Success and glory strode hand-in-hand through the football career of Casey Cochran.
Cochran, son of part legend, part lightning rod Jack Cochran who guided Bloomfield, New Britain and New London to a bevy of state championships, parlayed a brilliant scholastic career playing quarterback for New London and later Masuk-Monroe into a UConn scholarship.
Two-time Connecticut Gatorade Player of the Year. Connecticut High School Coaches’ Association All-Star. Walter Camp All-Connecticut Team. The state record for passing yards and completions. State championships at New London (Class SS, 2008) and Masuk (Class L, 2010). Connecticut Sports Writers’ Alliance Hal Levy High School Athlete of the Year in 2012.
The accolades poured in. The statistics glistened off the pages.
The Huskies and the general public were stunned and saddened when Cochran elected to leave football after suffering a concussion in the game against Brigham Young University on August 29, 2014.
For the ensuing two years and to this very day, Cochran, 22, has suffered through an aftershock and health questions that only the future could answer. He wondered if he would ever be able to lead a normal life.
“I get nightmares that will keep me up. I went two years without sleeping a full night,” said Cochran, encouraged that he’s just recently started to sleep better.
“In my high school days, I had bad days and said to myself it was because I was not getting enough sleep, but I’d wake up feeling exhausted and worrying about everything and not knowing where it was coming from. I would convince myself that I felt fine after a head injury even when I didn’t. I tried to ignore whatever concerns I had.”
On July 5, he used The Players’ Tribune website founded by Derek Jeter, to poignantly and elegantly tell his story entitled, “13 Concussions.”
Initially, Cochran provides a descriptive slow-motion replay on that beautiful, but fateful summer night on the turf at Rentschler Field, depicting the last play he’ll ever run. It ends when he’s planted by a charging BYU linebacker and his heads snaps back forcefully against the ground.
“The only word I know to describe the first few moments after a concussion is limbo — there are a few moments between the world that you were just a part of and your new brain-injured reality,” Cochran wrote. “When I regained consciousness, I knew I was on the ground. My head was seized with tremendous pressure, and that same awful, familiar depression from previous head injuries came over me — like a dark, heavy blanket, swallowing me up.”
Cochran watched the movie “Concussion,” starring Will Smith in the role of Dr. Bennet Omalu, the Nigerian forensic pathologist with virtually no understanding of football who embarked on a campaign to inform the NFL and our football-loving nation that a disease he dubbed chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) was maiming and killing former players.
Whether “Concussion” was embellished with juiced-up Hollywood theater or carried documentary-like truth is conjecture for fans to digest and decide. For many of the football-loving public, it was cast aside as anti-NFL rhetoric, similar to how Dr. Omalu originally was portrayed by the NFL.
For Cochran, it’s the reality of everyday life.
“It’s 100 percent an account of what it’s like,” said Cochran, who eagerly speaks publicly about what he’s experienced and what he believes. “There are plenty of people who get shut down. What people need to realize is that it’s not a war against football or an attempt to shut it down. It’s not just an NFL problem. It’s a problem for high school, college and youth leagues, too.”
He points a finger at the governing bodies that regulate the games.
“If they set standards and say people who play will be fine and they know it’s not true, there’s a problem,” Cochran said. “People must be held accountable. We need to start realizing that what we celebrate on Sundays is detrimental to people’s health. In the next few years, people will start not watching. Some will have a heavy heart for supporting it.
“I’m having a lot of trouble watching football. When you look closely at it, it happens on every play, and when you understand the repercussions, it’s almost unbearable to watch.”
Jennifer Ruys, former Lyman Hall basketball star and now an athletic trainer for the Boston College football team, equated every encounter between the offensive and defensive lines as being akin to a minor motor vehicle accident.
Cochran put it in a different perspective.
“There are a couple fundamental issues and ideas that need to be understood before you look at concussions the way I do,” said Cochran, who sustained the first of his 13 concussions at age 11. “Humans are not well-equipped to take blows to the head. Oxen and woodpeckers can bash their heads all day, every day with no physiological repercussions. It’s based on anatomy. We’re not able to receive blows, once or repetitively.”
