A month or so ago, I woke up with a blind spot that occupied the majority of the vision in my right eye. I’m no stranger to needing to take trips to the emergency room, but those trips are usually prompted by pain. For the first time in my life, this trip was prompted by fear.
Years ago, a baby-faced version of me was the captain of my high school football team. My best friend and co-captain, Matt Perry, and I were the only two players to have three years of varsity football under our belts, as we were the only sophomores to make the team a few years prior. Football was my life: It was the only sport I was good at; it provided me with social credibility; and it formed a bridge between my older brother, my father, and I. Three weeks into the season, my team made the long journey to Middlebury, Vermont. As one of the few Division One programs in the state, we were accustomed to three-, five-, and even seven-hour drives to away games in order to find another school that could field a competitive team.
I played defensive end, and just before the end of the first quarter, I came around the corner on a pass play with my sights set on the quarterback. I didn’t notice the fullback approaching from my left, and as I closed the gap between the ball carrier and myself, I felt the sudden crunch of shoulder pads and a helmet blowing through my ankles. It didn’t hurt right away, but my stomach immediately dry heaved as I laid on the ground. I knew something was wrong, but back then, I saw the game as life or death, and there was no way I’d leave the field if I could help it. I sprang up onto my good leg and hobbled back to the huddle. The next time the ball was snapped, I tried to put pressure on my right foot and crumpled into a heap. Certain that I just needed to find the right way to apply pressure, I popped up again, ignoring the huddle and remaining on the line of scrimmage until the ball was snapped again, and again, I found myself in a pile on the ground.
This time I didn’t get up. It was beginning to hurt, but still genuinely wasn’t too bad—my body had just quit. Our head coach jogged out onto the field, looked me over, and calmly said, “I gotta tell you, 52, I don’t see anything too wrong through your sock and cleat. I can get some EMTs over here if you think you need them…” He didn’t finish his sentence before I grabbed his arm and shoulder so he could help me back to my feet. I hopped to the sideline without any more help, secretly proud of myself for living up to what I thought my coach expected of me.
I spent the rest of the first half trying to “get my foot back into its socket,” as I’d convinced myself that it was dislocated. I wouldn’t learn until later that one can’t dislocate a foot. I stood on my good foot, bit down on my mouth guard, and stomped my bad one into the ground, trying to get the damn thing to pop back in—to no avail. Some of my teammates wrapped it tightly with tape and ACE bandages, hoping I could make it work, but that didn’t work either.
I made the long drive home with my ankle wrapped in ice, wondering if my season was over, and trying not to cry on a bus full of football players.
My parents were asleep by the time I got home, so I climbed into bed and lay there for hours. When my mom (a seasoned emergency room nurse) woke up, I told her calmly that I needed to go to the hospital. She and my dad, who were still together at the time, brought me there without any real sense of panic. After all, whatever it was that had gone wrong had already happened. We even stopped to pick up my longtime girlfriend along the way. As I lay in the hospital bed waiting for the X-ray results, my parents ran out to grab a cup of coffee. Five minutes after they left, a doctor came running in. My tibia and fibula were not only broken, but the bits of bone I’d been breaking off as I tried to stomp my leg back together had done a fair amount of tissue damage. I was leaking bone marrow into my blood stream, and from the looks on the faces of the team that rushed me into surgery before my parents had even made it back, it was something that required immediate care.
I had never done drugs or even drank alcohol, and as the morphine set in, I recall being amazed at how the pain subsided, then the world melted away until all that remained was my warm blanket and my girlfriend’s hand pressed into mine. Then even that faded.
I don’t remember much about the next few days. I’d wake up occasionally in my hospital bed and panic because I couldn’t feel anything below my waist, a pleasant nurse would explain again that it was because of the epidural, I’d slip back to sleep, only to repeat the process a few hours later. I do, however, recall my head coach coming to visit me in the little hospital room. I’m not sure how long he’d been there before I woke up, but as I began to stir, I heard his powerful voice crack as he leaned in and said, “I’m sorry, 52.” I tried to do away with all the self-pity I’d felt until that point and told him I was fine, and that I might even make it back that season.
