By Laurie Lattimore-Volkmann
Saturdays for Casey Cochran used to be a lot different.
The former UConn quarterback would spend a sleepless night in a hotel with his teammates, going over every scenario in his head – from where to look for his receivers to deciphering the protection and alerting his line to locating the Mike to keeping an eye on the play clock.
Maybe even to getting hit.
When his alarm would go off, Cochran was thrust into a down-to-the-minute script dictating meals, meetings, rest and stretch before culminating with the bus ride to the stadium.
The three-hour countdown at the stadium until game-time was brutally slow for Cochran. He and his receivers would hit the field to run some routes before getting on all their pads. Then they’d have a team stretch and light practice before the early afternoon kick-off.
Typical game-day butterflies were ever-present, and Cochran had been used to those since his Pee Wee days.
But it was the anxiety that would slowly ramp up from the minute he got out of bed until the second he let go of his first pass that would haunt Cochran throughout his years playing football.
“As soon as I let the ball go from my hand, all the anxiety left, and I felt at home on the field. I would be in this zone all the way up until the end of the game,” Cochran said. “If we won, there was nothing in the world like it. Everyone was on cloud nine, and the celebration was always great.”
A loss obviously meant a much more subdued mood in the locker room but one usually overcome by Monday’s practice and a new opponent on the horizon.
Yet the usual ups and downs of winning and losing weren’t what haunted Cochran day and night about playing football.
It was the pain that came with every big hit – and the concussion that followed too many of them.
Thirteen, in fact.
Thirteen since the New London, Conn., native was 11 – including two his eighth-grade year.
But when that unlucky 13th struck in the first game of his second season as starting QB for the Huskies, Cochran did what so many fans consider unthinkable – he quit football.
He walked away from a sport he had been playing since age 7.
He walked away from starting quarterback of a Division I football program.
He walked away after being one of the nation’s top high school recruits – a Gatorade Connecticut Player of the Year for 2011-12.
He walked away despite being son of a coach who had won eight state championships.
The last game
That first game of the 2014 season had been going well. Although the Huskies were losing to BYU, Cochran and his offense were close to scoring and had gotten in an offensive rhythm. He was optimistic.
As he would later describe in a Player’s Tribune essay, Cochran surveyed his possibilities:
“The play-call got signaled in: Gun Ace Right Z Motion 82 Lasso X Spot F Corner.
Milliseconds after getting the call, I turned around and began to dissect what was in front of me…
Four-three, Mikes on left and probably Cover 4. Gonna have the flat early, spot if the ’backer buzzes past and maybe the corner late.
I backed up from the line and took my position behind the center. I took one last look around to make sure my guys were set. Then one last look at the play clock. Twenty-three. Let’s do it.
The ball was snapped. Everything lurched into motion.”
Running to his left, Cochran noticed his first two options were covered and the defense was closing in fast. As he turned 90 degrees to hit the corner route, the defenseless quarterback felt the sudden but familiar impact.
“The only word I know to describe the first few moments after a concussion is limbo — there are a few moments between the world that you were just a part of and your new brain-injured reality,” Cochran wrote. “When I regained consciousness, I knew I was on the ground. My head was seized with tremendous pressure, and that same awful, familiar depression from previous head injuries came over me — like a dark, heavy blanket, swallowing me up.”
This time Cochran had had enough. He went to film review on Monday like always. But by practice on Tuesday, instead of suiting up, he was shutting down. He called his parents to tell them something he had been considering for a while.
“For such a long time I just wanted to feel better,” Cochran said, recalling his first concussion in which he blacked out and was completely disoriented. “I was so confused as to what was happening. Why do I feel this way? And why is no one talking about it?”
The “not talking about it” proved almost as much of a toll on Cochran as the concussions themselves.
Football players are tough, and big hits are part of the game. Cochran, son of a former college and semi-pro player, grew up never “not knowing” football.
Like with so many fathers and sons, sports – and specifically football – was a major connection for the two. To turn away from football felt like turning away from his father.
But with support from his mother – and a burning desire to stop the anxiety and depression – Cochran walked away with no regrets.
No finishing the season, no pushing through it.
“When I ‘woke up’ on the sideline and realized I had had another concussion, I told myself this is it,” Cochran said, adding that he had been playing with the mentality that every game was his last because he knew it was only a matter of time before another concussion would force him to choose. “I was really playing the best I ever played because I was throwing caution to the wind. I was playing like I was in the Super Bowl.”