Cochran readily flashes back to the days of his youth. The well-documented nature of his father’s drive to win was obviously a determining factor, mentally and emotionally. He said that ESPN is planning to air a documentary about he and his dad as part of its college football package this fall.
“Kids 7 to 14 are undeveloped and have trouble absorbing blows. They can be devastating to a body that is not yet mature and figuring out the world is not easy,” he said. “As you get older and you make your body into a physical machine, the force is even greater and gets harder to deal with. At some point, it becomes too late.”
Cochran has researched the stories of the Pittsburgh Steelers Hall-of-Fame center Mike Webster and the San Diego Chargers’ great linebacker Junior Seau. While those stories have been well-chronicled, he dips into his own reservoir of experiences, like attending tearful fundraisers for two ostensibly balanced hockey players who committed suicide.
He points out that many have suffered through CTE anonymously.
“As a UConn football player. I know there are players battling to stay on the field,” he said. “Fans only know a fraction of them. Guys playing on NFL special teams and practice squads are under the same risks as Mike Webster and Junior Seau.
“Seau should still be in this world, and for owners to know that suicide rates are going up? Maybe they give something to the family, but to keep going like nothing happened is strange to me and needs to be addressed.”
Cochran has addressed the subject twice as a guest of the Alabama High School Athletic Association, most recently last month.
“The year before, there were 400 coaches there. This year, they made attendance mandatory and moved it to a bigger convention center, but only about 50 showed up. I got my point across. Afterwards, I was a little angry, but I had to take something away from the experience.”
He believes that the issue may well lead to the demise of football.
“It’s going to go away quicker than people think because people are ignoring the facts and discounting the evidence instead of taking players’ safety as the first priority,” he said. “That will be the death of the game.
“Growing up, I had trust in football because the NFL said if you follow their guidelines, you can continue, but they’ve hidden the evidence. I think they’ve known for a long time and instead of taking giant steps they have gone the other way. Big changes need to happen and need to happen now.”
The resolve that Cochran took to the field is resonating and percolating within him as he maps out a future based on publicizing his experience for the benefit of others. His work has become part of his recovery. He is actively working on writing a book and producing a documentary. When he talks about it, it’s a matter of when, not if.
“There are going to be people who hear our message and help out, or least acknowledge it, but there are going to be big-time sports fans who say, ‘Shut the hell up and let us watch,’” he said, the pitch of his voice increasing in step with his level of resentment for the Sunday status quo.
“I can’t understand how you can watch knowing there are human beings under those helmets. They’re not just robots. There are horrible repercussions. The question is, do you watch and think there’s nobody under those pads?”
He said he was offered a coaching position at a Division I school in Tennessee, but quickly rejected it.
“I can’t do it and won’t do it because I don’t believe in the sport right now,” he said. “It wouldn’t help make the changes the sport needs most. Given my life over these past few years, I’m going to stick to my principles and make a difference.”
His sentiment about how the state media covered his career and the game itself with an air of reverence sent him to The Players’ Tribune.
“I’m sour over the media, SportsCenter and media around our state. I’m sick and tired of statistics. It took ‘30-for-30’ to bring me back to ESPN,” he said, referring to the network’s series of documentaries that delve more deeply into the lives, experiences and history of those who play the games.
“One thing about growing up with so much success at Bloomfield and New Britain was that everyone seemed to write off the years they didn’t win as terrible. I never bought into that. My second year at UConn, we lost eight straight and won the last two. Those wins felt better than any others in my career. I [recently] played golf with our two tight ends and I might never have had that time together.
“People have contorted the message about what sports really are and I would like to help change that. It’s not just concussions. College players are being taken advantage of. There are so many things that need to be talked about.”
He hasn’t stopped loving sports. He hasn’t lost his competitive spirit.
“In playing intramural sports and club racquetball I have found a new appreciation for sports,” he said. “Watching men’s softball, I can see where people still find the joy.
“Sports are to keep active, build relationships and learn something about yourself. I need to get back to that. I need to play sports for the right reasons. We need to play football to teach kids about camaraderie, sportsmanship and teamwork and be a part of society, but we can’t have concussions and drug addiction be part of it.”
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