There’s a documentary you should watch on Netflix, if you get the chance. It’s called Ice Guardians. It’s about the ‘enforcer’ players that until recently were a big part of ice hockey, especially in the NHL.
I won’t spoil it too much but it was recommended by a Twitter mate, Mags, who thought it would be of interest to me because it covers concussion and injuries that occur in the sport. The theory being that these players who were thought of as mere thugs (and they were) were actually policing the game and their brutality actually kept the more widespread problem of cheap shots taken on the more talented hockey players in check.
The statistics make compelling reading and it looks like it could be true, but it was the subject of CTE (Chronic traumatic encephalopathy) that struck a chord with me.
CTE is a neurodegenerative disease found in people who have had multiple head injuries. It’s been big news in the NFL and there are questions being asked about the part that football might have played in ex-players developing it too.
Concussion in sport, and its potential after-effects, is a subject I have long taken an interest in. At the last count, I have had eight, possibly nine, concussions during my playing career. I put the ninth one down as ‘possible’ because my memory is a little hazy these days and like the majority of them, it was one of the unrecorded ones.
Officially, I’ve had just four. Those are the ones where I have had no option but to require medical attention. The first was a Celtic Park episode in 1999 that left me in hospital with post traumatic amnesia and short term memory loss for three days.
The second happened one Sunday morning at Pittodrie as I prepared for a reserve team game the following day. I was taking part in a game of possession and someone passed me the ball. I remember controlling it with my right foot and the next thing I knew, I was face down eating the grass, not knowing what had happened.
Apparently I had turned around and been met by someone’s elbow, flush on the temple.
It wasn’t even a sore one but I was clean out. By this time, I had my own neurologist who I visited every six months for three years for check-ups after that initial concussion and what we had discussed was that if there were no symptoms of concussion (headaches, nausea, drowsiness) then because I wasn’t a boxer or a rugby player, I would be fine to continue playing.
“Great” I thought. I could engineer what he said to suit my own stupidness so I wouldn’t miss any matches or training sessions, so I did. Instead of telling him the truth that would lead me to sit out a week of contact training, I convinced the physio that I hadn’t lost consciousness at all and that I was fine to play the next day.
So off I went, feeling groggy but not too bad. But as soon as I got back home I suddenly felt very sleepy and took myself off to bed, where I slept for an hour or so, undisturbed by the fact that I had actually wet the bed as I slept.
Since I hadn’t done that since I was an age of single figures, I called the physio immediately and he took me to the hospital where it was clear to everyone I was concussed.
The third time was in Silkeborg. I had taken a high ball and fell awkwardly over the top of the striker and landed head first into the ground. It took a few minutes for me to work out that the edges of my vision shouldn’t be blurred like a dream sequence in a tv series and signalling to the bench, withdrawing myself from the game.
This was concussion number six and by that time, I knew the drill, and off I went to hospital in the back of an ambulance. Which wasn’t an entirely bad experience, I have to say. I remember lying in the back of the ambulance, strapped to a stretcher, staring at the roof and thinking to myself it was the best feeling in the whole world. The trip to the hospital was about five minutes but the journey felt like an hour. The only thing I can compare it to is coming around from a general anaesthetic.
Littered around those incidents were the clash of heads with Marvin Andrews, the kick to the head by my own player when playing for Barnsley against Swansea, the three incidents in training sessions and finally, the fourth documented concussion and probably worst of all, was the one playing for Lincoln City against Grimsby Town in late 2012.
It was a nothing challenge. I dived at someone’s feet and took a knock to the head. Again, it wasn’t enough to be painful but by now, it didn’t have to be.
I was substituted and sat on the bench in a daze. “Just relax until the drowsiness and nausea goes and I’ll be all right,” I thought again.
This time, I gave it two days and began training again but something wasn’t right. It was if there was a delay between my body and my brain. My body would move as I wanted but my head took a brief moment to catch up.
I had the sensation of watching a tv show where the pictures and sound are out of synch. You can watch it, but it’s confusing.
Then the nausea came back. Except it wasn’t just the nausea, it induced actual vomiting and was always set off by watching TV. Especially adverts. This went on twice daily for a fortnight. I’d be watching TV and the ads would come on. All of a sudden I would get an extremely vivid feeling of deja-vu.
The thoughts that would enter my head weren’t always memories but whatever they were seemed eerily familiar. And then I’d feel it. The nausea. I could feel it rise up slowly from the pit of my stomach until I had to rush to the bathroom to throw up. That was five years ago.
I’d never been worried about the consequences of my concussions until then. I’d stupidly treated it like I would any other injury. As long as I could get through a training session then I was fit. End of story.
It’s only now when I look at the symptoms across all four stages of CTE that it’s become a worry. They include attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, memory loss, social instability, impulsive behaviour, poor judgment, with the latter stages resulting in progressive dementia, depression and suicidality.
And now the fear is real, you’re left without the justification to ignore the dangers.
There are no training sessions to get through any more. No games left to excuse the idiocy of putting football before my long term health. Just the unwelcome thought that it might not be just age that’s stopping you from remembering things and there might be a reason why you aren’t feeling your usual self.