None of the momentary thrills Cochran would gain from playing the game could conquer the dark cloud of anxiety that hung over him.
Long-term impact of concussions
As luck would have it, Cochran had to do a report in eighth grade on CTE and brain injuries. It was then he learned the pain and mental anguish he felt from concussions was normal. It wasn’t talked about on the field or in the training room, but the teenager at least understood it was the likely source of his anxiety and depression.
“It was the first time I realized, ‘hey you may not be crazy,’” Cochran recalled.
CTE, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, is a progressive degenerative disease of the brain found in athletes (and others) with a history of repetitive brain trauma.
Though still considered a bad word among many a player or coach, CTE has forced football programs from Pee Wee to high school and all the way to the pros to deal with the reality that at best concussions are debilitating – and at worst, they can lead to something more fatal.
While the NFL is dealing with the financial reality of ignoring this issue, more and more parents and young players are taking concussions seriously because the statistics are forcing them to.
The NFL reported 244 concussions were diagnosed in 2016, down from 275 in 2015. The America Tonight Concussion Map reports 335 publicly reported concussions in major college football from 2013-2015. A joint study from Harvard University and Boston University in 2014 concluded that college football players average 21 “dings” and six suspected concussions.
Without consistent tracking of concussions among high school football players, good data is hard to find, but many statistics are still sobering, including that nearly half of all sports-related concussions occur during high school football and 33 percent of high school athletes reporting a concussion have two or more in a year.
Cochran doesn’t know whether CTE is future reality, and on a bad day, his depression may push him toward thinking about it.
But with therapy and medication, he’s working on more “good days” where he doesn’t focus on that potential.
“On a bad day, I may dwell on it, but if I have it, the damage has been done,” Cochran acknowledged, saying his focus is on what he can do to improve his health now and going forward. “I try to only worry about what I can control.”
And one of the things Cochran can control is sharing his story and working to make changes to a sport he loves.
Two years ago, he helped Connecticut legislators pass a bill requiring that parents and student athletes be informed about the dangers of sports-related concussions – their symptoms, risks and treatments.
It’s not enough, but it’s a start, says Cochran, who also recently became a board member for the Connecticut Brain Injury Alliance. He travels around the state, region and country advocating for anyone with a brain injury but specifically working to gain safer conditions for high school athletes.
His message isn’t always a popular one.
“The community of people who push back love football, and they don’t want to hear the science; they don’t want football to go away,” Cochran acknowledged.
And the UConn grad student doesn’t want it to go away either.
But he does want it to change – and in dramatic ways – because “these aren’t just guys under helmets.”
They are kids and college students and young men who may be afraid of potential future consequences to some extent but are more immediately afraid of not playing a sport they love and one they may consider their livelihood.
So ultimately Cochran would like to see youth programs do away with tackle football and college programs only have helmets and pads in games – making practices more about technique and drills and less about actual player contact.
“There are hundreds of drills that don’t require pads. You can use tackling bags or practice form tackling without pads,” Cochran says, knowing his suggestions sound like blasphemy. “I know I’ll get burned at the stake for saying that.”
As a former player who benefitted from so much about football, Cochran still feels strongly about his message and wants kids to be able to get the same lessons and same experiences of playing football but without the head injuries.
“There are a lot of reasons why the game needs to be changed,” he says. “It’s brutal.”
Different kind of Saturday
Saturdays for Cochran are a lot different these days.
Instead of a regimented schedule culminating in an oft-exhilarating finish but all-too-oft traumatic aftermath, Cochran tries to get his adrenaline rush from knocking in birdies.
It’s “an insane feeling,” he admits, but nowhere close to “winning on the football field.”
Yet Cochran knows this absolutely is the healthiest decision he’s made.
Though he and his father Jack still struggle to find common ground other than football, the senior Cochran is proud of his son’s stand for health over sport.
“He made a decision I never could have made,” Jack told ESPN’s SC Featured last fall, noting that in his football playing days he went unconscious three times because of a heavy hit but no concussions were ever diagnosed. “I would have played football til I died. He had the guts to call it quits. I’m proud of him for that.”
It’s not always an easy decision, but speaking at an Alabama high school football coaches’ convention recently, Cochran summed up this internal struggle perfectly.
“I was born into football and I don’t want to see it go,” he told them. “But what we need to realize is if we don’t take steps necessary to make the game safer for players, it’s going to be taken away from us.”