The most important thing to remember as you read this story is that Bryan Scott did not retire from the National Football League because of concussions.
He did not.
It is the most compelling aspect of the entire tale — an indication of the hold that football had on him, and has on us. There is something about it, someone in his family said, that no one can touch. It stays with us, and it stayed with him, and the fear now for Scott and those close to him is that, for all the blessings it gave him and allowed him to give, it remained a part of his life for too long.
After his career as a schoolboy legend at Central Bucks High School East and as a defensive back at Penn State, after a decade in the NFL with three teams, Scott would seem as healthy, as well-adjusted to life without football, as he could hope to be. Once the Buffalo Bills released him just before the 2013 regular season, he went to the gym the next day — in part out of routine, in part to stay in shape in case another NFL team called him — and remembered in mid-bench-press that a 10-year NFL career had been his goal since entering the league. He put down the weights and, at that moment, retired. He had suffered, officially, two concussions, the more recent and more severe of them in 2009, but he said that those injuries were not on his mind when he decided to walk away. Other things were.
“Football,” he said in a recent interview, “has never defined who I am.”
Scott lives in a gorgeous house in a gated community here, 25 miles north of Atlanta, with his wife and his four daughters — the youngest of whom, Brandyn Brielle, was born in July. He owns and operates two businesses, including a personal-training franchise that allows him, at age 35, to retain a physique and conditioning level that approximate those of his playing days. He appeared on “Shark Tank.” He plays guitar, piano, and drums, once performing a duet with recording artist Michelle Branch on “Monday Night Football.” He always had so many winds blowing through him that he could step away from the sport whenever he pleased and not lose too much of himself.
But Scott has lost something, and it was only now that he agreed to talk about it. He has lost any illusions about what football did to him, and might yet do. He has seen friends, former teammates, and fellow NFL retirees broken by the sport, and he knows that he has been fortunate compared with them, that he was better prepared to fend off the darkness that has invaded their lives. Amid the perpetual stream of news about concussions, he tracks those stories, the worst and most disquieting cases of dementia and CTE, and he knows that his is one of the best stories. And maybe that is the most terrifying truth of all.
“There are still pieces of life that I can’t remember,” he said. “And I don’t remember when I stopped remembering them.”
How many concussions has Scott really had? He laughed at the question. “We used to call it a ‘dinger,’” he said. When Scott was 5, he bawled his eyes out because he wasn’t old enough to play tackle football for the peewee Warminster Pioneers. He invited and relished contact for 27 years thereafter. There were too many dingers to count.
A head injury never caused him to leave a game, though, until Dec. 20, 2009. Scott started at weakside linebacker for the Bills that afternoon in their 17-10 loss to the New England Patriots in Orchard Park, N.Y., and it was an unusual day in one regard specific to him: Throughout Scott’s collegiate and professional careers — four years at Penn State, three with the Atlanta Falcons, one with the New Orleans Saints, six with the Bills — his family members always made certain that at least one of them attended every game he played. But the flight that his father, Franklin, was supposed to take to Buffalo was canceled. No one from the Scott family was at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
On one play late in the game, the Patriots ran a sweep to Scott’s right. As Scott pursued the runner, Patriots wide receiver Matthew Slater charged toward him to deliver a crackback block. The two met head-to-head, Scott 6-foot-1 and 220 pounds, Slater 6 feet tall and around 200 pounds but moving at full speed. Watching the game on TV at a cousin’s house, Scott’s older sister, Kim, thought, Oooh, that looked really hard.
Scott has no memory of the subsequent 30 minutes. His helmet off, he rolled onto his side to try to get up. He couldn’t at first. The Bills’ medical staff helped him to his feet, and he walked to the sideline. There — and the telecast returned from a commercial break in time for Kim Scott to see this — he rode a motorized cart to the trainers’ room. Kim and her family began texting and calling each other to see if any of them had communicated with Bryan. None of them had.
“My hands were shaking,” she said. “It was probably the worst day of my life.”
Here is what Scott remembered about the collision’s aftermath: He was sitting in the trainers’ room, and across from him was a teammate. That dude looks familiar, Scott said to himself, but he couldn’t come up with the guy’s name. The teammate, a wide receiver named Terrell Owens, was still in Scott’s line of vision when one of the team doctors began talking to Scott.
“Bryan,” the doctor said, “we got your cellphone out of your locker. We need to call your family to tell them everything’s OK. What’s the passcode to your phone?”
