Sport Haunted by a Player’s Death, a Coach Walks Away From His Sport

04:06  20 june  2017
04:06  20 june  2017 Source:   The New York Times

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HOMER, N.Y. — Jeff Charles, a former high school football coach, had tried to come to the football field here twice in recent years but could not bring himself to go farther than the parking lot. One day last week he made his way down the winding ramp from the parking lot and onto the turf.

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He stopped just short of the 10-yard line: “It happened down here,” Charles said, pointing toward midfield at the five-yard line. Then he burst into tears.

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Charles, 49, the former head varsity football coach at John C. Birdlebough High School in Phoenix, N.Y., was on the sideline here at Homer High School, about 30 miles south of Syracuse, on a Friday night in October 2011 when one of his players sustained a fatal brain injury. The death of Ridge Barden, a 16-year-old defensive tackle, hit both schools hard; eight busloads of Homer students attended Barden’s wake and funeral.

Charles had been coaching football for 21 years, but he said at the time that he wasn’t sure he would coach football again. Five and a half years later, Charles is, in fact, adrift from the sport.

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The toll of brain trauma in football — most commonly in the form of the disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or C.T.E., linked to repeated blows to the head — has crippled many players and their families. In the 2011 John C. Birdlebough vs. Homer game, a head coach was collateral damage.

The accumulated effect of dozens or hundreds of blows over many years can apparently leave players with many of the same symptoms seen in Alzheimer’s patients. One or two blows in a game, though, can sometimes result in death. Over the last four years, 19 players have died from brain-related injuries in high school football, according to Terry O’Neil, the founder of Practice Like Pros, a group that advocates reducing collisions in youth football.

In the days and months after the game at Homer High, Charles went from rising at 6 a.m. to waking up at 3 or 4 in the morning after having bad dreams and restless nights. He went from cheering on his daughters while they played softball to being nervous that they would hit their head sliding into second base.

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“I didn’t want to sound like a quitter, but after my first year back I knew,” Charles said. “I coached 10 ball games and I struggled every 10 weeks. It wasn’t fun. There was more anxiety every week.”

Charles lasted one more season. He said he saw a therapist twice, but wasn’t sure if it helped.

“It affected us because I knew the problems that he was having and I couldn’t help him,” Charles’s wife, Missy, said. “He needed somebody to talk to. I didn’t know what to say to help him.”

To the naked eye, there was nothing unusual about the play six minutes into the third quarter. The hit was not especially violent. Charles, a doctor and two medical technicians were by Barden’s side in seconds. The ambulance was there within minutes.

Charles said he has watched the video countless times searching for answers. One minute, the 235-pound defensive tackle was up and playing and minutes later he was face down and moaning that he thought he hit his head. Two hours later he had died from a cerebral hemorrhage.

Charles put a small container with some of Barden’s ashes on his mantel under a framed No. 70 jersey, got a tattoo on his bicep that memorialized Barden and spent several months lobbying to have the school pay tribute to him. Charles said his proposal to have the school name the field after Barden was rejected, as was a request to name the weight room after him.

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Instead, Charles said, the school opted to place outside the coaches’ offices what Charles called, “a puny plaque that makes me mad every time I see it.”

Chris Byrne, the school district superintendent, said the school made multiple efforts to honor Barden’s memory.

“There is a scholarship in his name,” Byrne said. “To date, no one has worn his jersey. There is a plaque at the stadium. And I believe they had a moment of silence during when would’ve been his graduation.

“This has been very tough on our community,” Byrne added. “We think about the family. They are always in our thoughts and prayers.”

When the 2012 season ended, Charles took a job as assistant principal at the nearby Fulton High School – which he started before the school year finished. Charles told Barden’s father, Jody, that he wasn’t leaving coaching because of what happened.

“Of course, that was a lie,” Charles said.

Administrators had suggested that he stay with the school and step away from coaching, but he thought it would be too hard to constantly field questions about when he would return to football.

Charles had been the guy who attended a high school game every Friday night and spent all day Saturday watching college football and Sunday watching N.F.L. games with a pack of Miller Lite. In 2013, it was, “If I saw it, I saw it,” he said. He recalled watched one half of a game all year.

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As time went on, things got a little bit easier. There were reminders of Barden at Birdlebough and Homer high schools, but Barden’s death faded from the forefront of most people’s minds. There is a small orange plate with “70” on it that hangs in Homer’s weight room, but some students don’t know what it represents.

For four years, Chad Rowe, an assistant coach who was promoted to head coach after Charles left, said that his players used to decorate Barden’s locker. He would take down the tributes “because we were trying to move on,” but the players would put them back up. He used to give out No. 70 stickers to all of his players, but doesn’t do that anymore. All the students who played with Barden have graduated.

“Once in while I think about it. I do believe in God. I do believe in another place where people go. I’ve thought about it before. I actually talk to him sometimes,” Rowe said of Barden. “You ever do that, Jeff?” asked, looking at Charles.

Charles said he did, asking Barden things like, “Should I go back to coaching? Did I get out for the wrong reasons? Are you pissed I’m not coaching?”

In July 2016, Charles moved to Houston — where he lived from 2000-9 with his wife and three children — and became a high school softball coach. Barden’s ashes were put in storage in a box along with 20 letters that Missy laminated from coaches and players expressing sympathy. The “70” jersey that once hung above the mantle is in a pile of photos in Charles’s parents’ house in Liverpool, N.Y.

Charles said he can now watch hours of football again. His opinion of the sport hasn’t changed, he said, and he’ll be happy to watch his grandchildren play one day. His 24-year-old son, DJ, who was at the game in 2011, coaches football about 12 miles from Homer, in Tully, N.Y.

He still exchanges texts with Barden’s father around birthdays and Christmas, and talks about Barden’s death with Missy on the anniversary every fall, but it is no longer front and center.

Lately, Charles has been toying with the thought of returning to football. He said that it was always been a dream of his to coach football alongside DJ, but for now, he is happy with his softball team in Texas.

“I probably could’ve gone back emotionally to coach football this year, but I wasn’t really willing to sacrifice that time for something I didn’t love as much as I used to,” Charles said. “I still love it. Maybe I am starting to think about it. And then I’m like, maybe I’ll go back and do seventh and eighth grade varsity and really have an impact on those kids. I think it would have to be the right time and the right fit.”

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