How an 11-year-old’s brain in­jury rat­tled one de­vout grid­iron fam­ily

Reader's Digest - - Contents - DANIEL DUANE FROM MEN’S JOUR­NAL

IT WAS A CRISP Sun­day after­noon in Mis­soula, Mon­tana, and Mike Cal­laghan stood in the blus­tery sun­shine do­ing the thing he loved best: coach­ing his 11-year-old son Bro­gan’s foot­ball team. Bro­gan Cal­laghan was the Pan­thers’ 2015 sea­son quar­ter­back, but he was the kind of foot­ball prodigy who also played de­fense—line­backer, in fact, a po­si­tion his fa­ther had once played with the Mon­tana State University Bob­cats over in Boze­man.

The game against the Charg­ers was in the sec­ond quar­ter. Bro­gan had just thrown a touch­down to tie the score at 14 and then quickly switched over to de­fense. As the op­pos­ing team’s of­fense lined up, Mike no­ticed their run­ning back go into mo­tion early. “Sweep!” Mike yelled from the side­lines, but Bro­gan was al­ready on it, slip­ping right around a big of­fen­sive tackle. Bro­gan was just about to take down the run­ner when he was slammed from be­hind—an il­le­gal hit that flexed his spine, snapped his head for­ward, and sent him col­lid­ing into one of his own team­mates. He went down hard, bang­ing the back of his head into the dirt.

Mike went straight for the ref­eree, screaming that this was the sec­ond time that player had made the same il­le­gal block. “That’s twice,” Mike yelled. “You’ve got to call that.”

But an­other Pan­thers coach, Eric Dawald, no­ticed some­thing more alarm­ing: Bro­gan wasn’t get­ting up. Dawald rushed onto the field and found the boy on his back, barely conscious. Bro­gan opened his eyes and looked up. “I can’t see,” he said.

Bro­gan’s mother, Shannon Cal­laghan, was chat­ting with friends in the bleach­ers when she heard some­body say, “I think that’s Bro­gan.” She ran to the field, reach­ing her son at the same time her hus­band did.

Bro­gan looked up at his par­ents. “I can’t feel my legs,” he said. An am­bu­lance drove onto the grass, and a para­medic re­moved the face mask from Bro­gan’s hel­met. They asked him what day it was, and Bro­gan an­swered in­cor­rectly. They asked his birth­day, and he didn’t know that ei­ther.

Some of his team­mates were cry­ing as the paramedics strapped their quar­ter­back to a back­board, placed an oxy­gen mask over his face, and loaded him into the am­bu­lance. Shannon climbed in, and they sped the boy across the Clark Fork River to St. Pa­trick Hos­pi­tal.

Mike drove sep­a­rately, his mind rac­ing through worst-case sce­nar­ios: We’ll buy a one-level house. I’ll change jobs so I can be home more, learn to care for a para­plegic child. An­other thought in­truded: I was the coach. This hap­pened on my watch. How did I do this to my kid?

While the emer­gency room doc­tors eval­u­ated Bro­gan, Shannon’s and Mike’s par­ents ar­rived at the hos­pi­tal. Af­ter fill­ing them in about Bro­gan’s con­di­tion, Shannon turned to Mike’s fa­ther. James Cal­laghan was an oral sur­geon who had played

Once set­tled at the emer­gency room, Bro­gan looked up at his fa­ther and said, “Who are you?”

foot­ball in col­lege and loved watch­ing his grand­son play as much as he had loved watch­ing Mike. In fact, in all of Mike’s years of play­ing youth foot­ball, his fa­ther had missed just one game, when Mike was in the sixth grade. "I don't ever want Bro­gan to play foot­ball again." Shannon told her fa­ther-in-law. “And you have to back me up on this.” James told her it was none of his busi­ness.

Fi­nally set­tled at the emer­gency room, Bro­gan looked at his fa­ther and asked, “Am I par­a­lyzed?”

I think you are, Mike thought. “You’re go­ing to be all right,” he said. He watched a tear roll down his son’s cheek and thought, He knows.

