How an 11-Year-Old’s Brain Injury Rattled a Football Family

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Photographs by Jake Chessum

It was a crisp Sunday afternoon in Missoula, Montana, and Mike Callaghan stood in the blustery sunshine, doing the thing he loved best: coaching his 11-year-old son’s football team. Brogan Callaghan was the Panthers’ quarterback and was shaping up as a real leader on the field. Mike, still athletic at age 52, couldn’t help but think back to his own days on these fields, with his own father watching.

On that day, the Panthers were playing their archrivals, the Chargers, and were down 14–7 in the second quarter. Brogan took the snap and rolled left, twisting his upper body to throw right. As soon as he released the ball, he was flattened by a defender, so he didn’t see that the receiver had made the catch and scored, the bleachers erupting into cheers.

Brogan jumped right up from the hit and jogged into formation for the extra point before switching to linebacker, a position his father once played with the Montana State Bobcats over in Bozeman. As the offense lined up, Mike noticed the Chargers’ running back go into motion early. “Sweep!” Callaghan yelled from the sidelines, but Brogan was already on it, slipping left around the Chargers’ big right tackle. Brogan was just about to take down the runner when he was slammed from behind — an illegal hit that flexed his spine, snapped his head forward, and sent him colliding into one of his own teammates. He went down hard, banging the back of his head into the dirt.

As a coach, Callaghan generally kept his cool. But now he went straight for the referee, screaming that this was the second time that player had made the same illegal block. “That’s twice,” Callaghan yelled. “You’ve got to call that.”

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But another Panthers coach, Eric Dawald, noticed something more alarming: Brogan wasn’t getting up. Dawald rushed onto the field and found the boy on his back, barely conscious. Brogan opened his eyes and looked up. “I can’t see,” he said.

Brogan’s mother, Shannon, was chatting with friends in the bleachers when she heard somebody say, “I think that’s Brogan.” She ran to the field, arriving at the same time her husband did.

Brogan looked up at his parents. “I can’t feel my legs,” he said. Shannon glanced at her husband and thought, “Brogan has to be done with football forever. It has to end now.”

An ambulance drove onto the grass, and a paramedic removed the face mask from Brogan’s helmet. They asked him what day it was, and Brogan answered incorrectly. They asked his birthday, and he couldn’t answer that, either. One of the paramedics asked him if his neck hurt. “I can’t feel my legs,” the boy repeated.

Callaghan had been coaching youth football for 22 years without witnessing anything worse than a broken arm. Certain that Brogan’s paralysis was momentary, he knelt beside his son and grabbed a patch of skin on the back of his calf. “You’re going to feel this, Brog,” he said. “You’re fine. You’ll feel this.” Callaghan pinched, hard, but Brogan did not respond.

Some of his teammates were crying as the paramedics strapped their quarterback to a backboard, placed an oxygen mask over his face, and loaded him into the ambulance. Shannon climbed in, and they sped the boy across the Clark Fork River to St. Patrick Hospital.

Callaghan drove separately, his mind racing through worst-case scenarios: “We’ll buy a one-level house. I’ll change jobs so I can be home more, learn to care for a paraplegic child.” Another thought intruded: “I was the coach. This happened on my watch. How did I do this to my kid?”

While the emergency room doctors evaluated Brogan, Shannon’s and Mike’s parents arrived at the hospital. After filling them in about Brogan’s condition, Shannon turned to Callaghan’s father. James Callaghan was an oral surgeon who had played football in college and loved watching his grandson play as much as he had loved watching Mike. In fact, in all of  Mike’s years of playing youth football, his father missed just one game, when Mike was in the sixth grade. “I don’t ever want Brogan to play football again,” Shannon told her father-in-law. “And you have to back me up on this.” James Callaghan told her that it was none of his business.

Back in the emergency room, Brogan looked at his father and asked, “Am I paralyzed?”

“I think you are,” Callaghan thought. “You’re going to be all right,” he said. He watched a tear roll down his son’s cheek and thought, “He knows.”

Brogan looked up at Callaghan and said, “Who are you?”

Before the injury, it had been a typical fall weekend for the Callaghans. Friday afternoon at 5, Mike left his office to meet Dawald and Brogan and the rest of the Panthers for practice. Afterward, they jumped into Callaghan’s truck and drove across town to Loyola Sacred Heart High School, where they ate hot dogs, sipped Pepsis, and watched one of Callaghan’s old MSU teammates coach his own son in a game against Troy High. On Saturday morning, Callaghan and Brogan watched an NCAA game while eating breakfast. If Montana State had been playing at home, they would have driven to Bozeman, where Callaghan did TV color commentary. As it happened, they were away, so Callaghan and Brogan watched the game on TV while plotting the next day’s attack against the Chargers. Win or lose, after the game they’d head home to catch the Steelers play the 49ers and dig in to their usual chip buffet — three flavors of Ruffles, tortilla chips, seven-layer dip, and guacamole.

