By EMILY HAMER of Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The hit that put Walker Williams’ brain over the edge — leaving him with ongoing headaches, mood swings, ringing in his ears, depression, anxiety and short-term memory problems — was nothing out of the ordinary.
The University of Wisconsin football team had the ball and was lined up against Northwestern University’s defense during a November 2015 game in Camp Randall Stadium. With 13:29 left in the second quarter, the ball was snapped, and the Badgers’ offensive line sprang into motion.
The clock ticked down to 13:28, and Williams, an offensive lineman, blocked a Northwestern player from moving toward the ball carrier. Their helmets collided — something that happens all the time in football.
A second later, Williams’ mind went blank. He stayed in for the next four plays, but he is not sure why. He does not remember any of them.
The nonprofit news outlet Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism provided this article to The Associated Press through a collaboration with Institute for Nonprofit News.
It was his fifth and final concussion since he began playing in middle school. After that, he was out for the season, and in March 2016, Williams quit football entirely. Now he worries about the very real possibility that he may develop dementia because of the brain injuries he suffered on the football field.
Two of Williams’ teammates, former Badgers fullback Austin Ramesh and former outside linebacker Jake Whalen, also quit football after suffering post-concussion symptoms. Whalen, who is still a UW student, quit the team in 2017. Ramesh, who was in line for a possible contract with the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals, walked away in May.
In all, UW-Madison student-athletes were diagnosed with 137 concussions from 2014 to 2018, according to records from an ongoing NCAA and U.S. Department of Defense concussion study obtained by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism under the state Open Records Law.
Key information — including athletes’ names, which sports they played and whether the brain injuries were sports-related — was omitted in records released by the UW. Officials cited exceptions for research, student privacy and personal health information in withholding the information.
In the months after his last concussion, Williams, who was studying mechanical engineering, would get headaches if he looked at a computer screen for too long. He saw a “marked decrease” in his ability to solve problems. He also had trouble remembering things.
“I couldn’t even do my homework,” Williams recalled.
Although the majority of these symptoms improved after a couple of months, Williams said he feared for his future.
“If I can’t do those things, I just wasted four years of my life doing a very hard major, and I wouldn’t even be able to capitalize on that,” Williams said. “I literally would not be able to do my job. So that scared me.”
Ramesh is now back in northern Wisconsin, pursuing a certificate in financial advising. He said before playing for the Badgers, he had never experienced anxiety. But halfway through his college career, he suddenly would become so uneasy in class that he had to get up and leave.
“I couldn’t even tell you why,” said Ramesh, a native of Land O’ Lakes.
Ramesh skipped his own college graduation because he knew he would not be able to handle being around a crowd that big.
“I don’t want it to get … to the point where I just can’t really function at all,” Ramesh said with a sigh, explaining his decision to quit. “It just wasn’t really worth it to me anymore.”
Whalen, currently a senior at UW, reached a similar conclusion after suffering three concussions, including one in high school.
“You just decide that your life post-playing career is a lot more important than the in-the-moment playing football,” said Whalen, who is pursuing an economics degree.
Williams graduated in May 2017 and now works as a mechanical engineer at Globe Machine Manufacturing in Tacoma, Washington. Even though he is only 25, Williams regularly deals with symptoms consistent with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease linked closely to repeated hits to the head, including subconcussive hits.
CTE can cause headaches, mood changes, irritability, anxiety, depression, impulse control issues and memory problems. Some people develop progressive dementia as early as their 40s.
Williams estimates he sustained “tens of thousands” of subconcussive hits from playing football in middle and high school and college.
“I’m gonna have CTE — I just know it,” Williams said. “I really don’t like to think about it.”
He often has a hard time remembering a string of just four numbers. Williams also has ringing in his ears. At least once a week for an hour or so at a time, he experiences depression or anxiety that is “completely debilitating.”
“Even just talking to people, like sending back a text message, is very, very, very hard,” Williams said.
This season, Badgers football players continue to sustain concussions. Starting quarterback Alex Hornibrook missed three games this season because of two concussions.
