says the workout after running was unnecessarily intense and that a trainer had instructed him to complete it because Booth didn’t want to get cussed out by head coach Kevin Wilson. (An athletic department spokesman at Indiana declined Sports Illustrated’s request to comment on Booth’s concussions and his time with the program. Wilson also declined to comment through an athletics department spokesman at Ohio State, where he’s now the offensive coordinator.)

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After that workout, Booth’s progress halted. He told Horner he suffered from a throbbing headache that was sensitive to light and noise and said his memory was unreliable. He also struggled to sleep. Horner observed in a note that Booth displayed “some attention deficit and memory difficulty which was out of proportion to his IQ.” (An IQ test later that fall would reveal a score of 116, indicating superior intelligence.)

In September Booth’s symptoms remained, and he began to suffer from depression. He remained off the field and away from the team, and Horner reiterated that his condition resulted only from his most recent concussion, not from the subdural hematoma or any of his pre-college injuries. In class, he struggled, relying on a teacher to read him some of his tests and on a classmate, Charity Gordon, for help reading, studying and organizing his thoughts. Even with the assistance, his grades slipped, and he’ll graduate this spring with, he estimates, a 2.7 GPA.

Prescribed Amantadine, a medication often used to reduce the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, as well as sleeping pills and Lexapro for his depression, Booth felt overmedicated and dull. He hated the sleeping pills most of all; when he closed his eyes, night terrors came, and soon he began to forego them and stay awake. On Oct. 7, he underwent wrist surgery to ensure he was healthy for spring ball, and he hoarded his pain pills to help combat his concussion symptoms.

Over those months, both of Booth’s parents visited Bloomington, and Carothers says she felt as if she were watching her son “fizzle.” Always queasy about his injuries, she wondered when enough was enough. Still, doctors, coaches and trainers assured Booth he’d make a healthy recovery after his medical redshirt season. And Booth wanted to play, if only because he couldn’t imagine a world in which he didn’t.

*****

Sam Riche/AP

When Indiana played Duke in the Pinstripe Bowl on Dec. 26, 2015, Booth was with the team. Mark also traveled to New York and sent his customary email scouting report of the Hoosiers’ opponent to fellow parents, just as he had for every other game in a season in which his son had not seen a minute of playing time. Both men expected the receiver would suit up in just a few months for spring practices.

But on New Year’s Day, Booth received a call from Wilson. The coach had decided he needed to sign a medical waiver to remain on scholarship but cease playing football.

The sophomore was shocked. In a Dec. 4, 2015, note, Horner had indicated that a conversation loomed about disqualifying Booth from contact sports, but the receiver says he had no idea that was a real possibility. The waiver seemed like a change of heart on the part of Indiana, as if the program had given up on him. That winter, he arranged to return as a student coach, but after consulting with several doctors unaffiliated with Indiana who said he was fit to play, Booth reconsidered. He visited Mississippi State and talked to coaches at Kansas, Virginia, Ball State and Missouri State. In the process, he and Mark began to hear whispers that some programs believed he’d suffered eight concussions, not three. They were angry, their minds set on one goal: another season on the sidelines, then a transfer, then football.

Booth couldn’t shake the feeling that without the game, he was no one. Friends disagreed. It was a familiar refrain: You’ll be fine without football if this doesn’t work out. You’re a good person. Good things happen to good people. "How do you know that?” Booth rebuts. “My mom is a great person. My dad is a great person. I'll show you the house we lived in when I was younger. They had degrees too. We had nothing.

“Especially when you're young, you feel like [football is] your only way. That's really how I felt for a long time, that [football] was my only way."

But as spring turned to summer and no path forward with football materialized, Booth began to reconsider. He still wasn’t sleeping more than four hours most nights, and he took an antidepressant as needed, still aggravated by its effect on his personality. With more time to focus on himself, he realized he barely knew the man whose life he was living. He was volatile, sad, his mind cloudy. His grades slipped. He read stories about Junior Seau and other players whose lives were ruined—or ended—by concussions. He began to think about his future family, the houseful of kids he hoped for, and he imagined his broken brain jeopardizing those relationships. He wondered why Indiana hadn’t flagged his medical records from the start after reading about the two prior diagnosed concussions. He wondered why the program wasn’t willing to try an experimental therapy before simply signing away his career. He felt naïve; he’d trusted his coaches, trusted his trainers and doctors, and maybe they’d lied to him. Or maybe there simply wasn’t enough information or research for them to do right by him. As he recovered away from the team, coaches barely called or visited, even one whose children he’d babysat. He felt forgotten. And then he tried not to feel at all, pushing those worries away and feigning stability.

