The story that broke nationally last week concerning the lasting effects that concussions have had on former Cleveland Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar — and the controversial treatment he claims is helping him overcome and even reverse the symptoms associated with concussions — was something that hit home hard for me.
Kosar has suffered slurred speech, has had difficulty choosing the correct words when speaking, and has endured an overall slippage in quality of life since his playing days due to the effects of concussions.
I know whereof Bernie speaks, and I truly feel for him.
And I was positively heartbroken when NFL great Junior Seau committed suicide last year, with the news following his death that Seau suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which is a chronic brain damage that comes from repeated blows to the head.
I, too, have suffered the effects of head trauma that came with playing 10 years of football. In my case, according to every neurologist that has treated me over the last 27 years, repeated blows to the head from playing football for a decade brought on epilepsy, a seizure disorder which I was diagnosed with following my first grand mal seizure in the fall of 1986.
This was caused by playing with concussions that had gone undiagnosed. Back in the 1980s, it was common to “get your bell rung” but not come out of a game. You played through it, even though you often weren’t sure where you were, who you were or what day it was.
You thought nothing of it. After all, you’d come to eventually.
In my case, I can actually pinpoint the exact moment that I suspect brought on my since-lifelong bout with epilepsy. It was my senior year, the fall of 1985, and we were playing the Garfield G-Men at Wildcat Stadium. We were on defense, and at the snap of the ball the Garfield quarterback dropped back to pass. I was playing left defensive tackle against G-Men right guard Dan Bray, a tall, lanky lineman with good reach and strength. At 5-foot-10 and several inches shorter than Dan, my best option on pass plays against him was to try and shoot under Dan’s shoulder pads to get past him as I rushed the quarterback.
On this particular play, I didn’t get low enough and Dan’s forearm caught the crown of my helmet. It was a clean hit, the type of hit I had received hundreds of times through the years. But for some reason, this hit on my helmet was different. I staggered momentarily, then everything instantly went black. This was followed by flashes of yellow light against that black background. After several seconds my vision began to return, but it seemed like I was in a dream sequence. Everything was hazy, players seemed to be moving in slow motion, and I had no clue where I was. I couldn’t have told you what day of the week it was if you had spotted me the first six.
It was then I realized I was still running, but I had no idea how or why. My body seemed to be on autopilot, taking the wheel for my brain. I was confused and, even more, I was frightened.
At that moment, I noticed something out of the corner of my eye. I glanced to my left — still running downfield — and saw our linebacker, Jamie Popa, sprinting down the sidelines with the ball in his hands. Unbeknownst to me, Jamie had intercepted the pass and taken off down the sideline, and it just so happened that I was running downfield with him, as if I saw him pick the ball off and was escorting him down the field as a blocker.
I wasn’t. I had no idea where I was or what was going on. The fact that I was running downfield with Jamie was a total accident — and very fortunate for me, because it would have looked perfectly absurd for one single player to be running downfield all alone in the opposite direction of everyone else for no apparent reason.
I never came out of the game and never told any of the Mogadore coaches or trainers about the episode. I played on, chalking up the incident to just getting my bell rung. It certainly wasn’t the first time it had happened, and it wasn’t the last either, but it was by far the worst.
I didn’t know it at the time, but what I actually had gotten on that play was not my bell rung, but a concussion, and my neurologists have told me that playing through it contributed greatly to my epilepsy. The following week in school I began to notice my hands and arms jerking uncontrollably at times in split-second bursts, particularly in typing class where my fingers were moving quickly — too quickly for my concussed brain to process.
Still, I said nothing to anyone. I was a 17-year-old kid who had waited his whole life for his senior season of football, and teenagers aren’t exactly famous for their good judgment. I wasn’t about to let something like loss of body control jeopardize the rest of my senior season.
I made it through the rest of the season unscathed, somehow managing to hide my problem from the coaches and medical staff at Mogadore High School, but the damage had been done.
I suffered these frequent jolts of my limbs for a year, often losing consciousness for a moment when they occurred. When other students noticed these brief episodes in class, they were shocked and would ask if I was OK. I would lie and say I dropped something or was just kidding around. I’m sure not all of them believed me.
Inevitably, almost a year after that play against Garfield, I suffered my first grand mal seizure while sitting in class taking an Algebra test my freshman year at the University of Akron. It was only then that I was diagnosed with epilepsy, and I have been on anti-convulsant medication ever since, taking it every day of my life to prevent seizures.
Like Kosar, the concussions that brought on epilepsy in my case also affected my quality of life. It took years and years of medication switches and dosage changes to finally bring a halt to the seizures and jolts, but during that time the constant changes in medication and dosage levels adversely affected my personality. I went from being laid-back and upbeat to moody and irritable — and could never, ever get enough sleep. Even now, sleep is a major issue for me. I almost can’t function on anything less than about six or seven hours of sleep, and I am often groggy even two to three hours after waking up.
And while the medication I take prevents me from having seizures and has controlled the jerks and jolts of my extremities, it only works in conjunction with maintaining a regular sleep schedule, avoiding alcoholic drinks and limiting stressful situations. The third item is impossible, so the first two are mandatory or I risk another seizure.
One of my neurologists even attempted to wean me off the anti-convulsant medication to alleviate the side-effects, but I had my second grand mal seizure shortly after stopping the medicine and had to immediately get back on it.
Then there’s the attitude of many people toward those suffering from brain injuries where the trauma is not obvious to the casual observer. In Kosar’s case, he was often accused of being drunk on the air — or even on drugs — while serving as a television color analyst for Browns preseason games due to his slurred speech and trouble formulating coherent sentences at times during broadcasts.
Again, I can relate to Kosar’s frustration with this callous mindset. Many people cast a suspicious eye when I tell them I can’t do this or that at a particular time of day due to the necessity to regulate my sleep pattern. They see it as somewhere between excuse-making or flat-out laziness, and it’s often an exercise in futility to convince them otherwise.
Thankfully the medication works for me, but many people with epilepsy aren’t as fortunate. Even with medication, they suffer seizures daily and are unable to drive or hold a job because of it. This degradation of quality of life can be every bit as bad psychologically as it is physiologically and can make the world seem like a very small place.
In Kosar’s case, I truly hope he has indeed found a treatment that reverses his concussion symptoms as he says he has, and that this reversal is not just temporary. His trials and tribulations of dealing with concussion effects is yet another example of the serious danger of playing through head trauma and the importance of diagnosing and treating it.
And, in my case, of hiding it from those who could have done exactly that.