Former Kansas Jayhawk running back Brandon Bourbon was in the headlines earlier this month. Most football fans aren't likely to recognize the name, but the topic immediately turned to concussions and CTE. This the result of years of media attention regarding CTE, head trauma and the dangers of playing football. This, the result of a heightened awareness of what football players face after their careers. This, the result of the fact that Brandon Bourbon had killed himself.
Bourbon was 24.
A four-star recruit from Potosi, Missouri out of high school, Bourbon was a member of the first recruiting class Turner Gill brought to the University of Kansas in 2010. A solid recruiting win for the Jayhawks, Bourbon chose Kansas over schools such as Notre Dame, Stanford and Missouri. After redshirting his first year on campus, Bourbon broke his leg during spring practice, but recovered in time to contribute as a part time player during the 2011 season. He averaged 6.8 yards per carry and scored a touchdown on 28 carries, but after the season Kansas head coach Turner Gill was fired. That led the administration at the University of Kansas to bring in a big name football coach in an attempt to elevate the football program to a level near that of the basketball team. Enter Charlie Weis.
Just a year removed from having been the offensive coordinator the Kansas City Chiefs as they led the NFL in rushing in 2010, Weis came to Kansas with the name recognition and offensive know how that was supposed to aid Kansas in recruiting and put an offensive powerhouse on the field. It seemed like a great match for Bourbon, as he would get to showcase his skills in the offense of a coach with extensive pro connections. By all accounts Bourbon worked hard during his years under Weis and patiently waited his turn behind James Sims, finally earning the starting nod heading into camp for the 2014 season.
Then on August 17, 2014 everything changed when Bourbon suffered a knee injury during an intra-squad scrimmage. Two days later head coach Charlie Weis announced that Bourbon would miss the season having torn his ACL. Six weeks later Weis was fired, and what just months prior had been an extremely promising fall turned even bleaker for Bourbon.
In a matter of weeks Bourbon had gone from being the presumed started for a coach with significant pro connections, to unable to play due to injury. With Weis gone, Interim Head Coach Clint Bowen had spent the overwhelming majority of both career at Kansas, including both his playing days and his time as a coach. His only experience outside Kansas in more than two decades as a coach and player included a single year each at of Minnesota, Western Kentucky and North Texas. This, while Weis got to leave town with the remainder of his Kansas contract guaranteed.
Weis' contractual guarantee was in addition to the money he was still being paid by Notre Dame. As Grantland noted last year, between his pay from both Kansas and Notre Dame, Weis was set to earn $4.6M in 2015 from coaching positions from which he had been fired. That was enough that Weis would have been one of the top ten paid coaches in college football, were Weis in fact a college football coach last season. Instead, due to his own incompetence and inability to field a competitive team, Weis made that much to be unemployed. Meanwhile, Bourbon struggled through surgery and rehab in 2014 as an unpaid college athlete, working to rebuild his dreams of possibly playing pro one day.
Bourbon bounced back from the injury, though, and was able to obtain a sixth year of eligibility, although he had to play at a Division II school. This a result of the fact that Division I players are only allowed a sixth year of eligibility if both of their redshirts are medical redshirts. When Bourbon had redshirted in 2010 it had not been a medical redshirt. Thus, Bourbon took on the starting role for the Washburn Ichabods, where he rushed for 937 yard on 219 attempts, good for 4.3 yards per carry. Bourbon was good enough to be named co-offensive player of the year for the Ichabods and second team all-MIAA, but those numbers are not going to attract the attention of pro scouts.
Thus, his college career had come to an end. There was no glamour, no bright lights, no fanfare of a final sendoff in a bowl game. No invite to the Senior Bowl or the combine. Just years of wear and tear on the body and mind a twenty-four year old former college football player. A career on the brink of success as the starter for a big name coach in a power five conference had derailed, and he had finished his college career playing his last game at Yager Stadium in Topeka, Kansas. In front of an announced attendance of 5,403 he had rushed for 17 yards on 13 carries and caught three passes for forty yards. And that was it.
In the months that followed he remained active on Twitter, under the handle @BeastmodeBourb. He engaged in conversations with former Kansas players such as Ben Heeney and Tyler Patmon. During the Super Bowl he remarked that during his redshirt season at Kansas the RBs were coached to chip Von Miller on every single play. He congratulated former Jayhawk Chris Harris with winning the Super Bowl. He retweeted Marshawn Lynch’s retirement tweet and two days later tweeted, "Best run I’ve ever witnessed has to go to @MoneyLynch".
Barely an hour after tweeting praise for Lynch Bourbon retweeted a link to an article from Scientific American that just a single concussion has the ability to triple the long-term risk of suicide. Bourbon suffered at least one concussion during his time at the University of Kansas, missing time in 2011 as a result of that injury. It is not hard to imagine that he suffered others during his playing days as well.
This single tweet, mixed in amongst Bourbon's other Tweets, may have been a stab in the dark at an individual trying to understand and comprehend the lasting effects of head trauma. It may have simply been him retweeting a fact of import to his fellow football players. It may have been an unheeded cry for help. The world will likely never know.
Less than two months later, on April 2 Bourbon’s normally active Twitter account fell silent. Within days he was listed as a missing person. His family could neither find him nor reach him by phone. He did not answer calls. He was not responding to texts. Finally, on April 8, after nearly a week of silence, Bourbon was found on a secluded property near Vienna, Missouri.
Brandon Bourbon had killed himself.
It is unclear what led Bourbon to take his own life. Did his 2011 concussion play a role? Was it years of subconcussive trauma to the head? Were there outside factors of which no one is aware? Was it the rapid descent from starter for a team in a power five conference to unable to continue his career at that level because of injury and NCAA rules? Was it the fact that he had lived and breathed football for decades, and with the end of his college career, the driving factor for the majority of his life had been removed?
These are questions to which the answers are likely to never be known, but they are something to keep in mind during the draft this week. While the media will celebrate and laud the top picks and the young men selected will see their dreams of making the NFL come true, for every player taken there are dozens, if not hundreds, whose football dreams have recently come to an end. These are players like Brandon Bourbon, who have given their body, soul and mind to the game for much of their lives, and who now are left with little more than scars, memories and trophy cases.
The sacrifices players make for fans at all levels are great, and as the media celebrates those players whose dreams come true later this week, don't forget to take a second to remember those players who are not selected. Those players whose dreams have come to an end, but still carry the physical reminders of their playing days.