“I could while away the hours, conferring with the flowers, consulting with the rain. And my head I’ll be scratching, while my thoughts were busy hatching, if I only had a brain.”
Friday evening…B.C. Place, Vancouver, B.C.
Somewhere in the red zone (between the 20-yard line and the goal line). I woke up to Dr. Mark Aubry looking down at me.
I asked him what happened? He told me I got hit!
“No shit I got hit!”.
I could hear voices. I could taste blood. I could hear the opposing players arguing with the officials about their ruling it was indeed a catch and not a fumble. I could hear the crowd responding to the replay of the hit on the big screen. I always wondered what an “audible gasp” sounded like. Now I knew.
I had a couple of teammates telling me to hang in there. Who they specifically were I couldn’t tell you.
I remember it all like it happened this morning which is odd because it happened back in the fall of 1990.
I had always assumed that you would not remember anything after getting knocked out, but I did.
A few moments earlier I was exiting the huddle after QB Damon Allen called the play. The play called for me to run a 12-15 yard hook route on the right side of the line of scrimmage. I went through my usual pre-snap checks and balances. What is the body language of the defensive back covering me? Would he play man or zone? Would he play press coverage? Would he blitz? I caught the strong side linebacker peeking my way which told me he was looking to cheat in his drop to his zone. I was not surprised what with it being an obvious passing situation. Just to be sure, I tracked the free safety. Where he lines up often dictates the defense you will see.
On this occasion, he was playing at depth (about 15-17 yards away and in the middle of the field) which told me he was going to drop deeper to defend against any deep passes.
Based on all of the variables, I had a good sense that I was going to get the ball.
As I took off on my route, my first steps widened me away from the SAM linebacker in a bid to avoid his trying to bump me off my route. I knew that once I got passed him I could settle at 12-14 yards in a window between him and the middle linebacker. It was a route I had run a million times during my career. I was confident. Maybe too confident! I got to depth, settled down and gave Damon a target. This was simple pitch and catch! He delivered a dime hitting me right in the middle of my jersey numbers with the pass. I was all set to take off up field in a bid to gain some extra yardage…then BOOM!
The last thing I saw were brown eyes. The very same brown eyes belonging to free safety Robin Belanger. The very Robin Belanger that had I failed to notice cheating up on coverage as the play unfolded. Safe to assume I noticed as soon as he sent me into la-la land!
*Of note, I only knew it was Robin Belanger after I watched the game film a couple of days later!
After Dr. Aubry established that I had been knocked out, I miraculously sat up, yet was wary of the news that was about to come, because I knew something was not right. I felt like I had gotten run over by a truck! I asked him what the damage was.
He replied, “Separated shoulder, a broken nose, a few teeth had pierced your lower lip and you likely have a concussion.”.
All were injuries I would recover from. It’s not like I blew out my knee (which I did in 1993). I didn’t think twice about making a recovery and getting back on the field. The concussion didn’t even trigger an element of fear or doubt.
“With the thoughts I’d be thinking, I could be another Lincoln, if I only had a brain.”
Yes, I was done for the day. In hindsight, it was also the day I subconsciously decided that I would play the game safe.
It was not the first time I was knocked out and thanks to a combination of forces (an ability to catch punts and being on a bad team) it would not be the last.
The first knockout took place in Ottawa when we hosted the Toronto Argos. I ran a shallow crossing route and saw the LB on the other side of the field drop back into zone. Cool, I would just gear down in the space he vacated and all would be good. Yet, that was not just any linebacker. It was all-star Ben Zambiasi. He was a former Georgia Bulldog, tougher than nails and sly…very sly. I had heard stories about Zambiasi but as a young, seemingly invincible fool, I chose not to give any of those stories credence. That I regret…a lot. I didn’t see him but I sure felt and heard him. As I geared down, I looked to the QB and it was in that moment the lights went out. Zambiasi had dropped a few steps then torpedoed me and I was sent ass over tea-kettle. The wind was knocked out of me but rather than panic, everything was oddly calm…almost surreal. The best way to describe it may be he hit my Control-Alt-Delete button. I knew I was hurt but not injured. I could hear Zambiasi arguing with the ref that I had ran into him but I couldn’t see anything! I tried turning the lights on by opening my eyes and closing them over again but nothing. I know I scared the crap out of my teammates what with their looking down at me and watching me blink my eyes over and over again! Odd thing is, I did not leave the game. I missed a couple of plays but continued to play. There was no “how many fingers?” questions. I was asked how I felt and I said great! I wanted to compete.
