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No man’s land: When concussions force a college football player to retire

Casey Cochran is one of at least 26 players in college football to have retired in recent years because of concussions

This is part one of the two-part “Life After Concussions in College Sports” series. Part II will be posted in the coming weeks. In March 2016, check out Timothy Bella’s “Life After Concussions in College Sports” panel at South by Southwest.

STORRS, Conn. — Inside his ninth-floor apartment at the University of Connecticut, Casey Cochran rewatches the tape of his first collegiate football start. He pauses the TV after a play-action hand-off to the running back. 

The snap — in a November 2013 matchup at Southern Methodist University — was one of thousands Cochran had taken since he started playing the game at just 7 years old. This one, though, would end in his 11th of at least 12 career concussions. He watches the tape in slow motion as his head snaps back, bouncing off the artificial turf at the Dallas stadium. It was a clean hit by the defender, and Cochran knows it.

“I dump off the ball, and from there, I’m in the air,” he says, with his oversize dog, Montana, in his lap. “I have no way to brace myself.”

Going through game film used to be a regular routine for the 22-year-old Cochran, who watched up to 10 hours of tape on the Sundays and Mondays before a game.

He came to UConn as one of the most decorated Connecticut high school quarterbacks in state history. He also arrived with 10 concussions spanning his middle and high school careers. The one he suffered in his first collegiate start marked No. 11.   

Now, Cochran slows down the footage again, continuing to look at the TV screen. It’s as if he’s going through a video yearbook of a time that seems so distant to him today. 

“You can see me laying there afterward, right?” he asks me. “I stayed out there, even though I knew I had a concussion … I still think about that headache.”

Even then, Cochran, a “Star Wars” nerd “stuck in a jock’s body” — perhaps better known for having one of the best mullet haircuts in college athletics — understood he was playing with his teammates on borrowed time.

On September 2014, he ran out of time.

Cochran suffered his 12th concussion in the team’s season opener against Brigham Young University, an injury that led to his decision to retire from college football — one of nine players to do so last season because of concussions.  

Casey Cochran plays with his dog, Montana. It's been more than a year since Cochran retired from college football due to concussions.
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“When I tell people I’ve had 12 concussions, some want to hug me,” he says. “Others ask me whether I should be at a hospital right now.”

He adds: “It should be ludicrous that I got 12 concussions.”

Cochran’s story is not an isolated case: It’s a growing trend among college football players. From the start of the 2013 season through November 2015, Cochran is one of at least 26 players in major college football to have retired because of concussions. The three-season total, which remains incomplete with one week left in the 2015 regular season, is more than double the 12 concussion-related retirements in college football from 2010 to 2012. All 10 of the conferences in the Football Bowl Subdivision have had at least one football player retire because of the injury in the last three seasons.

The data, spanning over three seasons, comes from America Tonight’s College Football Concussion Map, which tracks every concussion that’s publicly reported by a program’s coaching staff or the media. 

While the NCAA is still in the middle of a class-action concussion lawsuit brought by a group of former players, led by Adrian Arrington, the governing body of college athletics is also grappling with how to deal with concussions on the field — and what they mean for young football players, especially the vast majority of those that never go on to the big leagues.

As much of the sports-related concussion focus still centered on professional sports, it’s retirement stories like Cochran’s in the college ranks that are gaining more attention and awareness. A landmark $30 million concussion study by the NCAA and the Department of Defense, tracking the concussion effects among almost 37,000 student-athletes, figures to be a significant step in concussion care for current and former college athletes. But in lacking a standard concussion protocol for all member institutions to follow, as well as a dedicated monetary fund for those student-athletes who are forced to retire because of concussions, the NCAA remains far behind both its professional and amateur contemporaries, critics say.

“I think the NCAA has done the worst job of any level of sports in terms of the protections they offer their players,” says Chris Nowinski, founder of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, formerly the Sports Legacy Institute. “At the college level, concussion care for current and former players is completely up to the school. And in some places, that kind of medical care isn’t a priority.”

Cochran is one of the lucky ones. UConn has honored his scholarship; it’s paying for his masters, too, he says. Still, he knows the support he got at UConn makes him an outlier; many college athletes who’ve gone through a similar situation at other schools haven’t been as fortunate.

“It’s the Wild West,” Cochran tells me, referring to the NCAA’s current system of caring for concussed athletes, past and present. “There are countless former athletes who’ve dealt with concussions who haven’t had the kind of support I’ve received. That’s the biggest thing for me: What about them?”

'I knew that was kind of it'

Cochran staring at the final pair of cleats he'd put on as a college football player.
America Tonight

The mud and grass are still caked on the white and blue cleats Cochran wore in what would be his final game. They hang in front of a UConn flag on a nondescript wall in his room, a token of a past life.

