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The Drive: On the brutality of American Football

Seattle Seahawks v Jacksonville Jaguars Photo by Logan Bowles/Getty Images

We knew. We did know. I knew. I won’t deny it.

But what I knew I only understood in an insensitive and abstract way. It was a fact of sorts—almost a factoid. American football players suffer brain damage from playing football. This fact hid in the domain of gallows humor. It might be mentioned on Freaks and Geeks or Daria. I bet Greg Ginn has written a lyric about the subject. It was a talking point in the debate between jocks and nerds, if such a debate exists outside of the pop culture. I don’t know.

And I didn’t know, because how I knew was so shallow and so insincere as to be incorrect. Some people, some people who were not me or my friends or my family, were smashing hell out of their brains. Remember laughing at Emmitt Smith? I miss laughing at Emmitt Smith. Laughter’s good. Don’t fuck with laughter.

But it is exceedingly harder to laugh when someone you love, someone you admire, someone for me who represented all the hopeful possibilities of life, became an Emmitt Smith like derangement of herself. I didn’t know at all. To slightly alter a quote from Tim O’Brien: Stupidly, with a kind of smug removal that I can’t begin to fathom, I assumed the problems of permanent mental impairment did not fall within my special province.

In the summer of 2013, my mother suffered a brain injury. I still to this day do not fully comprehend what happened. She was outside gardening with her husband. Somehow she hit her head on a pole. Almost immediately I have to speculate.

Mom was blotto like I’ve never seen the day of her wedding. I do not mean to say the small woman that was my mother was drunk in a way I was unaccustomed to. Never in my life have I ever seen anyone as intoxicated as my mother was on that day. Or so I remember. She could walk, staggeringly. She could talk. But she was loud, unintelligible, clumsy and impulsive. Yet—so fucking what? Mom had a right to have fun. It was her wedding. I thought she was wedding well. I did not begrudge my mom for finding someone to love, someone to come home to. He was handy and quiet and stable-seeming.

Maybe mom stumbled drunkenly into the pole. It was Friday. This I know. It was Friday when she struck her head and only on Sunday did she receive treatment. Blood had pooled inside her skull. This crowded her brain. By Sunday she could no longer talk. She wrote something on a piece of junk mail and her husband rushed her to the hospital.

She was saved, very close to death but saved, and the day I visited her, the day of her surgery, a doctor told me she should suffer no long term effects. Mom may be released the very next day. But she did not leave the hospital for a month.

One day when I was by her bedside and she was sleeping the way she did almost all day and all night during that month, a nurse told me she was being held for detox. I never knew what the lasting effects of her brain trauma were. I cannot tell you with any kind of certainty. I cannot tell you whether this marked the beginning of her slow suicide, if it intensified her addictions and compulsions, and if it did whether it was the brain trauma or if it was the psychological trauma which was most responsible. But there is this memory.

My wife remembers us walking from my mother’s home to a salon on Powell as a happy experience. In her recount, my mother was open, friendly and cheerful. Mom wanted a haircut to hide her surgical scar. This was September, maybe a few weeks after her discharge, the sun was mild, the breeze steady and cool, and all the bee-friendly gardens ringing the little houses of her neighborhood had gone to seed. We walked slowly, never straying far from mom, and soon enough we were on the grimy thoroughfare that is Powell. Mom popped inside the salon to ask a question. She was gone a strangely long time, something approaching half an hour, but returned cheerful and with an appointment.

My memory differs in one way. Mom seemed lobotomized. Maybe she was only sober or more sober. Or maybe she felt the profound calm one feels after surviving a medical calamity. But the memory of that day haunts me. I knew one woman and that woman I loved most profoundly a love of admiration. This woman I pitied and loved in a protective way.

* * *

I didn’t enjoy the Seahawks Super Bowl winning season. Some of the games of that season I did not see and still have never seen. I was contracted to write a book and all but promised great sales by my publisher. That didn’t pan out, by the way. Watching, researching and writing about the Seahawks was my financial obligation, and I was too old too broke too failed and too bereft of other options to say no. But September of 2013 I wasn’t doing much but smoking pot all day and posting angry comments in whatever comment section I could afflict with my bitterness and hatred.