Bro­gan looked up at Mike and said, “Who are you?”

FOR YEARS, many doc­tors be­lieved that chil­dren were less likely than adults to suf­fer se­ri­ous head in­juries in foot­ball, for the sim­ple rea­son that they weigh less and run more slowly than adults do. Now it’s well un­der­stood that un­til about age 14, a kid’s head is much larger than an adult’s com­pared with his or her body, yet the neck is weaker, which means the head bounces around more in re­sponse to col­li­sions. Re­searchers at Vir­ginia Tech found that seven-yearold foot­ball play­ers ex­pe­ri­enced head blows com­pa­ra­ble in force to the im­pacts suf­fered by col­lege play­ers.

To make mat­ters worse, the nerve fibers in chil­dren’s brains are not yet coated with the pro­tec­tive sheath­ing known as myelin. As a re­sult, “it’s eas­ier to tear apart neu­rons and their con­nec­tions in chil­dren at lower im­pact,” says Robert Cantu, MD, the au­thor of Con­cus­sions and Our Kids and a lead­ing re­searcher of chronic trau­matic en­cephalopa­thy (CTE), the brain-wast­ing dis­ease that has

been di­ag­nosed in more than 100 de­ceased NFL play­ers. The threat to emerg­ing neu­ral con­nec­tions is par­tic­u­larly prob­lem­atic be­tween the ages of 10 and 12, when the brain cir­cuitry that helps shape per­son­al­ity is be­ing de­vel­oped. “If you in­jure your brain dur­ing that time,” Dr. Cantu says, “there is a high like­li­hood that you will not reach your max­i­mal ge­netic en­dow­ment in­tel­lec­tu­ally, and you’ll per­haps not have the same per­son­al­ity with re­gard to de­pres­sion, anx­i­ety, and panic at­tacks.”

Bro­gan’s doc­tors were unsure about the cause of his paral­y­sis, but they agreed that he had suf­fered a trau­matic brain in­jury. For­tu­nately, by the evening, Bro­gan could move his legs, sit up in bed, and walk across the room. The fol­low­ing morn­ing, Mike woke up feel­ing op­ti­mistic. Then a doc­tor ar­rived and asked Bro­gan his name. Bro­gan got his first name right but couldn’t re­mem­ber his last name—or why he was in the hos­pi­tal. Still, af­ter a two-day stay, he was well enough to go home.

A week later, when the fam­ily re­turned to the hos­pi­tal for a fol­low-up visit, Mike found him­self un­ex­pect­edly re­lieved when the doc­tor said that Bro­gan would have to sit out the rest of the foot­ball sea­son. “I re­mem­ber be­ing thank­ful that the doc­tor told him so I wouldn’t have to,” Mike says. “I was sort of off the hook.”

Miss­ing a sin­gle sea­son was one thing. Still, the idea that Bro­gan might never play again—clearly what Shannon wanted—was nearly im­pos­si­ble for Mike to con­tem­plate. For one thing, Bro­gan loved the game and had the mak­ings of a real stand­out. What’s more, the sport had been cen­tral to Mike’s life for as long as he could re­mem­ber. He started as a fifth grader in the Lit­tle Griz­zly league; his coach from those days re­mained one of his clos­est con­fi­dants. Among his dear­est friends were team­mates from Hell­gate High and Mon­tana State. Dur­ing Mike’s ju­nior year, in 1984, the MSU Bob­cats won the NCAA Di­vi­sion I-AA na­tional cham­pi­onship—a feat Mon­tana foot­ball fans still talk about.

