As the wife of a NFL veteran, a veteran whose physical and mental decline has been documented, it was suggested that I see the movie Concussion and write about how it relates to my life. The movie stars Will Smith as Dr. Bennet Omalu, a forensic pathologist who discovered chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) while performing the autopsies of former NFL players.
Dr. Omalu naively thought the NFL would embrace his findings. He was wrong. Instead the NFL waged a war against him that nearly snuffed out his career.
Until just this week when Jeff Miller, the NFL’s executive vice president for health and safety, admitted to Congress that he thinks football and CTE are linked, the NFL had vehemently denied a connection.
Baby steps, folks.
The film gives a shoddy glimpse of a handful of well-known former players before their untimely deaths, and the mental and physical decline they too suffered as a result of playing professional football. Every player portrayed in the film had a build-up of the abnormal protein, tau, at the time of autopsy, a trait associated with CTE.
Even though the nuances of the players were slightly unrealistic, I did recognize Darryl in those guys. The frightening behaviors of the former players portrayed in the film were eerily familiar. But more important, and somewhat of a breakthrough, is that Darryl recognized himself in those players. I viewed him as he sat on the edge of his seat; tears welling in his eyes. He watched with the intensity he usually dedicates to an action movie.
Overall, Concussion is an average motion picture addressing a topic too consequential to be adequately illustrated by actors. The only way CTE and the laundry list of other injuries sustained on the football field can accurately and effectively be portrayed is through the written words of someone who’s lived it or through documentary.
I’ve been putting off writing about this because frankly, it’s exhausting. The daily rigors of dealing with the effects of 14 years of Darryl being in a demolition derby with his body has worn me to a wafer.
Since my first Buffalo News column, I’ve had former players, wives, fiancees and girlfriends contact me. They all share stories of enduring the same heartbreaking symptoms as Darryl. The consorts are despondent because they are vulnerable. Initially unknowing of the gravity of their partners’ incomprehensible suffering, they’ve been whittled down to a husk trying to learn how to navigate an unforgiving territory without the tools necessary for combat.
I’ve been there. I commiserate.
Here’s a nugget of our story:
“I love you more than my next breath.”
Those are the words I inscribed in a book of sonnets I gave Darryl on Valentine’s Day 1987, one month before I gave birth to our first daughter, Alexandra. I meant those words.
Once, a friend was visiting and picked up the book, flipped its first pages and read my inscription. He looked at me with perplexity that anyone could love someone more than oneself.
I’d lived every day with Darryl according to those words even though it was becoming more and more difficult to love someone who wouldn’t allow himself to be loved. I’d known him for more than 25 years and he was growing the mask of a man I hardly recognized.
Long before there was a team of doctors in Boston, there was a family bewildered by what they were witnessing. The path to our suspicions wasn’t linear. Our daughters and I spent a few years frustrated and concerned with Darryl’s anger, erratic behavior, insufferable mood swings, impulsivity, depression and memory loss.
He’d been more and more frequently asking how to spell elementary words. He lost keys, wallets, reading glasses, and television remotes regularly. Where he once would have retraced his steps and been able to find a misplaced item, he wasn’t able to do so anymore. He had no ability to concentrate or make decisions.
Logic and reason escaped him. Our days had become unpredictable. The tone of the household was set by Darryl’s moods and they were becoming more and more intolerable. His patience was lacking. He couldn’t sit in traffic or wait in line at a store. Travel by plane was unbearable because he despised the procedure of TSA protocol; the mere sight of the chaos of the lines sent him into a frenzy.
No matter how many times I’d explain to him that every single person in line had somewhere to be and they weren’t there for the entertainment, he still took the routine personally, as if he were singled out, forced to play some stupid game of relentless frustration.
One of the things that bothered me most, broke my heart, actually, was that Darryl wasn’t gaining any wisdom. He was in his early fifties and possessed no ability to use prudent judgement. He wasn’t learning from his mistakes, instead he was repeating them over and over with the same outcome. Albert Einstein defines this act as insanity.
Business decisions were not exempt from this phenomenon.
The most chilling part of Darryl’s 14 year NFL career is that not one concussion was diagnosed or documented. This seems to be the pattern with most players of his era and prior.
On a few occasions, his verbal and psychological abuse sent me packing and sleeping in the guest rooms of friends. I sought their ears and their guidance as much as their hospitality.
The path to the fact that 14 years in the NFL had taken Darryl’s body hostage was simple to recognize; he was a smorgasbord of constant physical pain. To wake up every morning and not know which combination of failing body parts was going to affect him wore as much on his psyche as it did his body.