Commercials for the Frontline documentary League of Denial were in heavy rotation on OPB. I didn’t need to see it to know, but I did watch it. Watched the replay. Just about indoctrinated myself with its message. The National Football League knew that many of its players were suffering repeated brain trauma from which they would never recover. This trauma could radically change the behavior of those who suffered it. It could make them violent, impulsive and prone to addiction.

The public, the media, were pressuring Roger Goodell and the NFL to more severely punish players who acted impulsively, who were addicted to drugs, who battered their wives and children and girlfriends. The NFL, which knew of the consequences of its violent sport, was being pressured, is being pressured, to fine and suspend players for misconduct very possibly caused by the sport itself. I do not doubt that you know this. Something peculiar to American culture allows us to know through dark humor, say, that Michael Jackson was probably a child molester, but also act startled by the documentary Leaving Neverland.

What I knew though was a deeper kind of knowing that’s not so easy to trivialize. First mom was sunny and optimistic if a bit off. She had a cognitive therapist and expressed such a sunny and optimistic attitude about the goals she was given. Already I was beginning to lose contact with her. I was a fucking wretch, a total failure as a son, as kind and attentive as I could be when I saw her, but already seeing her less and less. By October I visited a doctor and through that doctor and another doctor more or less prescribed myself Effexor. Which even at a small dose rendered me hypomanic and borderline sociopathic.

The book I wrote for Triumph Books is in many ways a record of a miserable hypocrite desperately attempting to wring a living wage out of years of unpaid or nearly unpaid work. We were so broke. My wife was making the majority of what little we made. We were living in a duplex owned by her parents. I was in my 30s and we wanted those things you want in your 30s if you’ve never had them before: children, a house and a steady job. All I wanted really, even if my head were filled with lavish dreams of wealth and fame and respect, was a job writing which paid as well as working at Jack in the Box. Jack in the Box paid me eight dollars an hour and I would have, would today, accept a job covering sports if I could be paid just eight dollars an hour.

* * *

In March of 2014, I made an impulsive left turn across two lanes of traffic and was T-boned so badly by a minivan that our silver Ford Focus spun and tipped over on two wheels before landing on the sidewalk. The insurance company ruled against me. We received no compensation. The car had been a wedding present. We did not own a car again for years. These were the years my mother fully slipped away from me.

Her husband ... again, it’s hard to say. But one day he called me and chewed me out because my mom had changed her will to include me. All of her assets had previously been written over to him. I responded to him, he hung up, and a few minutes later my mom called.

For years I had wondered about his role in her injury. Why had it taken him so long to get her help? Why, when she was in hospital, did he always seem to arrive to her bedside minutes after I had arrived? Mom didn’t answer any of those questions, but slowly and carefully admonished herself for how trapped she was and how bad her life had become. All I remember was saying to her with all the forcefulness and eloquence I could muster “Get help. Get help. Get help.” Poor little Cindy Robin Burton sounded so meek and childlike and scared and beholden to my words as I desperately attempted to piece together her insinuations and self-blame into some kind of understanding of what was happening to her.

Previous to this call I had not been a good son and post, she was all but out of my life. Every waking second of my day I schemed how to help her. Yet I did nothing. I would indulge in violent chivalrous fantasies of rescuing her. Yet I smoked pot and masturbated and played video games until every guilt-stricken moment of inaction were spent. While I was on the pills, I did this with a deranged glee. My internal monologue split into two. The prevailing voice urged me onward. Be happy for your wife. Be happy for your choices, it said.

A second voice, a feeble voice I did not always hear, did not ever have to hear, continually castigated my self-indulgence, my inaction, my oblivious narcissistic need for fun. One day it became loud enough to convince me to burn my arm with a hot glass tube. I could not remember my regrets from one day into the next. For hours I would play video games. Most days, not all days but most, I would quit long enough to clean or cook something before my wife came home from work. This was my sole contribution to our home.