“I feel so far detached from all that,” he says.

He’s switched the TV to a tape of the 2013 regular-season finale against Memphis. After starting off the season 0-9, Cochran, who was inserted as the starting quarterback halfway through the year, led the team to three straight wins to close out the season. The game against Memphis — now a national power in 2015 — was a career high, with Cochran throwing for four touchdowns and 461 yards, a UConn single-game record. Things were looking up for Cochran — despite the fact he was hiding a concussion.

“That was the hard part, as I had cemented my role as the starting quarterback for a while,” Cochran says. “Eight months [after] having the best game I ever had, I [was] done playing football.”

The way Jack Cochran remembers it, he started to be more concerned about his son’s long-term health years before that: when Casey suffered his third concussion in the eighth grade.

“We held him out for two weeks after his second concussion, and he came back and got a third one right away,” says the elder Cochran, who also coached his son during his freshman year of high school. “That’s when I realized it could be a problem.”

That was around the same time that Shannon Russell, Cochran’s mother, knew her son might not last long playing football, even if he wasn’t always vocal about his own vulnerability.

“Sometimes, he didn’t say anything, because he wanted to play,” she says. “I would take him to the doctors, but there were other times where he’d hide it.”

There are countless former athletes who’ve dealt with concussions who haven’t had the kind of support I’ve received. That’s the biggest thing for me: What about them?

Casey Cochran

Growing up, Cochran’s father, who for decades was a decorated high school coach in Connecticut, had to bribe his indifferent son, around age 7, with a video game just to get on the field. That bribe would eventually lead to one of the great high school football careers in Connecticut history, as Cochran went on to hold all-time state records for passing yards and completions.

“I look back and still feel like the little chubby kid who was awkward,” Cochran says.

Cochran can still recall major details about most of his concussions. In the sixth grade, Cochran, then 11, had a helmet-to-helmet collision with a kid who was so big, Cochran remembers, that he was like one of the alien characters from “Space Jam.” The hit left him feeling like he got run over by a train. After another hit to the head in the eighth grade, he couldn’t move his jaw or neck for a couple of days. Two weeks after that, he hit an opposing player in the front of the end zone and woke up in the back of the end zone, still standing and crying.

“I kind of felt like a newborn baby after that one,” he says. “I was thinking, ‘What the hell is going on right now?’”

During his freshman year of high school, Cochran got kicked in the head after he was sacked. The next year, a defender popped him in the head as he was sliding. The year after that, another nasty hit knocked Cochran out cold for eight seconds. 

He remembers the headaches. The feelings of depression, often the hardest part of his concussions, were inescapable too. Already having been diagnosed with anxiety in the eighth grade, Cochran went through rounds of antidepressants during college, working through the depression that would come and go with each concussion.

Leading into the BYU game, no one ever told Cochran he should stop playing football, he says. But after his 11th concussion in the spring of 2013, Cochran and his family, as well as UConn Coach Bob Diaco and the program’s medical staff, knew that one more major head injury would force him to step away.  

Almost a year later, he suffered a minor head injury he never told anyone about.

But then, late in the fourth quarter of the August 2014 opener against BYU, Cochran was faced with a fourth down deep in BYU territory. Out of the shotgun formation, Cochran rolled to his left; he couldn’t see that he was being chased by a defensive end who, unblocked, gunned for Cochran from his blind side. Cochran got the ball off, but a half-second later, the pass-rusher crashed shoulder-first into Cochran’s throwing shoulder, sending him airborne. As he landed, he was unable to brace himself, and his head hit the ground. 

(Editor's note: See the hit at the 9:11 mark.)

Though Cochran didn’t think it was a concussion at first, he knew “that was kind of it,” he says: The hit would be the one that ended his career.

The next day, he met with his mother and other family in town for the game. Like her son, Russell guessed that would be the last time she’d see her son play. Today, she still looks at a family photo taken a day after that final concussion.

“You could tell in his eyes that he wasn’t totally there,” she says.

After the game, things moved quickly. Four days later, Cochran suspected that he had a concussion. He told his family and coaches of the situation before discussing his options with them, even if the decision was, for him, easy.

On Sept. 8, 2014, Cochran announced his retirement. 

A lot has changed for Cochran in the last year, but he remains connected to football.
America Tonight

“He pours his soul into everything that he does and he will transition nicely to the next phase of life,” Diaco, Cochran’s coach, said shortly after he announced his retirement last year.

The announcement was “eye-opening” for fellow UConn quarterback Chandler Witmer, who would go on to replace Cochran following his retirement.

