Commentary: I loved playing football for BYU. But was it worth the damage to my brain, life and family?

photo by Mark Philbrick/BYU Members of the BYU football team, including Larry Carr (67), pose for a photo in 1973.

I love football, and I especially loved my time playing football at Brigham Young University. Running onto the field in front of a full stadium, leading our team in a coin toss at a major bowl game, and celebrating after winning a championship were experiences that have created a lifetime of memories and friendships.

Unfortunately, I played football at a time when violence in the game was not only encouraged, but celebrated. The concept of brain damage from repeated collisions and concussions was not discussed or even considered in spite of published research cautioning that such a relationship existed. Virtually nothing was done to protect players from the known risks of collisions and concussions. It was simply ignored.

Today, I’m paying the price.

Several years ago, I was diagnosed with brain damage — undoubtedly the result of the thousands of collisions I sustained during my football experience. Following many hours of neuro-cognitive testing, my doctors indicated that memory and processing issues of the magnitude I exhibited are the hallmarks of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE, a progressive brain disease for which there is no known cure. While CTE can only be confirmed following an examination of the patient’s brain after death, the unmistakable signs were all there.

I have always been an easygoing person, but over the years my emotions have become more and more difficult to control. The darkness that envelops me at times is real and is becoming more frequent. The desire to stop what has become an unrelenting mental and emotional pain is helped by my faith that enables me to live with my situation; however, it has taken a toll on my wife, children, and employment. I retired from teaching nearly a decade earlier than I had hoped because of my inability to deal with the crushing anxiety, fear and paranoia. I wake up every morning and pray to find the peace and patience to get through the day.

No one should have to suffer such a fate. To sacrifice the quality of the last half of my life is an unreasonable cost to play a game. This is why I am speaking out about the kind of brain damage caused by football in spite of the pressure to just be quiet and tough it out. I am one of the plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit against the NCAA, an action, which unfortunately I believe is necessary to force this organization to step up and do the right thing. An organization that has known about the risks of brain damage for decades but failed to act.

Parents need to seriously consider the possible consequences of participation in this sport and think long and hard before allowing their child to play youth tackle football; it may be one of the most important decisions they will ever make. This is not simply about preventing future orthopedic problems, the issues are far more serious and far-reaching. Studies show that playing football and sustaining repetitive hits while a child’s brain is still developing is dangerous. This type of early brain trauma may affect a child’s intellectual trajectory as well as their future emotional resiliency keeping them from becoming the successful employee, father, and husband they might otherwise have become. Are parents willing to take that chance just to watch their child run over or deliver a crushing blow to another child?

I am often asked the question, “If you could magically go back, or erase your football days, would you?” At first, I answered quickly, “No, I would not change a thing!” But upon a great deal of reflection, I now worry if this was selfish. My wife does not feel the same way, considering what she has experienced these past several years, and more importantly, will face in the years to come.

There have been times when she has questioned who I have become, and whether the man she married is gone. I see the look of surprise in her eyes, even shock, as I rant about some unimportant issue — or sink into despair over imagined fears, yet am unable to stop. I want desperately to hold her close and help her understand a pain that I cannot even make sense of. As we discuss our future, how do we plan with the very real possibility of slowly losing who I am?

The question of whether playing college football was worth it should not be asked of me; it should be asked of my wife and my family. Their answer is probably much different, and far more important.

Larry Carr, Ph.D., played middle linebacker for BYU in the early 1970s. He was inducted into BYU’s Athletic Hall of Fame in 2010.