Haunted by a Player’s Death, a Coach Walks Away From His Sport

The toll of brain trauma in football — most commonly in the form of the disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or C.T.E., linked to repeated blows to the head — has crippled many players and their families. In the 2011 John C. Birdlebough vs. Homer game, a head coach was collateral damage.

The accumulated effect of dozens or hundreds of blows over many years can apparently leave players with many of the same symptoms seen in Alzheimer’s patients. One or two blows in a game, though, can sometimes result in death. Over the last four years, 19 players have died from brain-related injuries in high school football, according to Terry O’Neil, the founder of Practice Like Pros, a group that advocates reducing collisions in youth football.

In the days and months after the game at Homer High, Charles went from rising at 6 a.m. to waking up at 3 or 4 in the morning after having bad dreams and restless nights. He went from cheering on his daughters while they played softball to being nervous that they would hit their head sliding into second base.

Photo

A jersey worn by Ridge Barden, who died during a football game in 2011 after suffering a fatal blow to the head, is now kept at the home of Charles’s parents

Credit
Heather Ainsworth for The New York Times

“I didn’t want to sound like a quitter, but after my first year back I knew,” Charles said. “I coached 10 ball games and I struggled every 10 weeks. It wasn’t fun. There was more anxiety every week.”

Charles lasted one more season. He said he saw a therapist three times, but wasn’t sure if it helped.

“It affected us because I knew the problems that he was having and I couldn’t help him,” Charles’s wife, Missy, said. “He needed somebody to talk to. I didn’t know what to say to help him.”

To the naked eye, there was nothing unusual about the play…

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