At the snap of the ball I stepped to move down the line toward my quarterback and fake as if I were taking a handoff from him. In my effort to sell the fake and disguise the fact I wasn’t actually receiving the ball, I slumped slightly and lowered my head. Then… wham!
The defender at the opposite end of the line was unblocked on the play and he nailed me good, a clean but jarring helmet-to-helmet hit. It was the kind of blow that creates a bluish-green flash behind the eyes, as if a flashbulb goes off inside your head. It’s the effect, I guess, of your brain slamming against the inside of your skull. I fell to the ground, stunned by the blow.
With the play over I gathered myself and walked slowly back to the huddle, dazed slightly but still thinking I could play on. There are moments like this throughout a football game. You get blind-sided and feel a crunching or crackling in a shoulder or ankle, and wonder how bad it is. You pause to assess the pain and damage before getting up - ‘No, I’m not injured. I can still play.’ This was one of those moments, only it wasn’t.
When I got back to the huddle a teammate glanced over at me. “Your helmet’s cracked,” he said. “Get out of here.”
My Franklin & Marshall Diplomats were taking on the Muhlenberg Mules in Allentown, Pennsylvania, on that crisp autumn afternoon in 1986, maybe 1,000 fans were on hand, and I had my first concussion. Or at least my first obvious and debilitating one. While I never blacked out and remember most of what happened that day, I was definitely knocked loose from reality. The hit had left a 3-4 inch crack in the hard plastic shell of my helmet, at the front just above my right eye. That’s pretty unusual at any level of football, but my only thought at the time was practical: I need a new helmet. So I ran to the sideline and swapped helmets with a teammate, exchanging the mouthpieces that were strung to the facemasks, and I was back in after a play or two. The coaches were preoccupied with getting in plays and following the action on the field and I’m not sure even knew what was going on. They would soon enough.
On a couple of plays I lined up on the wrong side of the formation, the quarterback screaming at me to move. On another a defender jumped off-side and lightly ran into me but it sent me sprawling, obviously off balance. Most glaring, in the huddle the quarterback wasn’t making any sense. I could understand the words as he called plays but they were all jumbled. I would come to the line having no idea what to do. It was like a nightmare: You’re the featured soloist in front of a capacity crowd but when the spotlight comes on you can’t sing and don’t know the words. Stranger still, I didn’t think anything of it.
This went on for some time, exactly how many plays I have no idea, when the coaches called my number and I was nowhere to be found. On that play I was jogging downfield, far from the main action, when I turned to see the quarterback looking confused, stuck in a bad spot before being buried by several opponents. ‘That was a lousy play,’ I remember thinking to myself. I started jogging back toward the huddle to get the next play when I heard a yell from the sideline. “Buck! Get over here!!” My backup was running onto the field and the coaches were madly motioning to me.
I jogged over and the head coach grabbed me. “What were you doing? That was XZ-79 Shuttle Sweep!” It was a play that had been put in specifically for me that week, a shuttle pass to the tight end, and we had worked on it several times at practice. It was pretty innovative stuff for small college football and I was looking forward to running it. My response: “I’ve never heard of the damn play.”
My coach’s eyes widened and then somebody behind him spoke up. I heard the words “cracked helmet” and “melon,” but felt no connection to them. Coach’s eyes then narrowed as he checked me out. “Chuck!” he yelled for the trainer. Then to me, almost gently: “Go see Chuck.”
I wandered off to find Chuck, more confused than concerned. ‘How could I not know the plays?’ I thought, but never connected it to the hit. As I sat on the bench Chuck administered a simple quiz: What day is it? Do you know where you are? Who are we playing? ‘This is silly,’ I thought, but have no recollection of what my answers were. I definitely wasn’t offered another helmet, though, a move confirmed at halftime when, suddenly overcome with nausea, I had to rush to a bathroom stall and heave over the toilet.
As I stood on the sideline in the second half, down near the kickers, no helmet on my head or in hand, I felt neutered. But I also felt like I’d joined this exclusive club – ‘So this is what it feels like.’ In high school concussions were rare and treated with the utmost seriousness, but in college it was, at least among the players, something of a joke. We would say a player got a “melon” or was “melloned” – because you felt like you had a big melon-head afterward, I guess – and would laugh about it, poking fun at the injured player. They weren’t uncommon, players sometimes even getting them in practice.
That first concussion wouldn’t be my last, and years later I would read about how you’re susceptible to more concussions after the initial one. That makes sense, I thought. And what of the other longterm problems they’re now finding in former football players - memory loss and other cognitive deficiencies, plaque build-up on the brains of autopsied players? Surely my career as a tight end at a small liberal arts school on the East Coast didn’t equal that of longtime NFL vets, right?
At the time, my first melon behind me, I simply wanted to get back on the field. After the bus ride back to F&M my coach grabbed me and said I’d have to spend the night at the infirmary on campus as a precaution. With the hubris of youth, and maybe the after-effects of the concussion still shading my thoughts, I instead walked back to my apartment and prepared to go out that evening. My coach, to his credit, phoned me to make sure I was following his order, so I headed to the infirmary, where a nurse woke me every hour to shine a flashlight in my eyes and ensure I hadn’t slipped into a coma. I was annoyed to be missing a good party at the fraternity house.
The coaches had me sit out contact drills at practice the next Tuesday, too, for which I was mocked by some teammates. But that was it. There was no special testing done, no appointment with a neurologist and no medical clearance sought nor granted. I was just back on the field banging heads with a new opponent that Saturday, without hesitation or a thought about it in my head.