Safety Patrick Johnson left the Badgers this year after sustaining a head injury during an August practice. Johnson said his decision to leave was not influenced by the two concussions he had in college, or the three or four he had playing in middle school and high school.
Johnson said he wanted to take a break from football to reduce his stress and improve his mental health. He is considering returning to the Badgers next season.
According to data from the Concussion, Assessment, Research and Education Consortium study, 137 concussions were diagnosed from July 2014 to March 2018 among 1,663 UW-Madison student-athletes, with undisclosed numbers experiencing multiple concussions or non-sports related brain injuries. Ninety-six percent of eligible UW student-athletes have chosen to participate in the $30 million study.
Without knowing the concussion breakdown by sport or what proportion of concussions are sports-related, it is impossible to place UW-Madison within a national context.
Houston attorney Jeff Raizner, who is working on a class action lawsuit involving 110 former college football players against the NCAA, said the university should be more forthcoming with information about the prevalence of brain injury.
“They’re tracking that data, and it’s surprising to me that they’re unwilling to share some of that data to protect the public,” he said.
Concussion Legacy Foundation co-founder and CEO Chris Nowinski said he respects shielding some of the data until the CARE study is properly vetted.
But every study suffers from underreporting, said Nowinski, whose group is dedicated to solving what it calls the “concussion crisis.” Nowinski cited a 2014 study in which college football players admitted to having six more concussions and 21 “dings” or bell-ringers for every diagnosed concussion.
Subconcussive hits, which some researchers think are the “driving force” behind CTE, are also not captured in the CARE data. Nowinski said football players get hit in the head so often that “if they reported every one, they couldn’t play.”
Whalen said he experienced this mindset firsthand. In high school, “I wanted to keep playing, so I just decided not to say anything, as stupid as that sounds.”
Interviews by the Center in 2017 with more than a dozen current and former Badger football players revealed that many downplay the threat of brain injury, even though some had their “bell rung” many times.
In football, players collide and fall down on almost every play. Helmets also cover players’ faces, hiding dazed or confused expressions. Nowinski said players can sustain “invisible concussions” in which their heads do not move but their brains are impacted.
When Williams sustained his career-ending hit, no one seemed to notice. Ramesh and Whalen had similar experiences. Whalen said when his helmet collided with another player in practice, it wasn’t a “huge hit,” it just made impact at a vulnerable spot on his head.
The NFL and the NCAA have made rule changes to try to mitigate the risk of brain injury in football. In March, the NFL adopted a rule that banned players from lowering their heads — essentially using their helmets as a weapon. Since 2013, the NCAA has had a similar rule.
Ramesh said he thinks the NFL’s no helmet-to-helmet rule is a good change. But, he said, “Football is just a violent game. I don’t think you can really change that. You can’t change the game.”
Ramesh initially downplayed the dangers of brain injury in a July 2017 interview with the Center. In April, he signed with the Arizona Cardinals as an undrafted free agent — on the cusp of his dream of playing in the NFL.
But once in Arizona for training camp, Ramesh’s anxiety would not subside. He talked with his parents and others, including Chris Borland, the former Badgers linebacker who quit the San Francisco 49ers in 2015 because of brain injury fears. Ramesh found out that “concussions and anxiety have pretty much a direct relationship.”
The UW athletic department provides fact sheets and presentations to student-athletes about brain injury dangers, including one that explains multiple concussions may put athletes at “increased risk of degenerative brain disease and cognitive and emotional difficulties later in life.” But CTE is not mentioned by name in any of the materials UW provided to the Center.
Nowinski said he would like to see more detail added about CTE and the danger of subconcussive hits. And Raizner hopes the NCAA lawsuits pressure the league to “bring resolution” to former athletes and “bring hopefully some better information, some better disclosure, better science and better safety to kids in the future.”
Williams said he understands why some would play football despite the dangers.
“It’s a game of risk, you’re rolling the dice. I guess the equivalent is I kind of crapped out and got an unlucky roll,” Williams said.
He said if he has a son, he does not want him to play tackle football.
“I know it is likely I won’t have a good quality of life when I get older,” Williams said. “I know that my time clock may be a lot shorter than it would’ve been. . So, I just try to live as long as I can now.”