“We might be nuts,” Callaghan says. “But so much of our week is taken up by football.”

Plenty of other fathers could say the same thing. The NFL and NCAA get all the attention, but the vast majority of football in America is played at the youth level. There are about 2,000 men in the NFL, and 73,000 play on college teams. But more than 3 million boys between the ages of six and 18 play for teams like the Panthers and the Loyola Rams, in towns like Missoula, where football is deeply woven into the fabric of local life.

But that fabric is starting to fray, riven by a growing stack of research linking football to chronic head trauma. In college and the pros, players are consenting adults who make their own choices about that risk. But for those younger than 18, the decision rests with parents — more and more of whom are saying no to tackle football. Between 2010 and 2015, youth-league participation cratered nearly 30 percent.

Even NFL legends have reservations. Casey “Big Snack” Hampton, who played tackle for 12 years with the Pittsburgh Steelers, told me that he refused to let his son play tackle football before high school. “I made him wait,” Hampton says. “I’ve seen little kids get concussions.” Other stars, including Brett Favre and Troy Aikman, have expressed similar reservations. “I would not want my child out there,” Terry Bradshaw told Jay Leno in 2012. “The fear of them getting these head injuries . . . it’s just too great for me.”

That stance has football leagues, both amateur and pro, scrambling. Earlier this year, Pop Warner, the nation’s oldest youth football league, eliminated kickoffs for kids younger than 11, to limit open-field contact. USA Football, a nonprofit partially funded by the NFL that offers training, education, and equipment subsidies to youth leagues, has introduced a set of practice guidelines for coaches, designed in part to teach safer tackling techniques and to minimize hits to the head. The NFL also holds free “moms clinics” at pro stadiums, where so-called master trainers put mothers through tackling drills in an effort to convince the women that tackling is safe for kids.

Yet new research on head trauma continues to undermine that case. A report in the June 2016 issue of the Journal of Neurotrauma found that the likelihood of developing cognitive and emotional problems is linked to a football player’s overall exposure to contact and not just to his diagnosed concussions. In other words, every little hit adds up, which explains why NFL veterans who started playing before the age of 12 are more likely to have cognitive problems than those who picked up the game later. These days, many players start earlier — and the truly dedicated scrimmage all year long.

Risk, of course, is part of life, and kids suffer serious injuries doing all kinds of things. What’s more, researchers still cannot say what percentage of football players end up suffering long-term cognitive harm.

All of which puts football families in a uniquely confounding position. For Callaghan and his high school and college teammates, football is one of the most important things in their lives. It’s the source of their self-confidence and closest friendships, of indelible memories of victory and loss, of their very notion of what it means to be a man. And despite taking their share of hits to the head, they’ve gone on to lead fulfilling adult lives — lives that continue to be enriched by football. “It would rock me to the soul to learn that football has been bad for all these kids,” says Callaghan. “I love the game. It’s the greatest avenue that I know to get great life lessons.”

Ultimately, the true battle for the future of America’s favorite pastime is being waged not in the media or in high-profile court cases, but at public parks and on high school fields nationwide. And the instant Brogan was hit that fall day in Missoula, Mike and Shannon Callaghan joined countless other parents in staring down questions they never wanted to ask.

“I’m your dad.” Back in the emergency room, Callaghan answered Brogan’s question.

Brogan looked confused, so Callaghan pointed to Shannon and said, “Do you know who that is?” Brogan shook his head. Callaghan felt the life go out of him.

For hours they sat at Brogan’s side, hoping for something to change. Then suddenly Shannon spoke up. “His toes moved,” she said. “I just saw them. He moved his toes.” Relief swept through the room. Mike felt something close to elation, thinking, “He has a concussion, but he will get better.”

By evening Brogan could move his legs, sit up in bed, and walk across the room. The family spent that night in the hospital. The following morning Callaghan woke up feeling optimistic. He told his wife that he thought Brogan might be back at practice within a week. Then a doctor arrived and asked Brogan his name. Brogan got his first name right but couldn’t remember his last name — or why he was in the hospital.