“It is tough because you work your whole life, you put everything you have into it to get to this point and play the game, and it gets kind of taken from you like that,” Witmer told The New Hampshire Register last year.

Cochran’s retirement has resonated throughout college football, especially for others playing the same position. Two other quarterbacks — David Ash of the University of Texas and Clint Trickett of West Virginia University — announced their retirements last season because of concussions. And just last month, A.J. Long of Syracuse University was forced to step away from the game after suffering his third concussion in two years.

“I wouldn’t have had the courage to step away, I know that,” says Cochran’s father, a football lifer who remembers suffering at least seven or eight concussions in his playing days, including three that left him unconscious. “Seeing what Casey did, I think, made it a little easier for those players who’ve retired since him. That’s what I’m most proud of.”

But for Cochran, life after college football had only just begun. 

A different life

It’s already been a busy October morning for Cochran when he walks into his sports management class eight minutes late inside UConn's Neag School of Education. Earlier that day, he started as a volunteer offensive coordinator for his former high school, joining them halfway through the season. After that, Cochran, a color commentator for UConn football’s local radio broadcast, covered Diaco’s weekly press conference, exchanging his playbook for a reporter’s notebook.

“To me, Casey has set a terrific example as to understanding the issue of retiring from concussions,” says Joe D’Ambrosio, the radio play-by-play announcer for UConn football. “Knowing that when you make a decision, it’s final and you move on from that.”

All Cochran has ever wanted to do is play football and be a “Star Wars” nerd, hence the tattoos of Yoda and Bobba Fett on his left arm. Since retiring, he’s been able to branch out from his athletic side toward other interests, he says. As a high school football player, he never wore his letter jacket in high school, regularly sporting Zubaz pants and ugly sweaters and preferring to play hacky sack during lunch — an active effort to make sure his athletic identity did not overshadow who he was as a person.

“When you’re a Division I football player, it’s your whole life,” Cochran says. “You’re an athlete year-round. But things are a lot different now.”

In class, it’s time for the 6-foot-1 blond, sporting his Brian Bosworth-style haircut, to give an elevator pitch to his graduate class for a sports-related program he wants to create. The focus is on a topic he knows best: concussions. The proposal, essentially a concussion awareness program for a youth football league in West Hartford, Connecticut, would raise minimum safety standards for concussions and protocols to help protect youth football players against head trauma. 

More than a year since retiring, Cochran is working toward his masters.
America Tonight

“When you hear about this proposal, you automatically know this program is so important,” the professor says. “Excellent job, Casey.”

It’s the kind of program Cochran wishes he had when he started playing. In the days, weeks and months following his retirement, uncertainty clouded his future. He thought back to when he was a kid, when the majority of people were not well informed about the long- and short-term effects of sports-related concussions.

In the spring, Cochran decided to make his voice – and experience with concussions – heard in front of Connecticut lawmakers, supporting House Bill 6722, An Act Concerning Concussions in Youth Athletics, requiring youth athletes, and their families, to be given basic information regarding concussions. The bill passed and went into effect in July.

“If we can make a change at the youth level, just something simple like telling kids what they’re about, then maybe some kid won’t have to go through something like I did,” Cochran says. “I don’t want any kid to go through what I went through.”

"The biggest problem is kids get trapped in thinking that their whole life is a sport,” he adds, shaking his head, “and that they have to play through it.”

Cochran’s turn toward concussion advocacy doesn’t mean he’s trying to stop football. He tells me he doesn’t have any regrets for stepping away from his sport for the sake of his health: Other athletes making a decision involving their long- or short-term health should feel the same way. 

Motivation for change

Cochran’s push comes during a year in which focus on concussions in youth football has sharpened considerably. In August, research from Boston University and Brigham and Women’s Hospital found that youth football players between the ages of 10 and 12 are at a greater risk of alterations in brain development than those who wait later to play. 

That same kind of sharpened focus has been applied to the college game, too. In October 2014, Harvard University and Boston University found that college football players have 21 “dings” and six suspected concussions for every diagnosed concussion. The NCAA’s ongoing class-action concussion lawsuit is practically at a standstill, with no action since an updated proposed settlement was filed in the spring. And schools are starting to take aim at the NCAA’s lack of data on concussions: The University of Virginia, for one, is pushing for more restrictions on football practices

Critics, such as Nowinski of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, the nonprofit focusing on research and education of sports-related head injuries, have said in the past that college football has been “asleep at the wheel” in terms of not doing more for concussion-related research for current and former student-athletes. He says he doesn’t see that changing soon.

“The NCAA has no motivation in changing,” Nowinski says. “They have created this sort of legal no man’s land where players are old enough to be abused, and they have no bargaining rights in which to stop that abuse.”

