By Jesse Dougherty The Washington Post
NORCROSS, Ga. – They watched the same episode of “Sesame Street” four times. He fed his baby daughter lunch while pacing around the house. The midday sun ducked behind a rain cloud, dimming the living room into a sort of sepia tone, and Les Williams, feeling restless and a bit bored, pointed the remote at the television and put on football.
This was a regular activity on a regular afternoon in late April. Williams, a defensive end at Alabama in the early 2000s, never played in the NFL. But he and those of his generation who also fell short of a payday still have to deal with the consequences of hitting each other with their heads.
What’s left of Williams’s football career — constant headaches, memory loss, fits of depression, occasional rage — makes it hard for him to stay employed. He is instead a 37-year-old stay-at-home dad, taking care of 1-year-old Bailey and trying to sell self-invented products by phone while his wife, Arin, is at work. Most days, after watching Bailey’s favorite shows and playing with Bailey on the floor and rocking Bailey as she sucks formula out of a bottle, Williams circles back to the sport he loves to follow but hates for what he thinks it did to his brain.
He flipped on the University of Georgia’s annual spring game, which he recorded a week earlier and played several times since. He shook his head as a wide receiver lowered his helmet into a teammate’s. He winced, shutting his eyes for a second, as two players collided along the sideline. Then Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, two Georgia running backs soon headed for the NFL, popped onto the screen for a joint interview.
“Look at these two young guys,” Williams said. “They don’t know if there is anything wrong with their brains. They ain’t thinking that. They’re smiling, the ratings are great, everything is great. But what happens later? How are they going to turn out after all the hits they’ve taken?
“Nobody talks about what happens next.”
A fate he fears
So what happens next?
Williams was a four-year player at Alabama with an outside shot to make the NFL. He didn’t. He found a job. He quit. He started another job and quit that, too. He started having headaches. Constant headaches. He lashed out at random times and, for the first time in his life, it was hard to relate to bosses or co-workers or anyone, really. He was depressed. He married Arin and their family grew. He was out of work and, scared of his future, joined more than 100 former college players who are suing the NCAA.
The individually filed class-action lawsuits are consolidated in front of one judge in federal court in Chicago. Williams and the other former players are suing the NCAA for failing to educate and protect them from the risk of long-term brain damage resulting from repeated hits to the head. They are seeking compensation and reforms in how the organization treats past, present and future football players who suffer head injuries.
These cases make up the first large group of concussion-related lawsuits against the NCAA. They come as the NCAA continues to be scrutinized for not compensating or protecting revenue-generating athletes, and also on the heels of it settling a lawsuit with the family of Greg Ploetz, a former University of Texas football player who claimed the NCAA was liable for his brain injuries and eventual death in 2015. Boston University researchers found chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the degenerative brain disease known as CTE, in Ploetz’s brain. CTE also was found recently in the brain of Tyler Hilinski, 21, the Washington State quarterback who committed suicide in January.
“The issue of CTE among former college football players only receives a small fraction of the attention and coverage NFL players receive, and a small fraction of what college players deserve,” said Chris Nowinski, the founder of the Concussion Legacy Foundation. “It doesn’t receive the spotlight for myriad reasons, including the fact that the individuals aren’t as famous.”
College football left Williams living in the in-between.
Like college players then and now, he was not paid to play. He was recruited by Alabama, Ohio State and Texas, among many other top programs, but is never recognized anymore. He is just old enough to have not been warned of the sport’s dangers, but young enough to see his possible future unfold on television and the Internet, with the stories of Aaron Hernandez and Junior Seau and Dave Duerson showing the fate he fears most.
“You mean to tell me that 20 years from now I could . . . ” Williams said before pausing as his eyes filled with tears. “Like I could kill myself, or my wife, or my kids? I didn’t sign up for that.”
‘Not something we talked about’
More than 15 years later, Williams still calls it the hit.
It was one play in a career full of colliding helmets. But if he tries to trace his headaches back to where they began, the hit rushes into his brain all over again, at the center of Bryant-Denny Stadium in 2002, his chiseled 20-year-old frame draped in a No. 48 Alabama jersey, his legs pumping him straight at Southern Mississippi’s punter.
“I hit that boy so hard,” Williams said, and he shook his head before reenacting the play in his living room while Bailey crawled at his feet. By that point in Williams’s football career, it was normal to launch himself at vulnerable opponents. That is what he was told to do, he says now, as a Pop Warner player in Phoenix, a high school standout in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and eventually a 6-foot-5, 216-pound defensive end at Alabama.
Williams grew up poor, eating bread and peanut butter for many dinners, so ramming himself against other teenagers felt like his best chance at a better future. So when that got him to Alabama, he never asked questions. Click HERE for the rest of the story