“I don’t know,” Scott said.
“Well, do you have any family here?”
Scott didn’t respond for a few moments. Then he started to cry. He not only couldn’t remember if any of his family members — his father; his sister; his mother, Ruth; his younger brother, Brandon — were at the game; he couldn’t remember any of their names.
“How did I get in the training room?” he finally said.
“We had to bring you in. You suffered a concussion.”
“Is the game over?”
“Who did we play?”
“Did we win?”
Two games remained on the Bills’ schedule, but Scott’s season was over, and though he missed just one game during his final three years in the league, he realized he had changed in the wake of that concussion. When he tackled someone, he said, his body would go limp on its way to the ground, and he was “seeing stars a little more frequently. There were times after a big hit, I wondered, ‘Man, what am I doing to the brain?’ They say once you’ve had a couple of concussions, they come a little easier. And that stuff did run through my mind while I was playing: What are the long-term effects of this?”
Sometimes, he could see those effects with his own eyes. Darryl Talley, 56, a former linebacker who spent 12 of his 14 seasons in the NFL with the Bills, occasionally visited training camp. Talley told the Buffalo News in 2014 that his mind is deteriorating, that he has contemplated suicide. “If he just sat and had lunch with us, you could tell,” Scott said. “We would be like, ‘Whoa, he’s definitely going through it.’”
One episode scared him more than any. Kim and Brandon Scott’s birthdays are in September, a week apart, and at a family gathering in 2011, Kim mentioned a surprise party that Bryan had thrown for them years earlier. He had arranged for a car service to pick them up and chauffeur them to the party, the sort of celebration a family cherishes. Hours after the conversation, Bryan called Kim in the middle of the night. You were talking about this party, he told her, but I really don’t remember it. Can you refresh my memory? He had forgotten the unforgettable.
On July 20, the University of Massachusetts Lowell published a poll showing that four out of five American adults, including 72 percent of men, believe tackle football isn’t appropriate for children under age 14. The day before the university released the poll’s results, Scott sat at a giant dominoes table in his expansive, furnished basement. Behind him, several of his football jerseys, framed and behind glass, hung on the walls.
“People always ask me this: If I had a son, would I let him play?” he said. “And I wouldn’t. I really don’t think I would. As everyone becomes more educated as to what goes on and the consequences of playing the game, as a parent, why would you want your child to do that? That’s what I’m putting them through, and at a young age? No.”
Six months ago, Scott had a doctor take a three-dimensional picture, called a SPECT scan, of Scott’s brain. It revealed that he had suffered damage to his frontal lobe, and that the upper half of Scott’s brain, lump-covered from head trauma, resembled that of a 65-year-old man. This, Scott and his family regarded as good news. “I’ve seen worse scans,” he said, and because Scott maintains a nutritious diet, doesn’t drink alcohol, and keeps himself in good shape, doctors have told him he can reverse those effects.
Twice daily, he takes an anti-aging supplement. It has quelled the edginess and irritability that his wife, Maisha, began noticing in him months after his retirement.
Child’s game for a king’s ransom
The dominoes table isn’t merely a vessel for his favorite pastime, a place where he and his friends can gather for a few hours of fun. It’s a way to keep his mind sharp, following the chain of black rectangles, counting and tallying up the pips. Are they in multiples of five yet? How many points do I have? Scott’s ring of car and house keys usually sits in a conspicuous spot on a kitchen counter, because he finds himself, more and more, forgetting where he put them. Is that absent-mindedness a function of fatherhood, of a busy professional and personal life, or is it something else?
He wonders about the cumulative effect of all those hits he gave and received — most of them small and in and of themselves seemingly harmless, many of them more vicious, all of them churning his cerebrospinal fluid into an angry sea, sloshing his brain again and again against the inside of his skull. Is that why he keeps losing those darned keys?
“I played a child’s game for a king’s ransom,” he said. “By nature, I’m a competitive person. Yes, I did enjoy the game of football. I enjoyed competing. But I’m still fresh. I’m 35. Been out of the league four years. How will I feel at 45? At 55?”
What price do you put on a memory? How good does every day have to be to make up for the ones that disappear? Bryan Scott will never have to make that choice for Brandyn Brielle Scott, still less than a week old, and she will never have to make that choice herself, and maybe that’s the most comforting thought of all for her daddy: that she won’t have to learn to live without the most precious pieces of her past, that she’ll never have to wonder whether a life with that sort of sacrifice will be as good as it ever gets.