For years many doctors believed that children were less likely than adults to suffer serious head injuries in football, for the simple reason that they weigh less and run more slowly than adults do. Now it’s well understood that until about age 14, a kid’s head is much larger than an adult’s compared with his body, yet the neck is weaker, which means the head bounces around more in response to collisions. Researchers at Virginia Tech found that seven-year-old football players experienced head blows comparable in force to the impacts suffered by college players.

To make matters worse, the nerve fibers in children’s brains are not yet coated with the protective sheathing known as myelin. As a result, “it’s easier to tear apart neurons and their connections in children at lower impact,” says Dr. Robert Cantu, the author of Concussions and Our Kids and a leading researcher of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the brain-wasting disease that has been diagnosed in dozens of deceased football players. The threat to emerging neural connections is particularly problematic at Brogan’s age. “If you injure your brain during that time,” Cantu says, “there is a high likelihood that you will not reach your maximal genetic endowment intellectually, and you’ll perhaps not have the same personality with regard to depression, anxiety, and panic attacks.”

Brogan’s doctors were unsure about the cause of his temporary paralysis, but they agreed that he had suffered a traumatic brain injury. Still, after two days in the hospital, they determined him well enough to go home. They gave Mike and Shannon a strict rehab protocol that called for avoiding anything that might stimulate brain activity: bright lights, computer screens, video games, even reading. The doctors also cautioned them that irritability and depression are common after a concussion. The Callaghans set up beds for Brogan and themselves in the basement. Shannon went to the local Target to stock up on board games and drawing supplies.

A week later the Callaghans returned to the hospital for a follow-up visit. When the doctor said that Brogan would have to sit out the rest of football season, Callaghan found himself unexpectedly relieved. “I remember being thankful that the doctor told him so I wouldn’t have to,” Callaghan says. “I was sort of off the hook.”

Missing a single season was one thing. But the idea that Brogan might never play again — clearly what Shannon wanted — was nearly impossible for Callaghan to contemplate. For one thing, Brogan loved the game and had the makings of a real standout. What’s more, the sport had been central to Callaghan’s life for as long as he could remember. He started as a fifth grader in the Little Grizzly league; his coach from those days remained one of his closest confidants. Among his closest friends were teammates from Hellgate High or Montana State. During Callaghan’s junior year, in 1984, the MSU Bobcats won the NCAA Division I-AA national championship — a feat Montana football fans still talk about.

Of course, football ends hard: You wake up one day and it’s over. Nobody plays tackle ball in middle age. But Callaghan took up coaching, even though he was just a few years out of college with no kids of  his own. He started with his nephew’s team of fifth and sixth graders. Soon, a few of  his old football buddies, including Eric Dawald, came to help. They loved having a reason to hang out after work, teaching the fundamentals, and feeling that old excitement on game days. When one of the group had a son, the others promised to keep coaching as long as the kid played, a pact that soon extended to every son any of them might ever have. And they built something, three nights a week on snow-dusted fields. Their team was undefeated for 15 straight seasons. Boys they’d coached went on to play at local high schools, the University of Montana, Montana State, even the pros.

Callaghan mostly had given up on having children of his own when, at age 40, he met and married Shannon Brown. An interior architect and former competitive swimmer, Shannon had grown up in tiny Havre, Montana, with a pair of football-obsessed brothers. She loved the way Callaghan welcomed Griffin, her nine-year-old son from a previous marriage, onto his team. When Brogan was born, in 2003, Callaghan insisted that his buddies renew their vow to keep coaching.

Brogan started playing flag football in the fourth grade, in 2013. By that time, the relationship between football and brain trauma was well established. Two years earlier, a Missoula kid named Dylan Steigers, who’d started out in local youth leagues, went off to play at Eastern Oregon University and took a big hit in a scrimmage. He died the next day.

Shannon, meanwhile, had been getting warnings from her older brother, Scott Brown, a former high school running back and now an anesthesiologist and pain specialist in Portland, Oregon. “I’d see these 40-year-olds coming in just maimed, having these big surgeries from playing football in high school, college, the pros,” he says. Brown became convinced that letting a kid play tackle football was akin to child abuse. He implored his siblings to keep their kids off the field.

The youngest, Shannon’s brother Howard, got the message; his son plays only flag football. But Shannon felt trapped — nobody could tell her husband what to think about football. All the CTE research, Callaghan argued, had been done on the brains of guys known to have problems. He had attended one of USA Football’s Heads Up Football clinics, where he’d been schooled in the latest safe-tackling techniques. And he would never consider letting a concussed kid play before a complete recovery.