While the NCAA ups its focus on concussion care, some critics continue to wonder whether it's enough.
AP/Sue Ogrocki

In the last 18 months, however, the NCAA has shown some signs of beefing up its concussion care. In May 2014, the NCAA and Department of Defense announced the landmark $30 million study. In January, the NCAA’s “Power Five” leagues, the most powerful conferences in all of college athletics, passed legislation that will require its member universities to adopt new concussion and safety policies. But students attending the convention said that the passed legislation wasn’t enough, arguing that the push to adopt new concussion policies didn’t grant university medical personnel “unchallengeable authority” in deciding whether an athlete can return to play.

“I would much rather have an imperfect start than an imperfect pause,” Dr. Brian Hainline, the NCAA’s chief medical officer, said of his support for the legislation during the NCAA’s annual convention earlier this year. (Editor’s note: Multiple interview requests made to Dr. Hainline and the NCAA to participate in this article, as well as the author’s panel on the same subject at South By Southwest in March 2016, were respectfully declined.)

One of the lead investigators in the NCAA-DoD study is Dr. Steven Broglio, director of the NeuroSport Research Laboratory at the University of Michigan, which is overseeing research on the natural history of concussion among college student-athletes. Between the effects of the study and the ruling of the “Power Five” leagues, he says athletic programs, and student-athletes, will begin to see an improvement in the culture around concussion care in college athletics.

“The NCAA has been so proactive in trying to address this issue for current and former student-athletes,” Broglio says. “While they may have been slow prior to [this], I think they’ve taken giant leaps forward in the last couple years.”

The year-plus since his retirement has given Cochran a clearer view of the uphill climb faced by college athletes suffering from head trauma. In between bites of his ham gumbo at the café next to his apartment building, Cochran stresses how it hasn’t even been a year since Kosta Karageorge, an Ohio State practice squad player, was found dead in a dumpster due to a self-inflicted gunshot wound days after texting his mother about his concussions. The Karageorge suicide, which Cochran says has been largely forgotten, and the circumstances around it, keeps Cochran up at night. Though Cochran received the full support of his coaches and university, he wants others to get the same support he received — and more.

“All the money we could pay college athletes should be diverted to health insurance [for those with concussions] while and after they’re playing,” he says. “Who is taking care of those guys? What if we just took even a third of our ticket sales and gave it to a fund to help athletes after college?”

The lack of a firm path for college athletes who are forced to retire due to concussions bothers Cochran. He knows he’s fortunate. He also knows his post-playing career could have been different.

“I could have gone south,” he says.

Moving forward

There are a thousand reasons Cochran shouldn’t play football, but as he hits fast-forward on the game film, he still remembers hearing the heavy breathing of a pass-rusher barreling his way.

He misses it. He misses his teammates and the touchdowns, as well as beating defenders crashing toward him.

“I could just hear this guy coming after me,” he says, pointing at the screen, grinning from ear to ear. “It’s selective memory, man. How do I remember that when it was going on? I don’t remember the crowd noise, but I can remember a guy breathing behind me.”

An hour away from Storrs, there’s no time to dwell on the past at Waterbury Municipal Stadium. Cochran, in a gray UConn T-shirt and blue sweatpants, looks short next to Trey Dawson, a skin-and-bones high school freshman quarterback with a big arm. At 6-foot-4, Dawson’s upside is big, Cochran tells me, and he is one of a handful of young quarterbacks in the state Cochran coaches in private lessons during the week. 

Cochran is still attached to the game, coaching young quarterbacks throughout Connecticut.
America Tonight

Applying what he’s learned from his dad and coaches, Cochran stresses the importance of the quarterback controlling the opposing safety and getting the ball out high on his release.

“I could have caught you like seven times,” he jokes with Dawson. “I could have caught you, laid down and caught you again.”

After Dawson nails a 15-yard strike to the corner of the end zone, dropping the ball over the receiver’s outside shoulder as Cochran instructed him to do, the quarterback-turned-tutor can’t contain himself: “Dime of the day! That was great.”

Cochran admits it’s been tough going from being a Division-I athlete to “not being basically anything.” It’s a transition he’s still figuring out. Yet, it’s one he’s enjoying figuring out for the first time, without the concussions and the headaches, anxiety and depression that have accompanied him since he was a kid.

“If I do something that makes me happy every day, I feel accomplished for the day. That’s kind of where I’m at right now,” he tells me. “The biggest thing for me is to be active every day and not be sad about not playing football anymore. I tell some of my friends I was good at throwing a ball.

“I do miss it, but you just have to keep going.”

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