Counting the Days While My Mind Slips Away
CHAPTER 1 WHERE IT ALL BEGAN
MY HEART POUNDED IN MY ears. Adrenaline pumped, mixing with excitement and nerves. I jumped up and down in place trying to shake the butterflies out of my stomach. It didn’t work. I could hear my teammate Adam Vinatieri’s advice from the week before ringing in my ears. “Keep calm. Focus. And don’t you dare blink at kickoff.” The guy already had three championship rings and kicked the Super Bowl–winning field goal as time expired not once but twice, so I knew I needed to listen to him. But no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t help but get caught up in the moment as I stood in the tunnel leading out onto the field, waiting to run out for Super Bowl XLI, the ultimate game I’d dreamed about my entire life.
The week leading up to the game felt surreal. The team flew down to Miami for the game the previous Sunday. On Monday we spent a couple of hours out on the Sun Life Stadium field for media day, which is more like a media circus. I remember standing out there, talking to my buddy Bryan Fletcher, when all of the sudden a horn sounded and people came pouring out of the stadium gates like ants and descended on us. Besides reporters from the usual media outlets like ESPN and Sports Illustrated, there
were people there from every publication and website on earth, most of which had nothing to do with football or sports. Some of the “reporters” came dressed in outrageous costumes. It was nuts.
And then the real craziness began.
During Super Bowl week we practiced at the Miami Dolphins’ training facility. Whenever we traveled from the team hotel to the practice facility, Florida state troopers shut down the highway for our team buses. Cars had to pull over on the shoulder while police cars also blocked entrance ramps. Our buses drove down the middle of the five-lane highway like we owned the road. We weren’t a football team. We were royalty. The royal treatment carried over to the practice field. Celebrities crowded around the field to watch us. Sometimes it was hard to concentrate on what we were there for, especially when Hall of Fame tight end Shannon Sharpe watched whether or not I caught the pass just thrown to me. He was the gold standard for tight ends, which is what I played on offense.
After another royal ride down the freeway we returned to our hotel rooms, where we all found gift bags with the Super Bowl logo on the outside, bags loaded down with new iPods and clothes and hats and all sorts of cool memorabilia. The week felt more like a really nice vacation instead of the buildup to a championship game.
In spite of the distractions, we had a great week of practice. The team felt really confident going into the game against the Chicago Bears. Just to get to the Super Bowl we had to beat the team that had won three of the previous five championships, and to do that we put together the biggest comeback in AFC Championship history. Every Colts player knew that if we played in the Super Bowl like we did in the second half of the AFC Championship, we had a good chance of becoming world champions.
I, too, felt confident when Super Bowl Sunday finally rolled around. I’d had a couple of nagging injuries I had to deal with
toward the end of the season, but having two weeks between the AFC Championship Game and the Super Bowl gave me time to heal.
On the day of the game I woke up early, since I couldn’t really sleep anyway, and looked out the window to see a dark, overcast sky. It rained off and on most of the day. Never before had weather affected the Super Bowl, but the forecast said this was going to be the first. I didn’t really care. We’d played in worse conditions and won. I went downstairs for breakfast and sat through one meeting with the tight ends and another with the offensive linemen. After that I had nothing to do but sit around and watch movies and stare at the clock. Finally, around 2:00 p.m. I climbed on the team bus for the ride to the stadium. Of course, we had another police escort down a blocked-off freeway.
I thought I was keyed up as I got dressed in the locker room, but nothing compared to what I felt standing in the tunnel waiting to go out onto the field for the first time. The game wasn’t due to start for at least an hour, but the stadium was already starting to fill. Music blared in the stadium and blasted through the tunnel where I stood with our punter, Hunter Smith; kicker Adam Vinatieri; and our starting long snapper, Justin Snow. I backed up Justin. The four of us were going to go out on the field to warm up. Justin and I just looked at each other with smiles filled with joy and anxiousness. “Can you believe we’re here?” I asked.
“I know, it’s crazy,” Justin replied.
Finally a stadium attendant looked up from a clipboard and said, “Okay, you’re set. Go.” Hunter, Adam, Justin, and I all huddled close, gave the traditional embrace, then turned to go.
I trotted down the tunnel toward the field. The sound of cleats on the concrete ramp echoed all around me. I had just cleared the tunnel and put one foot on the turf when I heard one voice ring out over all the rest of the stadium noise. “Ben! Ben!”
I looked back over my shoulder and spotted my dad in his
Colts rain jacket and ball cap leaning onto the railing just above the tunnel. He had a big smile on his face. “Benjamin!” he yelled again, waving his hand down toward me. I didn’t know how he was able to work his way through the crowd over to this spot. He and my mom and the rest of our family had seats on the other side of the field. “Ben, up here!” he said again.