So in 2014, Brogan, now a fifth grader, joined Callaghan’s team. He knew his dad’s track record and dreamed of exceeding it with a Stanford scholarship and a career in the NFL — just like Jordie Tripp, a linebacker for the Seattle Seahawks who played on Callaghan’s team 10 years earlier.

Brogan, it turned out, had the makings of a natural quarterback, with a great arm and an instinct for reading the field and seeing weaknesses in the opposing team’s defense. But as the 2015 season rolled around, a handful of Brogan’s teammates did not return. “The moms and I talked,” Shannon says, “and they were like, ‘I wouldn’t let Brogan play.’ ”

Similar conversations were happening nationwide, in part due to the efforts of women like Kimberly Archie. Her son, Paul Bright Jr., grew up playing Pop Warner ball in Sparks, Nevada. He was living in Los Angeles, working as an assistant chef, when his behavior grew erratic. Then, on a September evening in 2014, Bright drove an unlicensed motorcycle at 60 miles per hour into a car and was posthumously diagnosed with early-stage CTE. Archie began to speak out on radio and television. The American commitment to youth tackle football, she says, “is like letting our kids ride down the highway in the back of the truck at 80 miles per hour because we’re afraid we’ll make them weak if we stop.”

Last September, Archie launched a class action lawsuit in conjunction with Jo Cornell, whose son played Pop Warner football and was found to have CTE after committing suicide. The lawsuit defines members of the plaintiff’s class as anyone who has ever played, or had a child play, youth tackle football, and suffered a head injury since 1997. It alleges negligence and fraud by Pop Warner, USA Football, and the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment, which develops voluntary safety standards for youth-football helmets. The complaint does not specify damages, but the number could amount to billions of dollars.

This isn’t the first lawsuit Pop Warner has faced: The league has already settled two others. Pop Warner now requires that each practice session runs no longer than two hours a day and that no more than 25 percent of practice time is devoted to full-speed contact, or scrimmaging. “There’s risk in anything kids do, and football’s getting a really bad rap,” says Pop Warner executive director Jon Butler.

These lawsuits, of course, are the stuff of nightmares for the NFL, which reached its own billion-dollar settlement with 20,000 former players last year. “It’s the best game that’s ever been invented, and we’ve got to make sure that moms get the message — because that’s who’s afraid of our game right now,” Arizona Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians said recently. “It’s not dads. It’s moms.”

Predictably, the NFL has stepped up its outreach to mothers. It sponsors the Facebook page Touchdown Moms, where NFL employees post heartwarming anecdotes about the mothers of youth players. USA Football sponsors a Team Mom of the Year Award. And then there are those free mom’s clinics. Nearly every NFL franchise has hosted at least one such clinic, generally treating mothers to on-field drills and a concussion-awareness presentation.

Archie, who was already working as a sports-safety consultant, attended one of these clinics in Ohio in 2014. This was a month before her son’s accident, and even then she was not impressed. “It’s condescending to think you can just trick moms,” she says.

Three weeks after his injury, Brogan was cleared to go back to school, but he could last only an hour or so a day. He sometimes flew into sudden, inexplicable rages and Shannon mostly stopped working to care for him. Callaghan spent his days at the office and continued to coach the Panthers in the evening. He coached out of a sense of obligation, both to his fellow coaches and to players. But now it felt different: He watched every tackle with anxiety, waiting for the child to get up and walk it off.

Both Shannon’s brothers, meanwhile, were relentless. Howard sent his sister one news article after another about kids like Evan Murray, a 17-year-old New Jersey quarterback, Ben Hamm, a 16-year-old linebacker from Bartlesville, Oklahoma, and 17-year-old Kenny Bui, from the Seattle suburbs, all of whom died within a month of one another early that fall. All told, more than a dozen kids died playing football that season, and Shannon’s brothers made sure she knew about each one.

One night she tried to share these stories with her husband.

“We are not talking about this,” he said.

It wasn’t until seven weeks after his injury that Brogan was able to form new memories. He started neurological rehab therapy and scored terribly on cognitive tests that included closing his eyes and touching his nose. Math worksheets that would have taken five minutes before the injury now took an hour and left Brogan exhausted. Spinning on a stationary bicycle gave him a headache.

In February, Callaghan and Brogan sat on the couch to watch the Super Bowl. Shannon overheard Brogan begin a sentence with the phrase, “When I play in the NFL . . .”

“That’s not going to happen,” Shannon said.

Later she heard her husband tell Brogan, “But when you play in high school . . .”

“It’s not going to happen,” she said.

“We don’t have to decide this now,” Callaghan replied.

Later still, Brogan asked his mom, “Why won’t you let me play?”

“Because God gave you that big brain so you can do something amazing in this world.”

