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May 29, 2017

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‘Get back in the game right now’

Editor’s note: Personal stories are a large part of a growing medical humanities field, which aims to develop empathy and compassion for patients and their families. A grant from Nevada Humanities supported the research for a series featuring the stories of people suffering from various aspects of mental illness, all told to mental health columnist Kim Palchikoff. This is the second part of the series.

Brent Boyd is a former offensive guard for the Minnesota Vikings, for whom he played from 1980-1986. He now advocates for retired football players who, like him, suffer from concussion-related brain injuries. He lives in Reno, and his Dignity After Football Facebook page has more than 7000 members nationwide.

My own first experience with a concussion was as a rookie in training camp in the last preseason game. In the second quarter I got hit, knocked out. My teammates carried me to the sidelines and when I woke up, I was blind in my right eye. I started to panic. My coach came over and said, “Boyd, what’s the matter?” I was still panicking and I said, “Coach I can’t see out of my right eye.” And he said, “Well, can you see out of your left eye?” And I said, “Well, yeah,” and he said, “Get back in the game right now.”

And I had to finish the game unable to see out of my right eye. That situation was common. Until we started raising awareness about concussions maybe 10 years ago, that was just the culture of the NFL; you play injured.

I bet I had as many as 200 concussions over the course of my NFL career because they didn’t count falling on Astroturf as a concussion. The Astroturf was only a quarter-inch of green decorative plastic to cover the concrete or asphalt stadium floor, with no carpet padding, to make it look like grass. But when you fell off a play, you always fell to the ground and your neck whipped your head onto the concrete. It’s reasonable to say that the guys who played in the 1960s and 1970s could have had hundreds of concussions.

Going into the NFL, we knew we were going to play through pain, wind up as old men with bad knees, shoulders other body parts. It was a risk, but we made an educated calculation and decided to play professional football. If I knew then what I know now, I wouldn’t have played.

After I retired from the NFL, I had endless problematic medical symptoms, and the doctors had no idea of where they were coming from. Fatigue was the main one. Memory loss. Headaches that never stopped. They were checking every organ. I had so many MRIs, scans and other medical tests I never even imagined. They thought I had some kind of cancer. Meanwhile I had become a single father, I was trying to raise my son and I could not hold down a job because of my medical issues.

I tried selling insurance for a while, sold restaurant supplies, got fired from both those jobs. I even became a beer salesman, I couldn’t keep that job, either. Instead of seeing accounts, I’d have to pull off the road and take a nap. I just couldn’t handle the workload, the whole time not knowing the reason.

My bosses told me I was lazy, so did my mom and dad, other loved ones; that really hurt. My family asked, “What the hell happened to you, you were so motivated and now you can’t hold down any job and you just want to sleep the whole time?” And here I was, having graduated with honors from UCLA and I was accepted to law school. I never went; the offer from the NFL was too good to pass up.

It was probably the most difficult time in my life. The doctors treated me for depression. I spent years of my life on every drug combination; none of the medications worked. It was hell going off one and on another.

One doctor finally said, “One reason these anti-depressant drugs wouldn’t work would be if you had organic brain damage. He was the first one to ask me if I ever had had a concussion.

I went to doctors at Harvard and UCLA; they did brain scans. They told me they found significant Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, but because their efforts were not FDA-approved they couldn’t make a formal diagnosis that I could take to court.

Today, the NFL is not paying my full disability claim, even though two NFL doctors supported my claims of concussion-related traumatic brain injury. They sent me to a third doctor, who said that my concussions were not responsible for any of my symptoms. They’re standing by that doctor’s diagnosis.

When the $1 billion NFL concussion lawsuit was finally settled last year, I’m sure many fans thought that the NFL had taken care of the players although it was the NFL’s public relations problem that really got taken care of.

No one knows what the paperwork for that settlement is going to be; who is going to be making the decisions for approving or denying claims?

I don’t think you can make too many more changes to the game of football; it’s never going to be safe.

The helmets keep your head from getting cracked, they keep your nose from getting broken, but danger will always be there. Because of socio-economic reasons there will always be players willing to play the game.

Kim Palchikoff wrote this for InsideSources.com.

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