I raised my hand to acknowledge I’d heard him, and to get him to stop calling my name. Then I sort of flicked my hand with a dismissive wave like I was trying to shoo off a pesky fly. All I could think was, Not now, Dad. Don’t you see I’m working? Don’t you understand I am about to go out on the field for the biggest game of my life on the biggest stage in the world?! After waving my dad off, I turned back toward the field and started to run out onto the turf.
But a voice in my head stopped me in my tracks. From deep inside I heard my father calling to me, not in the stadium, but in my backyard.
• • •
My mind took me back to a day when I felt the same mix of adrenaline, nerves, and excitement as I walked out on the freshly cut grass, my brand-new cleats laced up tight. “Ready, Ben?” my dad asked then. I nodded my head, bent over, and planted my hand in the turf as I got in a three-point stance. Tiny beads of sweat gathered on my brow; my legs shook in anticipation. I was like a spring, wound up tight, just waiting to go off. Suddenly the football moved. “Now,” my dad said. I took off like a bullet. Legs churning, head down, I lowered my shoulders, closed my eyes, and lunged with all my might into the man with the football. I landed right in the middle of my dad’s chest. He fell backward from his knees and wrapped his arms around my four-year-old body. “Good job, Ben,” he said as he lifted me up, a huge grin on his face. “Want to try it again?”
I didn’t even answer. I just raced back over to where I started and got back down in a three-point stance, ready to go.
From the back porch I heard my mom clapping like I’d just made the game-winning tackle in the Super Bowl. “Way to go, Beno-Button,” she called out. “And be careful,” she had to add because she’s my mom. Then she called over to my dad, “Jeff, you take it easy on him.”
My dad just smiled and nodded. “Okay, Lori,” he said while giving me a little wink. “All right, Ben, let’s do it again,” he said.
I also heard my dad’s voice call my name a few years later when my hands were big enough to catch a football. “Go long, Ben,” he said, motioning with his left arm and winding up the football with his right. The backyard of the parsonage where we lived wasn’t big enough for me to run real pass routes. Instead my dad went across the street from our corner lot and had me stand on the curb right in front of our house. “That’s it, go long.” I took off running down the side of our lot, right up next to the six-foot-tall cedar fence that surrounded the property. For a preacher, my dad had a really good arm. He lofted a spiral in my direction. I scrambled to get under it, moving right up next to the fence. Most of the time I caught the ball. Sometimes I smashed into the fence. There were times I did both. But catching the ball up against a tall fence was really good practice for me. I got used to grabbing the ball out of the air in tight places, even when that meant the catch was followed by a collision.
After I made the catch I took off running toward the make-believe end zone at the end of the fence line. Then I quickly sprinted back toward my dad. If there weren’t any cars coming, I stopped at the curb and threw the ball across the street to him. “Nice catch, Ben. Good hands. Ready to do it again?” I always was. And my dad’s arm never seemed to get tired. He’d stay outside throwing passes to me as long as I wanted. I loved the game. He loved spending time with me. It took me a while to figure out
that that’s what I loved about the game as well. Football meant time with my dad.
I still heard my father’s voice calling my name when I signed up for my first real full-contact football team, right after my family moved to a new town. My father is a Methodist pastor. The Methodist church moves their ministers every five to ten years. Right before the start of my sixth-grade year it was our turn to go. We left the little town of Lindstrom, Minnesota, a place where everyone knows everyone else, to go to the historic Mississippi River town of Hastings, Minnesota. Hastings was ten times bigger than Lindstrom, but it was still basically a small town. I worried about fitting in and being accepted there. My mom and dad told me not to worry, that everything was going to be okay, but I wasn’t so sure.
I joined my first football team and had gone through a few weeks of practice, but I still didn’t really know anyone. Most everyone already seemed to have their circle of friends. Breaking into social circles can be tough in small towns. On top of that, I had a late birthday, which meant I was a year younger than most of my classmates all the way through college.
I may have been younger than most of the other sixth graders, but I was one of the biggest guys on my team. The coach had me play end on defense and wide receiver on offense. On the first play of the first game of my life, I lined up on defense directly across from the offensive tackle, just as the coach had shown me. I leaned over, planted my fingers in the grass in a three-point stance, and dug in my cleats. My dad stood on the sideline next to one of the coaches. Like me, my dad didn’t yet know anyone in town.
The quarterback barked off the signals. I looked up and down the offensive line and saw a huge gap between the tackle and the guard. Why am I lined up directly across from this guy where he can easily block me when I could jump the gap and avoid him? I wondered. Before the ball could snap, I jumped over into the
gap. The moment the center moved the ball I fired off the line as fast as I could and headed straight toward the quarterback. I got to the quarterback as he was about to hand the ball off to the running back. I grabbed the ball out of his hand and took off running down the field. As I ran toward the end zone my dad yelled from the sidelines, “Run, Ben! Run, son!” No one came close to me as I trotted across the goal line, untouched, to score my first touchdown.