“He also made me a good football player,” Brogan said.

“But that can’t be your future.”

Callaghan turned to Shannon. “But what about his dream?”

Shannon thought, “Whose dream is it?”

The last football game Mike Callaghan ever played was against Washington State in 1985, the less memorable season after that epic championship year. The Bobcats were struggling and in the first quarter, he suffered a concussion after being hit by a running back. The team’s trainer ordered him out of the game, but Callaghan returned to the field anyway, determined to play every minute of  his last college game. At that point somebody grabbed his helmet, locked it in an equipment bin, and sent him to the showers, where he wept uncontrollably. “That’s how football ended for me,” Callaghan says. “I didn’t go out in a blaze of glory. Some guy ran me over. We lost.”

As Brogan recovered, Callaghan couldn’t help but think of all the concussions he’d suffered in his football career. By his senior year of college, he had experienced so many that he sometimes lost the right side of his visual field during games and had agonizing headaches, to the degree that the team’s trainer ordered a brain scan. It came back clean, but the trainer asked Callaghan why he still played. He knew he wasn’t NFL material, so what was the point? Why take the risk?

He was now asking similar questions about Brogan — but Mike could not let go of football. He thought about all the things he wanted his son to experience: the friendships, the teamwork, the victories. “I love watching Brogan play the game,” he told me. “I love it.”

Despite their differences, Shannon understands. “It’s like a death,” she says. “Mike wants his kid to be a football star. And Brogan would be the star. He’s a leader and damn good, and everyone looks up to him.”

Callaghan struggled to imagine what his own life would be like without football. What would he do on weekday nights and Sunday mornings in the fall? When would he see his friends? Who would he be? “Every time I thought about it, my mind just went blank,” he says.

In August, Callaghan got a call from officials at Missoula Youth Football: Did he plan to coach the 2016 season? After months of agonizing, almost entirely to himself, he’d finally made a decision. “Brogan’s not going to play, and I’m not going to coach,” he said.

Callaghan couldn’t bear to think of it as a permanent decision, telling his son that it was only for the coming season. But Brogan was unconvinced and angry. “You know it’s forever,” he said. “Mom’s never going to let me play again.”

Callaghan called Dawald and apologized for leaving the team. Two weeks later, he told his father.

Upon hearing the news James Callaghan said, “I didn’t want to ask.” Then he said, “Is that your decision or your wife’s?”

“We’re on the same page for this year,” Callaghan said.

“Geez,” James said. “That’s going to be tough.”

“Dad, it may be tough for us,” Mike said. “But what I’m starting to figure out is there’s a whole other world out there. There’s a lot of people who don’t consider playing, and they still get through the fall somehow.”

Mike and brogan still watch football together — high school games on Friday, Montana State on Saturdays, and his former team on Sunday afternoons. “It’s kind of hard, because I’m not playing,” Brogan says. “I think about what I would do against the teams when I watch. But there isn’t really anything that I can do.” He’s hurled himself into basketball and recently asked if  he could take tennis lessons. Callaghan bought him his first rifle and is planning an elk hunt.

Brogan admits that he hasn’t yet fully recovered. Schoolwork doesn’t come as easily as it once did, but Shannon isn’t worried. “Brogan missed 247 classes in the sixth grade,” she says, “and he finished with three A-pluses and three As.” Now, instead of going to Stanford to play football, he wants to go to Berkeley to study architecture — his mother’s passion — on an academic scholarship.

Callaghan says he often thinks back to a day last November, weeks after Brogan’s injury. League officials asked how he wanted to handle that unfinished game with the Chargers. “A big part of me was, ‘I don’t want to handle it,’ ” Callaghan said. But the kids cared, and Callaghan felt it would have been selfish to refuse.

That meant bringing the teams back to the field behind the county fairgrounds. The Chargers and the Panthers lined up exactly where they’d been the moment Brogan was injured — but with Brogan now on the sidelines with his father. The referee set the game clock to where it had stopped and blew the whistle, and they played the remainder of the game. The Panthers lost, and for the first time in his life Callaghan didn’t care.

All Brogan’s teammates went home, except for two boys, Charlie and Cole. Charlie picked up a football and threw it to Brogan, who caught it and tossed it back. Charlie then passed it to Cole. Ten minutes went by, then 20, and still the kids continued to play. The parents lingered off to the side, making it clear there was no rush. “Brogan was kind of running around,” Callaghan says. “Normal isn’t the right word, but the normalcy of it, seeing him be a kid again. The game was over, we got beat, and it was good for me. Our kids were fine.”

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