When 11-year-old Brogan Callaghan suffered a brain injury on the field, said journalist Daniel Duane, his football-obsessed father struggled to come to terms with the idea that his son might never play again.
Life without football?
IT WAS A crisp Sunday afternoon in Missoula, Mont., and Mike Callaghan stood in the blustery sunshine, doing the thing he loved best: coaching his 11-yearold son’s football team. Brogan Callaghan was the Panthers’ quarterback and was shaping up as a real leader on the field. Mike, still athletic at age 52, couldn’t help but think back to his own days on these fields, with his own father watching.
On that day, the Panthers were playing their archrivals, the Chargers, and were down 14-7 in the second quarter. Brogan took the snap. As soon as he released the ball, he was flattened by a defender, so he didn’t see that the receiver made the catch and scored.
Brogan jumped up and jogged into formation for the extra point before switching to linebacker, a position his father once played with the Montana State Bobcats. As the offense lined up, Mike noticed the Chargers’ running back go into motion early. “Sweep!” Callaghan yelled, but Brogan was already on it. 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.
As a coach, Callaghan generally kept his cool. But now he went straight for the referee, screaming that this was the second time that player had made an illegal block. 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, was chatting in the bleachers when she heard somebody say, “I think that’s Brogan.” She ran to the field, arriving at the same time her husband did.
Brogan looked up at his parents. “I can’t feel my legs,” he said. Shannon glanced at her husband and thought, “Brogan has to be done with football. It has to end now.”
An ambulance drove onto the grass. A paramedic asked Brogan what day it was, and Brogan answered incorrectly. They asked his birthday, and he couldn’t answer that, either. One of the paramedics asked him if his neck hurt. “I can’t feel my legs,” the boy repeated.
In the ER, Brogan looked at his father and asked, “Am I paralyzed?” “You’re going to be all right,” Callaghan said. He watched a tear roll down his son’s cheek and thought, “He knows.”
Then Brogan looked up at Callaghan and said, “Who are you?”
BEFORE THE INJURY, it had been a typical fall weekend for the Callaghans. Friday afternoon at 5, Mike left his office for the Panthers’ practice. Afterward, he and Brogan drove across town to watch a high school game. On Saturday morning, Callaghan and Brogan watched an NCAA game while plotting the next day’s attack against the Chargers. Win or lose, after the game they’d head home to catch the Steelers playing the 49ers. “We might be nuts,” Callaghan says. “But so much of our week is taken up by football.”
Plenty of other fathers could say the same thing. The vast majority of football in America is played at the youth level. There are about 2,000 men in the NFL, and 73,000 play on college teams. But more than 3 million boys between the ages of 6 and 18 play for teams like the Panthers and the Loyola Rams, in towns like Missoula, where football is deeply woven into the fabric of local life.
But that fabric is starting to fray, riven by a growing stack of research linking football to chronic head trauma. In college and the pros, players are consenting adults who make their own choices about that risk. But for those younger than 18, the decision rests with parents—more and more of whom are saying no to tackle football. Between 2010 and 2015, youth-league participation cratered by nearly 30 percent.
That stance has football leagues, both amateur and pro, scrambling. Earlier this year, Pop Warner, the nation’s oldest youth football league, eliminated kickoffs for kids younger than 11, to limit open-field contact. The NFL also holds free “moms clinics” at pro stadiums, where so-called master trainers put mothers through tackling drills in an effort to convince the women that tackling is safe for kids.
Yet new research on head trauma continues to undermine that case. A report in the June 2016 issue of the Journal of Neurotrauma found that the likelihood of developing cognitive and emotional problems is linked to a football player’s overall exposure to contact and not just to his diagnosed concussions. In other words, every little hit adds up, which explains why NFL veterans who started playing before age 12 are more likely to have cognitive problems than those who picked up the game later.
All of which puts football families in a uniquely confounding position. For Callaghan and his high school and college teammates, football has been one of the most important things in their lives. It’s the source of their self-confidence and closest friendships, of their very notion of what it means to be a man. And despite taking their share of hits to the head, they’ve gone on to lead fulfilling adult lives—lives that continue to be enriched by football. “It would rock me to the soul to learn that football has been bad for all these kids,” says Callaghan.