Of course, foot­ball ends hard: You wake up one day and it’s over. No­body plays tackle ball in mid­dle age. Mike took up coach­ing at 31, even though he had no kids of his own. He started with his nephew’s team of fifth and sixth graders. Soon a few of his old foot­ball bud­dies, in­clud­ing Eric Dawald, came to help. They loved hav­ing a rea­son to hang out af­ter work, teach­ing the fun­da­men­tals and feel­ing

In­jur­ing your brain as a child could stop you from reach­ing your max­i­mal in­tel­lect.

that old ex­cite­ment on game days. When one of the group had a son, the oth­ers promised to keep coach­ing as long as the kid played, a pact that soon ex­tended to ev­ery son any of them might ever have. Boys they’d coached went on to play at lo­cal high schools, the University of Mon­tana, Mon­tana State, and even the pros.

Mike had mostly given up on hav­ing chil­dren of his own when, at age 40, he met and mar­ried Shannon. An in­te­rior ar­chi­tect and former com­pet­i­tive swim­mer, Shannon had grown up in ru­ral Havre, Mon­tana, with a pair of foot­ball-ob­sessed broth­ers. She loved the way Mike wel­comed Grif­fin, her nine-year-old son from a pre­vi­ous mar­riage, onto his team. When Bro­gan was born, in 2003, Mike in­sisted his bud­dies re­new their vow to keep coach­ing.

Bro­gan started play­ing flag foot­ball in the fourth grade, in 2013. By that time, the re­la­tion­ship be­tween foot­ball and brain trauma was well es­tab­lished. Three years ear­lier, a Mis­soula kid named Dy­lan Steigers, who’d started out in lo­cal youth leagues, went off to play at East­ern Ore­gon University and took a big hit in a scrim­mage. He died the next day.

Shannon, mean­while, had been get­ting warn­ings from her older brother, Scott Brown, a former high school run­ning back and now an anes­the­si­ol­o­gist

and pain spe­cial­ist in Port­land, Ore­gon. “I’d see these 40-year-olds com­ing in just maimed, hav­ing these big surg­eries from play­ing foot­ball in high school, col­lege, the pros,” he says. Brown be­came con­vinced that let­ting a kid play tackle foot­ball was akin to child abuse. He im­plored his sib­lings to keep their kids off the field.

But Shannon felt trapped—no­body could tell her hus­band what to think about foot­ball. Most of the CTE re­search, Mike ar­gued, had been done on the brains of former play­ers known to have prob­lems. He had at­tended one of USA Foot­ball’s Heads Up Foot­ball clin­ics, where he’d been schooled in the lat­est safe-tack­ling tech­niques. And he would never con­sider let­ting a con­cussed kid play be­fore a com­plete re­cov­ery.

THREE WEEKS af­ter his in­jury, Bro­gan was cleared to go back to school, but he could last only an hour or so a day. He some­times flew into sud­den, in­ex­pli­ca­ble rages, and Shannon mostly stopped work­ing to care for him. Mike spent his days at the of­fice and con­tin­ued to coach the Pan­thers in the evening. He coached out of a sense of obli­ga­tion, both to his fel­low coaches and to the play­ers. But now it felt dif­fer­ent: He watched ev­ery tackle with anx­i­ety, wait­ing for the child to get up and walk it off.

Both of Shannon’s broth­ers, mean­while, were re­lent­less. Howard Brown sent his sis­ter one news ar­ti­cle af­ter an­other about kids such as Evan Mur­ray, a 17-year-old New Jersey quar­ter­back; Ben Hamm, a 16-yearold line­backer from Bartlesville, Ok­la­homa; and 17-year-old Ken­ney Bui from the Seat­tle sub­urbs, all of whom died within a month of one an­other early that fall. All told, 17 kids died play­ing foot­ball that sea­son.

One night, Shannon tried to share these sto­ries with her hus­band. “We are not talk­ing about this,” he said.

It wasn’t un­til seven weeks af­ter the in­jury that Bro­gan was able to form new mem­o­ries. He started neu­ro­log­i­cal re­hab ther­apy and scored ter­ri­bly on cog­ni­tive tests, which in­cluded clos­ing his eyes and touch­ing his nose. Math work­sheets that would have taken five min­utes be­fore the in­jury now took an hour and left Bro­gan ex­hausted. Rid­ing on a sta­tion­ary bi­cy­cle gave him a headache.