(Funny thing is Ben Zambiasi was on the coaching staff when I joined the Hamilton Tiger Cats. My fondest memory was his plotting to steal the team bus after a season ending loss in Edmonton. I was an eager recruit but regrettably, the mission failed.)
The third time I got knocked out was in San Antonio, Texas. As a member of the Ottawa Rough Riders, we traveled there from Memphis as part of a 2 city road trip. By then, I was trying to recover from a surgically repaired torn ACL, just finishing out the string! Truth is, I never completely recovered. My knee doesn’t completely bend. The knee cap was bogged down with scar tissue despite my going in to have it cleaned on 4 separate occasions! I was holding on to the game and was a mere shadow of my former self. Life beyond the game scared me. During my recovery, I enrolled in a Computer Programming Diploma Program at CDI College, even though there was nothing about me that screamed computer programming. Everyone was seemingly in computers and they were making money doing it. Why couldn’t I? Sure, I wasn’t passionate about it but I was in survival mode. So much so that I returned to what was in essence, an abusive relationship that was not good for me. Like they say, “It’s better to dance with the devil you know than the one you don’t know”, and I knew football. All for $55,000 before taxes!
Did I mention we were not a very good football team? So much so, that the coach in his infinite wisdom had me return punts. Now, I was never a burner to begin with but as luck would have it I was one of the few on the team that could catch a punt which is all that I was asked to do. Why? Because every time we lined up on punt return we tried to block the damn thing. Great idea if it works but bad for me if it doesn’t. If we are going for the block, I have next to no blockers available to help me out. It just made sense what with our being a bad football team, that we would be fail miserably in the category of “blocked punts”.
I swear I could hear the Texans punter Roman Anderson laughing before he punted one my way. It was in the Alamo Dome so tracking the ball was challenging to say the least. His hitting the ball about 9 kilometers up didn’t help either. By the time the ball came down and was caught, I was surrounded by the Texans punt cover team. I utilized the old “duck and cover” technique which fared well until the 2nd quarter. As luck would have it Texans FB Tony Burse, all 6 ft. 220 lbs. of hurt, figured out my strategy. He whacked me pretty good. There were 2 sounds…him hitting me and my hitting the turf. This time the lights went out and back on quickly. Just a flash! I immediately regained my focus but in that moment, completely lost my will to play. That was when I decided I would retire at the end of the season. I also decided I was not going to return punts or play football for that matter on that day. The trainer pulled me from the game. I went to the locker room, showered, took a couple of pain killers and then drank a few beers on the team bus while listening to the rest of the game with the bus driver. He was pretty chatty and I had nothing to say.
So, I am giving away my brain. It may be the only thing worth giving away once everything is said and done. I have had 2 cardiac ablations for an atrial fibrillation issue. My back and hips are stiffer than a Regina wind storm and my memory is starting to go.
I am a father to 3 wonderful, precocious children. I have a wonderful, patient partner in Pamela, who has gone to hell and back with me. I have been impatient, moody, confused and frightened. I have also avoided seeking help for fear that there is some real damage. Again, another example of my dancing with the devil I knew versus the one I don’t know.
I am sharing my story because by going public, I have intentionally forced my hand.
I have chosen to share my story because I have decided to seek help. I have decided to avoid the trap of thinking I am invincible, that I am okay and that I am being brave by “manning up”, by not doing anything.
If I didn’t have kids, I probably would not be seeking help. Picking yourself up and pretending you are okay and getting back into the game is not an act of bravery. Asking for help is.
I would have continued to live in the silence. To simply exist but my kids need me. Elijah, Summer and Nate need me. Pamela Joy needs me.
I am not regretful. I grew up in Lebreton Flats and spent hours at the Boys and Girls Club. We did not have much besides big dreams and great parents. My dad, Ken Sr., played minor league baseball with Pete Rose and Ritchie Allen. My mom, Paulette, was and still is our Rock of Gibraltar.
I knew as soon as my dad lifted me up on to the ticket box outside Lansdowne Park so I could see one half of the field as the Rough Riders played the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, football would be my way out.
With that said, as much as I loved the game, Pamela and I will have plenty of discussions regarding our kids and their playing contact sports.
Here’s the rub in all of this. I have no idea if what I just shared made sense. I guess that is yet another reason I have decided to donate my brain. They will likely find nothing (pardon the pun!).
Gosh, it would be awful pleasin, to reason out the reason, for things I can’t explain. Then perhaps I’ll deserve your and be even worthy of you.
If I only had a brain!
Ken Evraire is an award-winning leadership coach and team builder. As a former professional athlete, he has learned from great coaches and learned even more from the bad ones!
To contact Ken email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.