"For the majority of last year, it was really just acting,” Booth says. “Act like nothing is wrong."

*****

This fall, Booth began telling people, not in a formal announcement, and not all at once: He was finished. Sitting around the kitchen table at Lyles’s home two days after the vomiting incident and four weeks after Wilson resigned amid reports of player mistreatment, his friends recall their reactions to the news.

They were as surprised as they were relieved, congratulating their more talented friend on walking away from the game many of them still play. Football still dominates their lives; in the background, ESPN’s NFL Insiders plays on mute, its ticker scrolling through news of two head injuries, as the friends try to reconcile this sobbing man with the game they still love.

As Booth, operating on just four hours of sleep, describes how changed he feels, Lyles interrupts. He says he sees no difference in his personality, that none of them do. He’s trying to be comforting. Booth’s laugh is bitter. "Y'all are my best friends, and y'all hear from me every day, and you don't see a difference,” he says. “But in my mind, it's so different, more different than I've ever felt in my life."

He tells them about his thoughts in the ambulance, about leaving it all behind. Again, he’s interrupted, this time by five people at once. But he continues. He was wrong, he says, and that day was a turning point. “I thought about that, the kids I haven't had yet, and the wife I don't have, and my little brother and sister,” he says. “I realized there's so much more that's worth it. I was playing in my head, if I don't die today, what am I going to do tomorrow?"

A few hours later and about 15 miles southeast of the Lyles’s comfortable kitchen, Booth eats chili in his grandparents’ small home in the old neighborhood. Sheena Shepherd clucks over her grandson in a room practically wallpapered with his picture. It’s the first full meal he’s eaten since the hospital visit, and she offers seconds. He declines. Simon, in a blue New York Giants sweatsuit, sits in the wheelchair he was once confined to after a stroke. He recalls former Indiana offensive coordinator Kevin Johns sitting in that very room and telling him he’d take care of his grandson. A former defensive tackle at Temple, Simon isn’t so much angry as he is sad. He wants his grandson back, and Booth assures him that he’s still here, that he’ll be fine. "I know you're growing up, and life ain't peaches and cream like you thought it would be,” Shepherd says. “But you know what? It's O.K.."

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Booth could have kept playing. He could have lowered his expectations and signed with an FCS or NAIA program, to perhaps never suffer another brain injury but likely field a handful more subconcussive hits. He can’t quite say how he turned away from this path, only that one day, it struck him as wrong. He’s the product of a world where boys are told they’re soft if they sit out too long, trained by coaches still adjusting to concussions and the increasing research that ties them both to football and to severe and long-lasting complications. He’s a cog in a system where colleges profit off unpaid athletes who put their bodies and brains on the line each week, where they’re told a free education is prize enough for the risk. Everything Booth absorbed for two decades told him to keep playing, to man up, that his identity was tied to his uniform. He’s not a doctor, not a trainer, not even a college graduate yet, so he trusted in those learned instincts until somehow he managed to contradict it all and say no.

Booth doesn’t hate football. He doesn’t hate Indiana, nor does he want to assign blame even after a rash of allegedly mishandled injuries under Wilson have come to light. (The family of former Indiana defensive end Nick Carovillano lodged a complaint with the athletic department after their son’s back injury was, they say, mishandled in 2014. Since Wilson’s resignation, numerous players have come forward to the Indianapolis Star and Indiana Daily Student alleging mistreatment during injuries.) A thousand unlucky factors conspired to bring him to today, and it’s hard to find a team, professional or at the college level, that isn’t playing catchup when it comes to head injuries.

Booth admits that his future sons probably won’t play the sport, but he still watches. His friendships are still built on shared experiences on the football field. After graduation, he wants to open a gym, a goal his mother calls “not Plan B; Plan Q,” though it still lies on the periphery of the sport that once defined him. Still, he is O.K., like Shepherd says, away from it. He hopes he got away in time.

He prays that the next man in his situation, or the next parent, trusting and uninformed and hopeful, might do the same.

Another of Booth’s close high school friends, Derrick Wilkerson, just added to the tattoo sleeve on his right arm. Wilkerson is a running back at Liberty University, and he’s showing off his new art while home over Christmas break. Booth traces one of the lines on his friend’s bicep and tells him about an idea he’s been kicking around. He wants to ink the inside of his left arm with a picture of a brain on top of a cell: mind over matter. But there’s a twist to the message he’s ironing out before he settles on the final design: how to represent a soul.

Mind over matter. Soul over all.

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