After football, my brain is OK – I think

The author, Issac J. Bailey, with teammate Shane Mills at the 1994 Bermuda Bowl.
The author, Issac J. Bailey, with teammate Shane Mills at the 1994 Bermuda Bowl. Courtesy of Issac Bailey

I scored my final touchdown during my final game late in the third quarter of the 1994 Bermuda Bowl.

I was a wide receiver for Davidson College and ran a stop-and-go, beating the double coverage of a cornerback and safety and racing 52 yards to the end zone, eluding three would-be tacklers. We won the game, against Sewanee, 28-14.

Why the Al Bundy jaunt down memory lane? Because I remember that play like it was yesterday – even as new research discovers more about the impact football’s violent blows can have on brain health. I can remember it and just about every other thing that happened during my football career, including my only fumble; the time I didn’t flip my hips quick enough for a pass slightly behind me that bounced off me and was intercepted and returned for a touchdown; the hardest hit I ever took, right under my chin when I wasn’t paying attention; and the time I was blocking a player and a few minutes later was watching him be carted off on a stretcher, the ambulance driving onto the field to get him.

I had only a couple of serious injuries, none requiring surgery, though I was taken to the hospital during a preseason game in my senior year in high school. I had broken the small bone in my right wrist diving for a pass. That forced me to sit out half the season. I then partially tore my hamstring, forcing me to miss most of my freshman season at Davidson.

Not once in 10 years of organized football did I sustain a concussion, and it’s through that lens I considered the latest news about chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, the brain disease associated with football and soldiers in war – though there’s been growing concern about women’s soccer players – and updates I periodically receive as a former NCAA athlete about a “concussion injury litigation” class-action lawsuit.

The headlines don’t match my experience, though I’m as concerned about the data out of Boston as anyone. Researchers there found evidence of CTE in nearly every brain they studied, with the highest percentage among professional football players. All but one of 111 former NFL players’ brains studied had the disease, compared with only three of 16 players high school or younger, suggesting a compounding effect of hits the longer one plays. But it wasn’t a random sample. Most of the men studied had shown symptoms, which prompted families to donate their brains.

That leaves an enormous information gap about just who is most susceptible to the disease, under what conditions, and how widespread its effects are. What makes one player a likely victim may not be present in another one. We just don’t know. It’s encouraging to see researchers trying to figure out ways to test living brains. Once that technology becomes available, that will answer a lot of questions.

It is good that football has already begun adjusting, with more coaches sitting players at the slightest hint of a problem, even when those players want to keep playing. But we won’t know what it all means until brains like mine are studied, brains of those who played for several years but have experienced no hint of a problem, decades after they last put on a helmet.

Until then, fans and parents – I’m both – must decide how much to continue supporting a game we grew up loving. I’m still deciding.