There were days when the pain was immediate. Just putting his feet on the floor was a challenge for Darryl. He’d maneuver his body up and out of bed with mental and physical calculation, wince in pain and hobble like a man 30 years his senior. That effort was to walk to the bathroom to pee. What an eye-opener.
There were days when he’d hold a glass or a fork and midway to his mouth it’d fall out of his hand and crash to the floor. That, the consequence of repeatedly jamming his opponents in the chest or throat with his outstretched hands, rendering them unable to gain yardage on him.
I’d seen him do nothing more than get up from a chair or pivot, a common motion for most, causing his hip go out from under him and his knee to buckle. The pain so excruciating it resulted in countless sleepless nights because he couldn’t lie down in bed. He’d try the floor where he might find a bit of relief, then zing, he’d be up gingerly pacing or leaning against a wall because he couldn’t sit or lie.
There were days when his neck had little range of motion.
There were days when the pain in his lower back was so unbearable, he’d ride in my truck on his knees, facing backwards, arms grasping the head rest, so I could take him to the chiropractor or acupuncturist or our daughters’ volleyball games or the doctor in Miami, a three hour drive.
There was a full year, on and off, when he had to kneel on the floor at a table and eat his meals prone because he couldn’t sit in a chair. Once, we went back to Buffalo for a visit and he tripped a server at the Hamburg restaurant, Daniel’s, because he was reduced to that kneeling position.
A person who, for most of his adulthood, lived by a strict schedule now had no order to his life whatsoever, and it was affecting our family. We lived in a mayhem that was coloring everything in our lives a murky shade of grey.
This thing had no mercy and was gaining momentum, but I couldn’t initially identify its root. It wasn’t until Junior Seau, the legendary linebacker, committed suicide and things he was experiencing before his death were revealed mirroring Darryl’s behaviors, that I finally connected the dots.
It terrified me to think this may be my husband’s fate and from that day forward I did everything in my power to avoid a similar tragedy.
Now we’re here, recovering from his 15th surgery, all the result of injuries sustained in the NFL.
His mind and skeleton aren’t in pace with his hulking exterior. People look at him and their reaction is an echoing, “He looks great!”
Darryl’s not even skimming “great”. Darryl won the genetic jackpot of outward appearance. He possesses an enviable metabolism. He’s statuesque. Unfortunately, his body moves in line with a granite sculpture. He’s rigid. He’s numb.
A few months ago, Darryl got in my truck and I pointed out his hand was bleeding. He had a wedge of flesh missing from his thumb and another from his knuckle, but he couldn’t feel it and had no idea how he’d done it.
When we got to the store and he pulled out his wallet, with it came his razor. When he finished shaving, instead of putting the razor back in the cabinet, he’d unknowingly put it in his pocket. The mystery of how he’d cut himself was solved. His not knowing he’d put the razor in his pocket and not having enough feeling in his fingers to realize he’d sliced chunks of his flesh off of them repulsed and infuriated me.
This one incident doesn’t seem like much, but it is. These sorts of things occur daily. I could go on and on about all of the things that happen to Darryl daily that shouldn’t. These things add up and become frustrating and inconvenient and sad.
I’ve seen the defeat in his eyes when he can’t complete a simple task because his body won’t cooperate or his mind won’t allow him to concentrate. That look of despair pierces my aorta. My entire being aches for him. Other times, my emotions are displaced and I’m filled with anger and rage. I sometimes hate Darryl for being this way. I hate myself more for hating him.
This life after football doesn’t just affect the player, it affects the immediate family. We have no instruments to deal with this. I wasn’t issued a handbook when Darryl was issued a playbook. Our daughters, Alexandra and Gabrielle, and I have run the spectrum of emotions: sadness, fear, anger, hopelessness, embarrassment, resentment. My crying and screaming far outweighs my laughter.
Every time the girls come home there are closeted tears because they see another decline in their father’s mental or physical health. I have no resources for dealing with that.
I suggested to the doctor in Boston heading the NFLPA’s Brain and Body Trust, that a program needs to be devised to assist family members on how to deal with the tribulations associated with this serious quandary.
I’ve loved Darryl since I was 18 years old. This isn’t how I envisioned our lives. We’ve been robbed of happiness and fulfillment.
This thing, this illness that as far as I’m concerned is terminal, lives with us. We can’t make it go away. We can treat some of its symptoms, but the actual condition is here to stay. It’s set up shop in our fiber. It’s invaded me and our girls as much as it has Darryl.
Editors Note: A big thank you to Janine Talley for sharing her experience coping with the aftermath of Darryl Talley’s legendary NFL career.