A crushing blow
Two former high school players discuss quitting football due to concussions
Outside the Lines: High School concussions
Brad Millice remembers it like it was yesterday -- but then again, he doesn't.
"I was backpedaling at the linebacker position and a guy came across and ear-holed me while trying to block me," the 19-year-old said, before taking a pause. "Or so they tell me."
They tell Millice that, after that 2009 contest with his Leesville Road (Raleigh, N.C.) squad, the then-sophomore was in total disarray. It wasn't until Millice reached the locker room that he woke up, unaware of his surroundings and wondering why his head was pounding.
This wasn't Millice's first concussion. That came two years earlier after a helmet-to-helmet hit as an eighth-grader. But unlike that incident -- or the two others that followed on the basketball court -- Millice's fourth concussion left his memory foggy and his football future in jeopardy.
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A few weeks later, a series of MRI results confirmed the worst: Millice, a prospect who had gained interest from Clemson and South Carolina and possessed a pigskin pedigree from his dad's collegiate playing days at Tennessee Tech, was advised to hang up his cleats.
"At first, the news crushed me," Millice said. "Playing football in college and maybe the NFL was my dream, and it killed my dream. It was definitely difficult for a year, seeing my friends still playing and having to almost live through them."
But for Millice, along with a number of other high schoolers who have had to give up football because of concussions, living vicariously through others is much better than the alternative -- not living at all.
"The chances are slim that I could die from getting another concussion, but still, if I got hit just right, it could have happened," said Millice, now a sophomore at UNC-Wilmington. "For me and my family, that was enough. Even as devastating as it was, I'd rather be here in one piece than be dead in the future."
It took Chris Coyne a bit longer to reach this agonizing conclusion. Coyne's first concussion didn't even happen on a football field, as he hit his head on the bar during a high jump competition as a freshman.
"The trainer had me sit out a couple weeks, but I wasn't too concerned because I was just doing track to get ready for football," said Coyne, who attended Staples High School in Westport, Conn.
The second concussion, however, did bring greater cause for concern. When Staples' starting tight end was sidelined with mono, Coyne took his place. But the game he hoped would be his big break took a dangerous turn after Coyne suffered a helmet-to-helmet hit.
"Right away, I knew this was more severe than the first one because I couldn't walk straight and I couldn't remember plays from the huddle," Coyne said. "But I decided to play through it because of the position I was in and I didn't want to let the team down."
The symptoms didn't stop there, though. Headaches and insomnia persisted for weeks, and Coyne's grades suffered as a result. But he remained quiet, vowing to "report the concussion as soon as the last game of the season was over."
Thing is, Coyne never made it that far. While horsing around with his teammates in the locker room, Coyne's head hit the floor and he briefly lost consciousness.
"The first thing I remember was being in the trainer's office, and while the trainer is asking me questions, I'm mouthing to one of my teammates 'What happened?' because I had no idea," Coyne said. "I wanted to play in that week's game."
The trainer saw through Coyne's cover-up attempt and sent him to a hospital. On the way there, Coyne finally told his mom about the concussion he had suffered weeks earlier in the game. Between this revelation and tests that showed signs of overlapping concussion syndrome -- a condition that occurs when someone suffers a second head trauma while still showing symptoms from the first, leading to more severe symptoms that last longer -- as well as a separated shoulder, Coyne had no choice but to shut it down for the season.
A year later, Coyne's concussion issues appeared to be in the past. He exploded for 16 sacks as a junior defensive end, leading the likes of Boston College and UConn, as well as Yale and several other Ivy League schools, to take notice.
Coyne suffered two more concussions during his high school career, but between his on-field success and the temporary nature of his symptoms, he decided not to report his head injuries.
"I never considered quitting, because within a couple weeks of the concussions I was 100 percent, which was probably bad for me," said Coyne. "For me, looking long term was looking to play Saturdays. I didn't think about the big picture."
But after enrolling at Yale to play football last fall, Coyne was finally forced to face reality. While doing a routine defensive end drill in preseason practice, he suffered another helmet-to-helmet hit. A part of him considered staying silent, but after talking with his mom, Coyne went to the doctor. Just a few days later, the true severity of his injury surfaced.
"I would get up off the couch to get a Gatorade and then I wouldn't know why I was standing up," Coyne said. "Or when classes started, I tried to take notes but I couldn't remember what the lecturer had said just seconds earlier. This concussion seemed like the least severe at first, but I had never had things like that happen."
The doctors had Coyne take a test to measure his cognitive functions, such as short- and long-term memory. Before his sixth concussion, he had scored in the 80th percentile. But this time around, his score registered in the single digits.
After seeing no improvement in his scores or symptoms over the next three months, the Yale medical staff delivered the inevitable yet painful news.
"The trainer told me she would not clear me to ever play at Yale," Coyne said. "That was hard for me to accept at first, so I called my high school coach to help me transfer to play at another school, but even he advised me to stop playing."
In November 2011, Coyne became resigned to his fate and gave up football. Unfortunately, the long-term effects of his six concussions haven't disappeared so easily.
"I still have memory lapses and I had to take ADD medicine during my second semester last year," said Coyne, who is now 19 and still enrolled at Yale. "I would have expected to be healed by now, so for me, it's day to day. I could wake up and be totally fine, but I know there's a possibility I could wake up and not be fine. The key is staying positive."
Coyne has found a way to turn his negative experience into a positive by working with the Sports Concussion Awareness and Prevention Program (SportsCAPP) based in Westport, Conn. Through the youth program, "Mind Your Melon," Coyne speaks to student-athletes in the New England area ranging from fifth grade to high school.
"Football has done way more good than harm for me by teaching me many great qualities. I don't think football is the problem. It's playing through concussions that is the problem," Coyne said. "The culture of football can often glorify playing through injury, but now I see that thinking messed up my head and academics.
"I've found that a man isn't defined by what happens to him; it's how he deals with it that defines him, so this is how I'm dealing with it, by trying to educate others."