He knew I was lying. He put his hand on my arm and asked me who I thought could replace me as team captain on the field. I told him Adam Shepard, one hell of an inside linebacker and one of my closest friends, was right for the job. He thanked me and left.
I cried until I fell asleep again.
Five weeks later, I’d forge a doctor’s note and wrap my leg cast in ACE bandages and medical tape, intent on playing just one play of the homecoming game. I even dressed for practice the day before, but my coach wasn’t stupid. He called me into his office on game day, the note on his desk and the doctor on speakerphone. I wouldn’t play, but he didn’t report me for the forgery. Instead, he let me dress and hobble out onto the field with my team one more time before taking my place on the sideline before the game.
It was a nice gesture, but it felt like charity. For the first time in my life, I realized I was mortal. I’d been hurt before, but it always used to mean just taking some time off to heal up. The three college football programs that had been scouting me stopped calling after I told them I had a year of physical therapy to go before I was running. I didn’t know it at the time, but I’d be running a lot sooner than that. It didn’t matter. Football left me behind.
Although I’ve been hurt a dozen times since then, occasionally with worse injuries, that remained the only time I’d ever experienced genuine, existential fear. I wasn’t a football player, and although I never imagined playing professionally (I was never so good) I had expected football to get me through college. I didn’t know what I was, what life was if it didn’t surround a sport, and the idea of facing the rest of my life without that kind of certainty was too much at the time.
I did manage to bounce back, though. Three years later, I’d join the Marines. A year after that, I’d start for the West Coast champions Twentynine Palms Marine Corps football team, a feat we’d repeat the following year. Eventually, injuries from football, training, and deployment would add up, and the Corps would decide that it didn’t have much use for me anymore. I won’t lie, the transition out of the Marines was a hard one for me, and although I made some poor choices in coping mechanisms, even then, I never felt that nauseating fear I had in high school, that powerful realization that the world might not ever be the same for me.
This morning, I woke up and sat down at my desk as I always do, looking through my notes on stories to develop, checking for email responses on interviews I’m putting together, looking through mainstream media sites for late breaking news I hadn’t seen yet…and I couldn’t read a damn thing.
I slid the eyepatch onto my right eye that I use to help me read (the eye still works just well enough to create a blurry mess of anything I try to look at) only to find the screen remained blurry. My left eye, while certainly not as bad as my right, is struggling as I write this to keep the text in focus.
And for the first time since high school, that awful feeling, that realization that the world won’t ever be the same for me, is setting in. Weeks ago, the VA’s team of eye doctors told me they hoped my vision would improve on its own, otherwise we’d have to start discussing treatment options that don’t have extremely high success rates. Instead, it seems like my vision is getting worse, and my usual optimism aside, I’m downright terrified.
I haven’t given up, and maybe I’ll end up seeing just fine with the help of some special glasses, or maybe the surgery I’m going in to discuss on Monday will return my vision to where it used to be.
Or maybe it just gets worse from here.
I don’t know, and, at least this morning, I’m not sure what to do about that.
I’ve received a number of messages on Facebook, emails, and comments on articles asking me how my eye is doing, and I’ve responded to some with my usual, “I’m sure it’ll get better!” I’ll be honest now: I’m not sure, and the prospect of losing my vision scares the hell out of me.
I want to thank everyone who’s reached out, and especially my family for their continued support. I’ve been here before, years ago, looking at my college prospects fizzle away and scared of what the future might bring. I didn’t know then that I’d end up living an adult life I’m pretty proud of, nor did I know that one day I’d land this dream job as a result of those experiences. One day, years from now, I hope I look back on this time of fear and transition in the same light…assuming I can look at anything at all.