The feeble voice could roar. The confident me would laugh at it. The confident me knew too though that I was an awful big pile of shit in those days. It didn’t really want to play video games until my insides hurt, until the act of sitting and stooping over thrilled my imagination with panicked thoughts of dying of a heart attack. I could feel it, I thought. My heart dying. And so confident me put an empty tube into our Arizer Solo and set the temperature on max. I pussied out of the first burn. The scar is only a little visible. The second I pressed long enough to smell the flesh burning. I looked down on what I hoped would look like an infinity symbol, and in my head I thought: This is the eccentric behavior of a great man.

The next day I got up, wished my wife goodbye as she boarded the bus for work, and went inside to play video games. But soon I was off the pills and soon I was enduring the pain it takes to recover.

Mom’s husband got caught strangling her at her work. They separated. Mom was no better. She still drank two beers with her morning pills. Or so I guess. Years of repressed pain visited me once I quit taking the pills. I was as dumb and brooding and antisocial and feckless and interned in my hateful little world of self-pity as I had been the October I began taking pills. I secretly began to take them again. Perked up. Resumed my self destruction. And when I did finally quit, when I quit hopefully forever, I did so by making one awful sacrifice. I gave up on mom completely.

* * *

A few days after writing an impassioned defense of Frank Clark I received a phone call from a woman who worked with my mother. Mom had been found unconscious under her desk. Her work was adjacent to OHSU and she had been speedily moved there for treatment. I boarded however many fuckin buses to get there.

I swear she had a sly little smile on her face. Unconscious as she was, barely conscious as she would be intermittently, she looked defiant and slightly amused. Like she knew the punchline and everyone else was just hearing the setup. Stop drinking like this or you’ll die, no fewer than three doctors told her. She didn’t say a word to me. She never again did.

Sometime more than a year later I sat beside her deathbed and poured out every apology I could think. Made every effort to tell her she was loved, she was forgiven, she was a good mom, had been a good mom, had loved me and given so much and tried so hard tried so so hard tried though life had abused and battered her and denied her her potential and wracked her with guilt and regrets. An attending nurse told me her breathing was only agonal breathing. Which is to say she was dead. Her body lived on with mechanical help but mom was gone. And that gave way too. The hospital room filled with the smell of brownies. Brownies mom never cooked because mom never cooked brownies. Some stranger, a doctor presumably, put his hand on my should to comfort me. He and a few other strange people had crowded into the room when she was close. A machine sounded she was dead and I wept.

* * *

Her debts exceeded her assets.

My wife and I visited her home. My aunt told me to gather what I wanted because what was left would be thrown away. Mom had an apartment in a nasty mega complex all brutal concrete and unlit alleys. Her home furnishings had a Pier 1 vibe: showy but cheap. In her living room was a hospital bed with the back angled up enough to watch TV. My little mom the sophisticate had begun watching Two and a Half Men with her husband, and I envision her in those final days watching Two and a Half Men while her body died of sepsis. In that same room we found a little bookcase. She had Raising Goats for Dummies. Aztec. She had a book on how to battle compulsive drinking. It looked unopened.

In the kitchen we found a blender strong enough to chop ice and two two-liter bottles of Smirnoff vodka. Only one was opened and it was about half drunk. We poured what remained into the toilet. I found a box of letters. Some from her. Some from my father! Some from others she had loved and who had loved her. And we gathered these spoils, and her coffee mug and her oscillating fan, and her framed diploma awarding her a Juris Doctor from Franklin Pierce, and walked back to our blue Ford Focus. It too was a gift from my wife’s parents.

Mom couldn’t stop. It was not a lifelong problem. She had been born into privilege. She had suffered too. But she had not been a problem alcoholic. She had been an excellent employee. The richness of her life, her hobbies, where she traveled, her friendships and achievements dwarf mine. Something latent within her was triggered by the brain injury. And in a few years a lifetime of striving was undone.

The NFL is not suffering a concussion crisis. Focusing on concussions is simply a way to center people’s attention on a comparatively fixable problem. The NFL, as we’ve known it, as I’ve known it my entire life, is inherently endangering of the people who play it, and those who depend on them. Bodily injury is a hardship. My father, an auto mechanic, broke two vertebrae in his back when a lift collapsed on him. He lived, presumably lives, in awful pain. He would take muscle relaxants and veg out on the couch nearly every afternoon. But he was him, in all his crazed contrary ways, Ken Morgan. Cindy became someone else and that someone else killed Cindy.