In Fe­bru­ary, Mike and Bro­gan sat on the couch to watch the Su­per Bowl. Shannon over­heard Bro­gan be­gin a sen­tence with the phrase, “When I play in the NFL …”

“That’s not go­ing to hap­pen,” Shannon said.

Later she heard her hus­band tell Bro­gan, “But when you play in high school …”

“It’s not go­ing to hap­pen,” she said. “We don’t have to de­cide this now,” Mike replied.

Later still, Bro­gan asked his mom, “Why won’t you let me play?”

“Be­cause God gave you that big brain so you can do some­thing amaz­ing in this world.”

“He also made me a good foot­ball player,” Bro­gan said.

“But that can’t be your fu­ture.”

Mike turned to Shannon. “But what about his dream?”

Shannon thought, Whose dream is it?

Shannon felt trapped—no one could tell Mike what to think about foot­ball.

BUT MIKE could not let go of foot­ball. He thought about all the things he wanted his son to ex­pe­ri­ence: the friend­ships, the team­work, the vic­to­ries.

And de­spite their dif­fer­ences, Shannon un­der­stood. “Mike wants his kid to be a foot­ball star,” she says. “And Bro­gan would be the star. He’s a leader and damn good, and every­one looks up to him.”

Mike strug­gled to imag­ine what his own life would be like with­out foot­ball. What would he do on week­nights and Sun­day morn­ings in the fall?

When would he see his friends? Who would he be? “Ev­ery time I thought about it, my mind just went blank,” he says.

In Au­gust, Mike got a call from of­fi­cials at Mis­soula Youth Foot­ball: Did he plan to coach the next sea­son? Af­ter months of ag­o­niz­ing, al­most en­tirely to him­self, he’d fi­nally made a de­ci­sion. “Bro­gan’s not go­ing to play, and I’m not go­ing to coach,” he said.

Mike couldn’t bear to think of it as a per­ma­nent de­ci­sion, telling his son that it was only for the one sea­son. But Bro­gan was un­con­vinced. “You know it’s for­ever,” he said. “Mom’s never go­ing to let me play again.”

MIKE AND BRO­GAN still watch foot­ball to­gether—high school games on Fri­days, Mon­tana State on Satur­days, and their former team on Sun­day af­ter­noons. “It’s kind of hard be­cause I’m not play­ing,” Bro­gan says. “I think about what I would do against the teams when I watch.” He has hurled him­self into bas­ket­ball and started tak­ing ten­nis lessons. Bro­gan ad­mits that he hasn’t yet fully re­cov­ered. School­work doesn’t come as eas­ily as it once did, but Shannon isn’t wor­ried. “Bro­gan missed 234 classes in the sixth grade,” she says, “and he fin­ished with three A-pluses and three As.” Now, in­stead of go­ing to Stan­ford University to play foot­ball, he wants to go to the University of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley, to study ar­chi­tec­ture—his mother’s pas­sion.

Mike says he of­ten thinks back to a day a few weeks af­ter Bro­gan’s in­jury. League of­fi­cials asked how he wanted to han­dle that fate­ful, un­fin­ished game. “A big part of me was, ‘I don’t want to han­dle it,’” Mike says. But the kids cared about com­plet­ing the game, and Mike felt it would have been self­ish to refuse.

That meant bring­ing the teams back to the field be­hind the county fair­grounds. The Pan­thers and the Charg­ers lined up ex­actly where they’d been the mo­ment Bro­gan was in­jured—but with Bro­gan now on the side­lines with his fa­ther. The ref­eree set the game clock to where it had stopped and blew the whis­tle, and they played the re­main­der of the game. The Pan­thers lost. For the first time in his life, Mike didn’t care.


Two gen­er­a­tions of ath­letes: Bro­gan at age 11 (left); Mike play­ing for Mon­tana State University in the early ’80s

Bro­gan and his mom, Shannon, grab a bite to eat af­ter school.

When Bro­gan (left) and Mike throw the ball around now, it’s strictly for fun.

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