This Is Your Brain on Football

The new science of concussions proves that high school football is America's most dangerous game

January 31, 2013
football brain
Illustration by Sean McCabe

Some boys just run smoother than others, burn premium for fuel, not unleaded. Eric Pelly is a Jaguar of a kid, all throttle and forward lean, no square edges. From the age of six, he's played two sports a season and trained with the zeal of a walk-on grinder, the peewee Clay Matthews. Crunches and pushups while he's watching TV, hours of lifting after he's home from school and blitzed through his class work, then out with his boys for games of flag football that turn into tackle without the pads. At one point, in middle school, he was bigger than other kids, but topped out – cruelly – at five-eight. He moped for weeks when the doctor told him that his growth plates had shut for good, then bore down harder to craft a body that would take him where he planned to go. Here's a straight-A student at a high school so competitive that he's barely in the top 100 in his class, but he's still telling his mom what he's said since grade school: I'm going to play pro football. You just watch.

NFL's Fatal Problem: It Kills Its Workers

That isn't merely the Pittsburgh talking in him, though it seems like every male in this yellow-and-black town wants to be Troy Polamalu, or hit like him. Since he was old enough to walk or, more like it, run, Eric has craved contact the way fat kids crave soft serve. At 16, playing flanker for his high school team, the perennial section champs North Allegheny, he goes up for a pass, cracks helmets with a safety and bangs his head on the turf when he lands. By the time he's 17, he's had a couple of concussions that his parents, Joan and Mark, know about, and maybe another couple that they don't. "I kept him out of football as long as I could – he knew I didn't want him to play," says Joan, an ex-flight attendant who stopped flying long ago so she could ferry her three kids to their games. "He was always so driven, but clever, too; he could talk you into anything," she says. "In the end, he finally wore down my resistance."

In the fall of his junior year, Eric stumbles home after taking a shot to the jaw in a backyard football game. His friends help him in, then he slides down the wall, saying, "Mom, I got another, but don't worry." This concussion's different, though: The headaches last for weeks, as does the fatigue that keeps him home on school mornings. He fights through it and goes in late, but has trouble finishing exams: His eyes seem to wobble in their sockets. "He had headaches and stuff, though he didn't talk about it much; he was hard-nosed, always going a hundred-and-ten," says Bill Landefeld, a friend and confidante with a concussion history himself, having wrestled in high school and college. "There are certain kids that don't know another speed and need someone to step in and slow them down. That's what he was missing: a coach to say stop. He'd be in the gym, lifting, while he was still concussed."

What Is Behind the NFL's Coaching Crisis?

At length, Eric recovers but gives up playing football, in part to reclaim his summers from the grind of practice. Still, he can't shake it, that need for speed; it's wired into the dura of his brain. So when a close friend, Jon Casile, joins a high school rugby club, Eric tags along to check it out. He falls hard for the game, finding it just the right mix of skill, force and smarts – and no cheap head shots. He likes it so well, in fact, that he makes a huge leap the summer he turns 18, earning a spot on the Pittsburgh Harlequins, a semi-pro team. "We were going against men, guys who'd played college and World Cup, but Eric was so good he fit right in," says Casile. Fast and fearless, Eric scores in bunches and becomes a starter at outside center. At an away game, however, he gets dinged carrying the ball and subs out before the half and doesn't return. Once home, he tells no one about the blow to his head, afraid that Joan will blow her stack and squash his playing career once and for all. Just two weeks later, he's back on the pitch, wrestling men a hundred pounds bigger. Joan watches from the stands when he makes his trademark tackle, a low, hard takedown of a bruising forward. The forward pops up again but Eric doesn't; he's too woozy to stand, so his teammates carry Eric to the bench. The next thing Joan knows, her son is balled up on the ground, moaning and holding his head in vice-grip pain. An ambulance is called as she races across; Eric is barely conscious when she gets there. Still, he keeps muttering "I'm OK, Mom," as they wait for the medics to show. "It was so ingrained in him to tell me that," she says. "Even out of it, laying across his coach's shoulder."

Ten days later – after leaving the hospital and making a shockingly swift return to class – Eric goes back to his stopless life, though he clearly is not the same kid. "We ate lunch together and he wasn't all there, said his head was really hurting bad," says Landefeld, 23, now the front-desk manager of a Marriott hotel in the suburbs of Pittsburgh. "I met him in the hall and saw the same thing: He couldn't focus or really follow the conversation," says Adam Neugebauer, another close friend who's now a graduate assistant at Tiffin University in Ohio. "He said he wanted to go to sleep but couldn't that day. He had to work at his father's shop after school." That evening, eating dinner and discussing the frog pond in the yard, Eric suddenly seizes up, midsentence. His eyes roll back and his fists clench tight; he's dead from a massive brain swell either before he hits the floor or within a couple of seconds of having done so. His mother screams at his sister Jenna to call 911, as Mark tries to revive him, but the cranial edema has crushed his brainstem and shorted out his heart and lungs. This boy, who was so fully and sleekly alive that he never stopped moving or multitasking from the moment he rolled out of bed, is killed at 18 by a pair of concussions that no one who saw them happen thought life-threatening. And then, two years later, comes a second shock of horror to a family blown sideways by grief. At a lab outside Boston, neuropathologists examining Eric's brain have found clumps of poisoned cells, the brown-tinted markers of CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy. It is the disease that's dimmed the minds of retired football icons, wrought early dementia in hockey fighters and turned the brains of punched-out boxers into mush. As it can't yet be detected in living subjects (the clumps are too small to show on current scanners), it's been confirmed only in deceased ex-athletes whose brains were donated for study. Those players include Mike Webster, Pittsburgh's Hall of Fame center; Terry Long, who played beside him on that Steelers line, and Justin Strzelczyk, Long's mountainous linemate soon after Webster retired. To date, 75 subjects have tested positive at that lab, the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy in Bedford, Massachusetts – men who won Super Bowls and hockey brawls and paid an awful price for it by their forties. To their number, add Eric Pelly, a boy who once burned to be a Steeler and, if nothing else, died like one. He very surely will not be the last.

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