The coach standing next to my dad turned to him as I crossed the goal line. “That kid, now that’s an athlete,” he said. Then he introduced himself to my father. I didn’t have to worry about fitting in any longer.
After I started playing organized football my dad and I still tossed the football around the backyard, but more and more he watched as I played. After Little Raiders football came junior high, then high school. My dad and my mom were always on the sidelines or up in the stands. When I went off to college they came to as many games as they could, but they had to watch all the road games on television or listen on the radio. After the Indianapolis Colts signed me to a free agent contract out of college, my dad went down to the local Irish sports bar and grill and made an arrangement with the owner. “My son plays for the Colts, but the local stations don’t show many of their games,” my dad explained to him. “Do you think you could have one of your televisions show the Colts game so we can watch?” The owner could not turn him down.
Through my first year playing for the Colts my dad and mom went straight from my dad’s church to the Irish bar and grill every Sunday. When we played early games that started at noon Minnesota time they sometimes missed part of the first quarter. In my second year my dad bought the NFL cable package so he could watch, and DVR, the Colts’ games at home. They came to games in Indy when they could. They were in the stands in the
RCA Dome when we beat the New England Patriots in a miracle comeback to advance to the Super Bowl. Of course they were here, in Miami, for the biggest game of my life.
And I had just blown my dad off when he tried to share a moment with me before the Super Bowl. I felt sick to my stomach. I could not take another step. Me playing in this game wasn’t just my dream. It was his as well. Go back to where it all started, came to me in a gentle whisper. Go back to where it all started. I knew right then that in this moment the biggest game of my life was not the most important thing. I turned around and scanned the stands for my father. He’d left the railing and started walking back to his seat. I caught sight of him just up the ramp a little ways. “Dad! Dad!” I called out to him.
He stopped and turned.
I waved for him to come back down to where he had been a few moments earlier. He came back to the rail. I reached up my hand as high as I could as he reached down to me. I grabbed his hand tight. Tears filled my eyes. “It all started in the backyard with you, Dad. I love you. Thank you so much,” I said.
My dad smiled. “I love you, too.” We were in the backyard again, playing football, my mom cheering me on from the porch. It was as if no one else were there, just the two of us.
The sound of the crowd returned. I had to go. I let go of my dad’s hand and ran out onto the field with my teammates. The game started with a huge play by the Bears and ended with our team holding the Lombardi Trophy as world champions. The Super Bowl was all I imagined it to be. Yet I came away from the game reflecting on how I almost lost something irreplaceable before the game even started. Standing in the tunnel, caught up in the hype and excitement of the Super Bowl, I nearly let the game consume me. I almost lost myself, my real identity, all because of a game.
I now look back on that moment with a sense of irony. Even though I made a conscious choice to go back to where it all began
for me and there recover my true self, I now face a battle in which I may not have a choice in how this ends. The game has already changed me in ways from which I may never recover. Future changes could well lie in front of me. The odds are troubling. In all fairness, it is not the game of football in and of itself that extracted such a heavy toll on me, but rather the lasting results of what medical books call mild traumatic brain injury. Most people simply call them concussions. I suffered five documented concussions over the course of my playing career, which stretched across four years of college ball and six seasons in the National Football League. I never thought about the long-term effects of this injury until it was too late.
However, this is not a book about concussions, or even football. Both play a major role in my story, but they do not define me. Mine is a story about a preacher’s son who grew up in a loving family, a boy who grew up praying for a family of his own someday. When I found the woman with whom I now share my life, I knew I had found everything I had ever dreamed of. Now all of us, my mom and dad, my wife, my sister, and myself, are locked in a battle as I hope to hold on to those I love. They are not going anywhere. Unfortunately, my memories are. I have already lost some I once treasured.
I now understand that our essence as human beings lies in our ability to remember. Everything that matters about our identities—our very sense of self—comes from our memories. We may live in the present, but the present doesn’t last. Every moment quickly slips into the stream of short-term memory and journeys toward the ocean that is the long-term memory center of the brain. There our memories take root, shaping us, refining us, defining who we are. We are the culmination of all we have experienced, all we have thought and read and believed, all we have loved. We are living memories. Without memories we cease to be ourselves. In a very real way we cease to be.
And that is the very real possibility I now face. My memories appear to have an expiration date even as I fight to hold on to them. I don’t know who will win this battle. That is why I am compelled to write this book. Yes, this is my story, but it is also a love letter to my wife and four daughters. Someday all that you are about to read may be nothing but a blur to me. But with this book in their hands, my family will always remember who I was and why I loved them so much.