I’ve been hit in the face a thousand times by a thousand different footballs. I’ve bloodied noses and chipped incisors, blackened eyes and spent afternoons walking around with hexagonal imprints in the centre of my forehead looking like the world’s crappiest Dr. Who villain.
But the thousandth-and-first time was a bit different.
A few weeks ago I took a particularly spiteful shot to the side of the head during a stint in between the sticks at my local PowerLeague - and it pretty much ruined my life for a fortnight. Now granted, it didn’t help that the ball was pumped up like a Geordie Shore cast member on chest day, but whether it was the stiff humour of the missile, the unfortunate angle at which it made its acquaintance with my skull, or a cocktail of the two, I was floored - quite literally.
I tried to stand up, but was swiftly forced to abandon the venture, and even when I could make it to my feet, the best I could manage was a meandering stumble, like a silent movie drunk in the aisle of a braking bus. After 26 years, I had my first concussion.
From there, things just got a little odd. My vision was varying degrees of blurred for days, as if I was wearing frosted glass contact lenses, and my thoughts would swim around messily and ungraspable like tadpoles in a casserole dish. I also have genuine blank spots in my memory from the week or so after it happened, and I simply could not stop crying for no apparent reason. To all intents and purposes, I shuffled about like a lanky, incoherent toddler for a solid week before things began to improve even remotely.
If I’m being honest, it was a real eye-opener for me. That’s pretty much the reason I’m writing about it now. This was, in every sense, a mild concussion, and yet it brought my life to a juddering halt. I missed work, cancelled plans, and could do little else but vegetate on the couch, staring up at a blurry ceiling and half-absorbing reruns of Bob’s Burgers until my attention would drift into the ether again.
Such is the fragility of the human brain, even the slightest upset can have untold ramifications. And yet, we still have a tendency to downplay or dismiss entirely when it comes to head injuries. Whether it was trying to hold something resembling a normal conversation with my girlfriend, explaining my symptoms to a doctor, or telling my mates about the whole debacle when I’d finally stopped weeping and was allowed out for a pint, I constantly found myself trying to understate and trivialise. Even now, writing about it a couple of months later, my main hesitation about this article is that it will come across as overly melodramatic.
And that’s the stigma that we need to remove, especially in sport, where the urge to doggedly persist no matter what is still lionised just a little too often.
Of course, things are getting much, much better. The Premier League’s decision to introduce concussion substitutions has been rightly lauded, while the NFL’s protocols in the event of a potential head injury are an extensive, exhaustive yardstick for others to learn from.
But ultimately, there has to be an acceptance on the part of the players themselves too. It’s okay to admit that you’re not okay, perfectly justified to put your health before the outcome of a game if you have even the slightest concern that something might be wrong.
It all comes back to a well-worn adage, but one that bears repeating time and time again - not all injuries are visible.