In the winter of 1987, Harry Carson should have been celebrating
the New York Giants' victory in Super Bowl XXI. Instead, he was
worrying that he might be losing his mind.
Carson, the All-Pro middle linebacker and Giants co-captain, was
in turmoil. He experienced sharp mood swings and was often
depressed. For several years he had suffered periodically from
headaches, blurry vision and lethargy. He was forgetful. He had
difficulty finding the right word in conversations. His once
large vocabulary appeared to be slipping away. Alone in his car,
he attempted to plug the drain by listening to vocabulary tapes.
The former Black College All-America, known for his academic
achievements and eloquence, was secretly trying to teach himself
how to speak again.
Carson suspected that all this had something to do with the 13
or more concussions he had suffered on the football field since
high school. Yet none of the injuries had been more than a
"bell-ringer," as players call them, and he was proud that he
had rarely missed the next play.
He told no one about his growing difficulties. He did not want
to betray weakness to his teammates, coaches or opponents. He
kept even his family in the dark. At home he would forget things
his wife had told him. She accused him of not listening. "It was
not a fun time for a lot of people in my world," Carson
remembers. "But since the eggshell was intact, nobody realized
how much the yolk had been scrambled." Though he desperately
feared disclosure of his condition, Carson didn't know exactly
what he was hiding.
May 31, 1998
Now, more than a decade later, he has gone public. Sitting in
his office at the Manhattan headquarters of Mutual of New York
(MONY), Carson talks openly about his medical problems. He has
joined MONY's sports marketing division, which started last year
and is headed by his former teammate George Martin. It offers
insurance, financial planning and postcareer counseling to
This is not where Carson had expected to land. He had planned to
work in sports broadcasting after his playing days. Even more
surprising is that this intensely private warrior, who waited
seven years to see a doctor about his symptoms and did not
disclose his condition to the public for another two, has become
a leading spokesman, along with Al Toon, Merril Hoge, Pat
LaFontaine and others, on postconcussion syndrome, a condition
that is increasingly familiar in sports.
Meeting a big challenge, however, is nothing new for Carson, the
youngest of six children of a railroad worker and a cleaning
woman. He entered the NFL in 1976 as a fourth-round draft choice
from South Carolina State. He retired in 1988 seemingly well
prepared for life after football. He had invested his money
prudently and worked during his last two seasons at New York's
In his first year out of football, he cohosted CNN's NFL
Preview, served as an in-studio analyst for MSG network and
filed reports for ABC's Good Morning America. Carson's
television prospects appeared to be excellent, but privately he
knew better. "I was terrified to go live on the air," he says.
"I never knew whether I was going to remember a player's name,
statistics or even the right word. As the countdown went 'Three,
two, one,' I didn't know what I was going to say."
In 1990 Carson finally told his doctor about his symptoms. The
eventual diagnosis, postconcussion syndrome, meant the end of
his broadcasting aspirations.
While Carson struggled to find a new line of work, he was asked
by the Brain Injury Association in 1994 to promote awareness of
postconcussion syndrome. Taking such a high profile seemed risky
to him. "I had always fought against the stereotype that big
football players were like Moose in the Archie comics," he says.
"Now I was admitting that I was a big football player with a
He feels lucky to still live a productive life. The key to his
success lies in recognizing his limitations and adapting
accordingly. He knows there are several down days each month
when he needs to be out of circulation, to relax and rest his
brain. This helps mitigate his symptoms.
"I take things day to day. Whatever comes my way, I adjust and
deal with it," Carson says. "In the meantime, I'm in a position
to use my experiences, both the good and the bad, to help