I still watch football. At first I started again out of greed. Then, with hypocritical shame, I would slip. It’s just so damn good, isn’t it? And I want to tell you that what I write next is no kind of truth, no kind of deeply held conviction, only a tangled kind of explanation I have woven out of years of reflection.

LIfe’s gonna fuck you up. It’s gonna take your beauty and it’s gonna take your health. It’ll take your gifts and it’ll take your hopes and however you die will be painful and prolonged and humiliating. One day, if you’re lucky, many good people will have to get over losing you. You may wish to escape these facts but if you try you will only escape life itself.

I do not now think I could have saved my mom. I do not regret that I didn’t save my mom. I regret that I believed, with all my being believed, I was supposed to. I was so self-righteous and so intolerant. I measured the world, the people of the world, by a standard I myself couldn’t uphold.

This standard made me an enemy to myself because this standard made me an enemy to mankind. And yet I protected it. I wanted so badly to live in a world in which all wrongs were fixable, every injustice could be fixed through right thinking and action, and all that stood between humans and utopia were willpower and the malevolence of some shady other.

Football ... oh football, the primarily white male ownership, played primarily by African Americans, it was supposed to be everything I hated, everything I smugly rejected. It is a sport marked by brutality and short careers. Football players, relatively speaking, make shit all. It, every last damn thing about it, resonates with the spirit of an oppressed people living their lives with their heads in the lion’s mouth. It is only within my lifetime that people stopped using the phrase “black quarterback.”

I write this for myself. I write this to lay down my arms. I write this in hopes of finally and fully burying my self righteousness.

Football shouldn’t ruin lives. Alcohol shouldn’t kill your liver. Pot shouldn’t have made me a shittier writer. Speeding shouldn’t be fun. Promiscuous sex shouldn’t be dangerous. Monogamy shouldn’t sap love. We all shouldn’t die, and in the process of not dying, we all shouldn’t get bad knees and wrinkled skin and eroding intellects.

Maybe we can never fully justify a sport which deranges its players. Football maybe asks too much. Maybe in time it will fade away or at least be surpassed by something else less brutal. But I doubt it. Because I think we knew. We knew football players hurt themselves to play. If we’ve ever played ourselves, we’ve felt some part of that. We even knew football players damage their brains. Didn’t we?

When I was younger I worked nights at UPS so I could blog on Field Gulls all day. I loaded trucks, I worked the top slide, and when I was new I unloaded trucks. Today I am writing this to you through back spasms. My back just goes out. Nothing happens. My back just goes the fuck out. I appreciate toughness. I appreciate sacrifice. Football is a brutal sport because life is brutal. It is fatal. We want to see some fight, some resolve, some toughness and we want that toughness, that resolve, that fight to match or even exceed our own. Sport is a spectacle of human excellence. We don’t just want excellence in quickness or coordination but grit and perseverance. No other sport, no other team sport at least, demands so much of the character of its athletes. What makes football a spectacle of toughness and resolve also, and I believe accidentally, makes it hateful toward the brains of its players.

We love football because football is of life, of humanity, not repugnantly adjacent, but as real as running and throwing and hitting and getting hit. As real as dying. We love football because we love mankind, or I do, I finally do again, and nothing human is foreign to me. We love football because of all the ways we can redeem our invaluable time, playing and watching football feels least like a cheat.

We, this we being my wife and I, call the oscillating fan we got from my mom’s home her “soul fan.” We also own a “soul mug.” It’s blue and Sopranos big. We got rid of the blender. That fan blows on me today. The world is hot. We are likely destroying it. This keyboard we bought from Goodwill has been slowly dying the last two hours. Writing this has been a slow process of finding which keystrokes the keyboard did not register and rewriting what I already wrote. I used to think I was supposed to do something special with this story I have. If only I could have laughed.

Oh mom, if only I could have laughed, and forgiven you, and forgiven myself, maybe I could have said goodbye.

It is late now and I’ve written entirely too much. I have beer to buy, miles to walk, jokes to make, laughs to share, love to make, and a painfully joyful and joyously painful life to live, hack that I may be. I wish you all the joy and pain you deserve and don’t deserve, and I promise to be less of an asshole next week.