Imagine waking up to a world of forgetfulness and confusion. Walking into a room and forgetting why you went into that room in the first place. Realizing you are both ‘on’ and ‘off’ at the same time. All the time.
Welcome to the world of an ex-athlete. Or at least this ex-athlete.
I turn 32 this month. From the age of 5 until I was 23, there wasn’t a year of my life that went by where I didn’t play a sport of some sort. I’ve played baseball, basketball. For a two-year stretch, I even wrestled.
But the sport I played the most — and the longest — was football.
To be exact, I played every fall over the course of 14 years. Four years of Pop Warner, two years of junior high, four years at Massabesic High School and four years at Plymouth State University, a Division III program in New Hampshire. I even had three forgettable games as a member of the Notre Dame Cobras — a semi-pro team that was a part of the New England Football League — in 2008.
I was a quarterback, which means I was more likely to take a hit than give one. I’d love to tell you I was a world-class athlete, but I’d be lying. In fact, the greatest accomplishment of my athletic career was taking a fairly savage beating in a 47-0 loss to Portland at our homecoming game in 2002. I don’t know how many times I was sacked that game, but it was a lot. At least that beating came at the hands of the eventual Class A champions.
For lack of a better term, I got my bell rung. Often. I’ve never been medically diagnosed with a concussion. There are two reasons for this. One, I was a hell of an actor. Two, I convinced myself I didn’t have a concussion by giving myself the fool-proof Dave Dyer Concussion Exam.
This is exactly how it went:
“My name is David Ryan Dyer. I was born Sept. 27, 1985. My mom is Ann Pismenny. My dad is John Dyer. George Washington was the first president of the United States.”
That was it. I did that test at least a half-dozen times in my sporting career, that I can remember.
I felt it was my duty to be tough, all the time. My dad spent eight years in the U.S. Navy and 26 as a member of the South Portland Fire Department. If he and his buddies were willing to run into a burning building, I should be able to get up after getting hit by a defensive tackle. And my favorite sports movie is “Rocky,” which happens to be about a boxer who takes brutal shots over and over again before making a dramatic comeback. The character of Rocky Balboa always preached about getting up after getting knocked down, in boxing and in life.
Sylvester Stallone may have meant that figuratively, but I took it literally. I believed in it (and still do) so much, I have a saying on the subject from one of those Rocky movies tattooed down the left side of my ribs.
I was perfectly fine for the longest time, or so I thought. But not long after my career ended in 2008, I couldn’t help but notice things were becoming different for me mentally. First was forgetting why I walked into a room. I didn’t think it was a big deal, that it was a natural part of aging. But then came constant headaches. Higher anxiety. It became easier for me to become irritated, when in previous years I would be fairly laid back.
The worst period was from 2012 to 2014. I was feeling low. I mean really low. You could call it depression, or just a bad funk, but I wasn’t in a good way.
If a headache arrives these days (which is fairly often), I have to pop four Ibuprofen and have two cups of coffee just so I can function. And sometimes that doesn’t work, and then I just have to suck it up. I can remember conversations from 25 years ago. However — as my girlfriend Brandi will tell you — if I am sent to Hannaford’s with more than three items to buy, I need to punch it into the notes of my iPhone, because my short-term memory isn’t great. I need to be told directions a few times over. It happens more than I want it to. It frustrates some people around me, but no one is ever as frustrated as I am when these moments occur.
Back in March — while my family was asleep — I watched the movie “Concussion” for the first time. It’s a movie about Bennett Omalu (played by Will Smith), the forensic pathologist who is credited with first discovering CTE — chronic traumatic encephalopathy — a degenerative brain disease found in athletes who take repeated blows to the head. His findings were found in the bodies of deceased players from the National Football League. One of those players happened to be former University of Maine football player Justin Strzelczyk. After an eight year career with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Strzelczyk — who had been dealing with bipolar disorder — drove his truck into a tanker at 90 miles per hour during a high-speed chase with police, killing him instantly. Sadly, he’s far from the only former NFL player to have CTE in their brain at their time of death. Junior Seau, Andre Waters, Ken Stabler, Mike Webster, Frank Gifford, Chris Henry. That’s just a small sample-size. A neuropathological study was released in July, showing 110 of 111 deceased NFL players had CTE.
That’s 99 percent.
And before you say ‘Well, that’s just professional sports; that just happens to people that are bigger, faster, stronger.’ Yeah, no. It happens in youth leagues, high school, straight through to the pros. There are literally thousands in this country — just like me — who will never see an NFL field and still have the same side effects from playing a physical sport. They just don’t have the platform I have to tell you about it.
The movie scared me to death. CTE can’t be found unless a person is deceased, so I’ll never know if I do or do not have the disease unless progress is made in the medical field. While I certainly don’t have the issues that former NFL players like Strzelczyk had, will I at 40? Or 50? Will what I’m dealing with now be the worst it gets? These are the questions I now ask myself on a regular basis.
Of course, I’m hoping that these issues don’t involve concussions at all. Maybe it’s just getting older. Anxiety runs in my family. I can still do all the things anyone else can do at my age.
I have to be honest with myself. If I could go back, knowing what I know now, I would still play football. I love the game. I think the greatest lessons in life can be taught from the game. Even though I was a freshman and had no major impact on the team, there’s no feeling like being part of a state championship squad like in that 2000 season with Massabesic, when we beat Bangor 26-21 in front of a packed house at Fitzpatrick Stadium in Portland. There’s no feeling like being part of a college program that had two straight winless seasons and then helping turn it back into a winner, like what happened at Plymouth State.
Sports is a part of me. It has helped shaped me into the person I am. It’s provided me with a career. I honestly don’t know who I would be or what I would do if I didn’t have sports in my life (first thought: attend tons of comic book conventions, perhaps be a movie critic).
This is also not a plea for sympathy, because frankly, my life is pretty awesome. I’m biased of course, but I believe I have the most beautiful child — inside and out — in my daughter Scout, who is now 11 months old. Brandi — who deals with all the good and bad quirks that I possess — still comes home every evening after work. I have one of the coolest jobs a person on this planet can have. I must be doing something right.
I wrote months ago that I would be proud if Scout became the next Ronda Rousey. I stand by that. I hope she plays as many sports as she wants. But injuries will be a topic we discuss. And the minute I believe her health has become jeopardized, I won’t hesitate to pull her away from that sport. She won’t be using the absolutely silly Dave Dyer Concussion Exam.
This is not a plea for parents to withdraw their children from football, or from sports. But realize that for all the positives that sports can bring, there is a dark side, and it’s real. Injuries can happen, and some last longer than a couple of minutes. They can last days, weeks, even years. Like anything in life, there is a risk. Know and be aware of that risk.
I know. I have a lifetime of wonderful memories. And a lifetime of aches and pains that come from it.
Dave Dyer — 621-5640