‘I’M YOUR DAD.” Back in the ER, Callaghan answered Brogan’s question. Brogan looked confused, so Callaghan pointed to Shannon and said, “Do you know who that is?” Brogan shook his head. Callaghan felt the life go out of him.
For hours they sat at Brogan’s side, hoping for something to change. Then suddenly Shannon spoke up. “His toes moved,” she said. Relief swept through the room.
By evening Brogan could move his legs, sit up in bed, and walk across the room. The following morning Callaghan woke up feeling optimistic. He told his wife that he thought Brogan might be back at practice within a week. 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.
Brogan’s doctors were unsure about the cause of his temporary paralysis, but they agreed that he had suffered a traumatic brain injury. Still, after two days in the hospital, they determined him well enough to go home. They gave Mike and Shannon a strict rehab protocol that called for avoiding anything that might stimulate brain activity: bright lights, computer screens, video games, even reading. The doctors also cautioned them that irritability and depression are common after a concussion.
A week later the Callaghans returned to the hospital for a follow-up visit. When the doctor said that Brogan would have to sit out the rest of football season, Callaghan found himself unexpectedly relieved. “I remember being thankful that the doctor told him so I wouldn’t have to,” Callaghan says. “I was sort of off the hook.”
Missing a single season was one thing. But the idea that Brogan might never play again—clearly what Shannon wanted—was nearly impossible for Callaghan 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 Callaghan’s life.
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. But now it felt different: He watched every tackle with anxiety, waiting for the child to get up and walk it off.
Both Shannon’s brothers, meanwhile, were relentless. They sent her one news article after another about kids like Evan Murray, a 17-year-old New Jersey quarterback; Ben Hamm, a 16-year-old linebacker from Bartlesville, Okla.; and 17-year-old Kenny Bui, from the Seattle suburbs, all of whom died within a month of one another early that fall. All told, more than a dozen kids died playing football that season, and Shannon’s brothers made sure she knew about each one. One night she tried to share these stories with her husband. “We are not talking about this,” he said.
It wasn’t until seven weeks after his injury that Brogan was able to form new memories. He started neurological rehab therapy and scored terribly on cognitive tests that included closing his eyes and touching his nose. Math worksheets that would have taken five minutes before the injury now took an hour. Spinning 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, “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...”
Despite their differences, Shannon understands. “It’s like a death,” she says. “Mike wants his kid to be a football star. And Brogan would be the star. He’s a leader and damn good, and everyone looks up to him.”
Callaghan struggled to imagine what his own life would be like without football. What would he do on weekday nights 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, CALLAGHAN got a call from officials at Missoula Youth Football: Did he plan to coach the 2016 season? After months of agonizing, almost entirely to himself, he decided. “Brogan’s not going to play, and I’m not going to coach,” he said.
Mike and Brogan still watch football together. Brogan has hurled himself into basketball and recently asked if he could take tennis lessons. Callaghan bought him his first rifle and is planning an elk hunt.
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 247 classes in the sixth grade,” she says, “and he finished with three A-pluses and three As.” Now, instead of going to Stanford to play football, he wants to go to Berkeley to study architecture—his mother’s passion.
Callaghan says he often thinks back to a day last November, weeks after Brogan’s injury. League officials asked how he wanted to handle that unfinished game with the Chargers. Callaghan didn’t want to handle it, but felt it would be selfish to refuse. That meant bringing the teams back to the field behind the county fairgrounds. The Chargers and the Panthers lined up exactly where they’d been the moment Brogan was injured—but with Brogan now on the sidelines with his father. They played the remainder of the game. The Panthers lost, and for the first time in his life Callaghan didn’t care.
All Brogan’s teammates went home, except for two boys, Charlie and Cole. Charlie threw a football to Brogan, who caught it and tossed it back. Charlie then passed it to Cole. Ten minutes went by, then 20, and still the kids continued to play. The parents lingered off to the side. “Normal isn’t the right word, but the normalcy of it, seeing him be a kid again,” Callaghan says. “The game was over, we got beat, and it was good for me. Our kids were fine.”
Excerpted from an article that originally appeared in Men’s Journal. Reprinted with permission.