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
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.
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.
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.