The Superbus's Thoughtpad

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The Price Of Misguided Bravery

Posted by Chris Bowen on August 7, 2013

It’s amazing the things that will stem from a joke.

A friend from work linked me to a piece about former Patriots star Teddy Bruschi performing Rush hist. Bruschi – who I don’t care for since his whole post-career path has been to talk bad about other players on the radio – singing Rush hits is so screwed up that my next joke was as easy as it was kind of cruel: “CTE is a cruel mistress”1; a bit of a cruel joke considering the effects it has on people, but maybe a bit more authentic coming from someone who has suffered ten recorded – recorded concussions, and who knows how many more that weren’t documented. It was his next statement that got my attention: “Bruschi has a stroke, and played damn near the next day”.

For some reason, apropos of nothing we had been talking about, a light bulb went on in my head. It illuminated, like a neon Eat At Joe’s sign, something that I hadn’t said in the past, and will come across as hypocritical for those who know me best:

What a fucking idiot.

As noted above, this is a curious statement from me. I did not receive ten recorded concussions by accident. A lifetime of athletics and a few timely accidents while in the Navy were enough for me, and on a couple of occasions – particularly one incident in 2004 – I came away much worse for wear, suffering from Post Concussion Syndrome, a fate I wouldn’t wish upon my worst enemy.

However, it’s not the concussions so much as it is the reaction to them. Each and every time I was able to, I either got up and finished what I was doing or attempted to. When I fell 30′ off an aircraft carrier onto a small boat so hard that I cracked a bulletproof windshield, I went on watch the very next morning. Every time except 2004 that I’ve received a concussion, I’ve finished the game, or slogged through it; the last one, I finished the tournament, the only exceptions being times when medical personnel have stepped in and intervened. Ultimately, I’ve always come back too quick, or never left a game or job when I should have, and this is notwithstanding other times I’ve had serious injuries, including a badly sprained ankles – plural – that had me trying to walk around work despite the fact that I literally could not walk. And I work a desk job.

Why would I go against my own body so many times? Blame machismo, or the fear of looking weak. That fear – of being fundamentally inferior to people around you who might or might not be tougher, and working through more, and destroying your usefulness as a human being by simply being more – has driven people to do desperate things for millennia. Ultimately, no one cares if you’re injured; dispose of the weak. All that matters is performance.

Any doubts as to this are quickly shuttered when hearing a fan talk about a famous athlete who’s injured. “What? I have to get up every morning and go to work, get that asshole on the field!” Oftentimes, being called soft is one of the worst insults you can give someone, weather in athletics or outside of it. So we do whatever we can to avoid that. Take Patrice Bergeron of the Boston Bruins for example, who was almost legally dead by the time game 6 ended. For those who didn’t click through, he had, by the end of game 6, cracked ribs, a separated shoulder, and a PUNCTURED LUNG. He needed two nerve blocks to get through it… and yet, during the last shift of the season, the last minute and a half, the most important shift the Bruins have had in any of our lifetimes, he was trying to get the tying goal.

His opposite, also in Boston, is Red Sox pitcher Clay Buchholz. Buchholz has been injured a bit lately, and even Dr. James Andrews is suggesting that his issues aren’t 100% physical. Due to this, the pitcher with the sub-2.00 ERA is being subjected to calls that he needs to be weeded out by the local blowhards on the radio, blowhards who say he doesn’t “fight”.

When I was younger, I would have called Bergeron a hero and Buchholz a sissy. I’m not so sure anymore.

Buchholz is basically being slammed for not pitching through pain – with a quirky motion that requires every part of his body to be working in concert, mind you – in the months of July and August. He’s actually said it’s not “do or die”, so it’s not a big deal, which doesn’t fly in Boston. And yet, isn’t Boston the last place the late Junior Seau played? That same Junior Seau who was so jacked up by concussions throughout his career with the Chargers and Patriots that he shot himself in the heart to preserve his brain? Seau was tough. Seau showed “fight”. And Seau, like Dave Duerson, Bob Probert and Chris Benoit behind them, are all dead, early, as a result of that toughness.

Answer me this, Bruins fans: is that what you want for Patrice Bergeron? Do you care if his injuries that he plays through now – and he’s had a few concussions already – come back to him in his 50s?

I’m glad that there’s finally pushback against this Neanderthal’s mindset. Writing for Yahoo!, Nick Cotsonika asked if Bergeron went too far in playing, and if the Bruins went too far in letting him on the ice, a viewpoint that is starting to see traction. While the usual jock sniffers in the Boston media were praying to the Bergeron altar, I was too chastened by the damaging effects of the “warrior” mentality – an utterly laughable idea for anyone who isn’t actually in a war where lives are at stake – to really think of Bergeron and his caretakers as anything other than fools and buffoons.

Yet having said all of that, the conditioning is very hard to eliminate. When I think back at all the times I either did myself harm, or could have, by hanging in there, including the time I finished that tournament on a concussion, when I think of doing anything differently, I flinch. The mere notion of appearing weak is stomach-turning, and even with the pain I endured, and the pain I will endure later in life, I can’t imagine going back and pulling myself from that tournament, or not going back on watch after falling off of an aircraft carrier. Even now, with hindsight being 20/20, I still have enough courage to endure tremendous amounts of pain and potentially crippling injury, but not enough courage to endure the possibility of a couple of simpletons questioning some vague notion of manliness.

I already live with the consequences of so many concussions, and so many other injuries. My time as a hockey player ended at 24 with a blown out ligament in my ankle that I never got properly fixed. My head injuries are already taking a slight toll on my life in minor ways that I have a feeling are going to add up over the years. Ultimately, I’m just a lower-level college official, in no way a professional level athlete. These guys are, and though they gain adulation and worship by people paying good money to watch them, I think it’s time we start asking if the price is totally worth it.

I’d love to ask Junior Seau if it is, but…

1 – CTE is short for Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, which is basically a degenerative condition where the brain, after suffering repeat trauma, becomes more and more damaged, causing severe behavioural changes in people suffering from it. Picture a smokers’ lungs; that’s what CTE does to the human brain.

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