I looked up into the stands at Lane Stadium in Blacksburg and there was a crack in my vision. Imagine suffering a hit so hard to your head that the next image you see is offline. My right eye saw the bleachers on the east side of Lane Stadium at one level and my left eye saw the bleachers all a little lower. Put the two images together in your head and that is a pretty good sign you just suffered a concussion.
The year was 1981. It was my freshman year playing for Virginia Tech football. The play was a kickoff return. I was in the next to the last row on the receiving team. My job was to lead the runner up the field. As I began running, I hid behind a large tackle in front of me. A smaller player for VMI never saw me coming. As he juked around the lineman, I hit him square in the chest with my head. That was the blow that cracked my vision. I knocked him out completely. They had to carry him off the field, but I may have gotten the worst of the hit. After looking up and seeing the bleachers cracked, I made my way over to the sidelines. My vision returned to normal, but the rest of the game was wiped from my memory.
I had just suffered a concussion. A real concussion. Believe me when I say every football player sees stars at some point in their playing career. I remember seeing stars more than once when I was playing recreational football at 12 years old. But when I got to Virginia Tech, the hitting was so intense that each night I would go to bed with a headache. The routine was the same, take aspirin, close my eyes, hope the pain would go away and start over the next day.
I was a tight end playing for coach Bill Dooley. In practice I would look over at the linebackers and fullbacks and marvel at the hitting drills they were doing. I often wondered how they could withstand all the blows to the head.
Later that night following the concussion, I felt nauseous. My parents kept me up most of the night worried that if I fell asleep I would not wake up. Bright lights hurt my head for the next couple days. Luckily it was the last game of the season and I would not have to return to the field.
That would be my last football game. I quit playing football, not because of the concussion, but what would happen later that spring. I was playing baseball for the Hokies and I even hit a home run my first time at bat. The very next day, I told coach Dooley that I would participate in one day of spring football. It was my way of assuring him I was still serious about playing football. The very first drill, inside Rector Field House, I cut one way and my right knee went another. I tore my ACL. It was at that moment I knew my football and baseball career was over.
I share my concussion story following the announcement that San Francisco 49ers linebacker Chris Borland retired after one year in the NFL. Borland made his decision based on his future health. I’m sure there are many older, retired football players who wished they had the courage to make that same decision.
With no visible signs of brain trauma, a concussion is hard to see and quantify. Many players will blow it off and try to continue playing. If you think your athlete may have suffered a concussion, take it seriously and see a doctor.