In the discussion about concussions in football, players are often portrayed as the innocents being sent into danger by the more malicious coaching staff and league officials running a business.
Reality is rarely so black and white.
As we’ve seen recently, players can be just as responsible for hiding injuries to stay in the game despite the risks. Meanwhile, it is often forgotten that coaches and other team staff members used to play football and love the sport as much as the players they are leading.
This was especially the case for beloved college football coach Don Horton. Horton is best known for being “dad” to hundreds of football players at Boston College and North Carolina State University. But, before he was a coach, he played football in high school and at Wittenberg University.
Last year, Horton died at home with his family. At the time, it was reported that he had succumbed following a battle with Parkinson’s, but a post-mortem autopsy revealed what the coach had secretly feared – Horton had stage three chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
“It is likely that he had C.T.E. originally and that it may have contributed to the early onset of Parkinson’s,” Dr. Anne McKee told The New York Times.
Chronic traumatic encephalopathy is a permanent brain disease caused by repetitive brain trauma and linked with numerous debilitating symptoms like mood changes, memory loss, and issues with anger.
The warning signs
To Maura Horton, Don’s wife, the diagnosis was not a surprise. The Parkinson’s diagnosis in 2006 provided answers to some of Don’s developing symptoms, but did not explain others.
“It wasn’t like he was angry and hitting somebody, but he was short, which Don Horton never was,” she tearfully explained to The New York Times. “I hate saying that, because I feel like I’m betraying him. But he had changed. He was totally withdrawn and not engaging. It was not the man I’d known all these years.
“So, to me, things were just not adding up.”
Seven years before his death, Maura started asking questions about whether injuries from his days on the field could be behind the rapidly worsening symptoms. She reached out to Chris Nowinski, co-founder and the chief executive of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, telling him she believed Don had CTE.
At first, Don refused to believe he could have CTE. When his wife suggested that he donate his brain for testing, he scoffed and told her, “I’m going to donate my brain just to prove you wrong.” As his condition worsened, he began to suspect she may actually be right.
He never publicly spoke about his misgivings, but Maura says Don privately began showing concern about head injuries. When his daughters began playing soccer, he strongly refused to allow them to head the ball in games or practice.
“Don told them, ‘If I ever see you head the ball, I’ll run onto the field and yank you off myself,’” Maura Bill Pennington.
Don Horton also began worrying that he may share some guilt for contributing to these types of injuries in the college players he had coached throughout his career. He would ask his wife what he would say if the family of a former player he recruited called and told him their son was suffering from CTE.
“And I would tell him that he could say: ‘I know how it feels,’” his wife, Maura Horton, responded. “And Don didn’t necessarily like that answer. But that’s the truth.”
Don Horton’s Legacy
Despite his worries, Don never spoke out about the risks or symptoms he was experiencing. Instead, Maura says he believed he could make a difference by donating his brain for examination. This way, he could maybe help people make the decision whether to play for themselves.
“Don would never tell someone not to play the game, because he loved football and wouldn’t betray it,” said Maura. “But he wanted them to see a full picture to make a full decision.”
He also made changes to his coaching style. In 2013, Horton took a job as an assistant coach at a high school close to his home in Raleigh. Despite only being there for two years due to his declining health, Horton advocated for lessening contact at practices.
“Don never perceived the benefit of lining up and just knocking into each other, especially for a lineman who gets hit on every play,” Maura said.
Looking forward, the Horton’s still support college football. “I still believe the lessons learned in football are really good,” Maura Horton said, mentioning things like teamwork, work ethic and learning how to win and lose. “And if it’s something their dad would have said, I want them to hear it. The message is still right even if their dad isn’t there to deliver it.”
Still, she knows first-hand the pain of losing someone to CTE and wants to see more research done. “Clearly, we don’t know enough about C.T.E., and we need more brains to study,” she said. “We need to continue to do the research to make the game as safe as it can be.”