I spent the better part of last Sunday lying on my couch in a cave made out of blankets, unsure whether my eyes were open or shut. The upper left hemisphere of my brain felt like it was hanging on to the exact moment of impact from a hammer for hours.
It started off innocently enough. I was playing floor hockey with my two-year-old son when I noticed a blank spot in my right eye. That’s how I know it’s coming. There’s literally a spot in my vision where everything completely disappears. Moments before, I’d seen objects and color and movement, then suddenly there’s just…nothing, not even darkness. It’s the visual equivalent of a joke that doesn’t land. Soon that blank spot becomes what I can only describe as a blinking snake made of lightning. At that point I have five, ten minutes tops of functionality left, so I desperately scramble to get anything done that I can before the hammer hits.
The first time I got knocked cold on an ultimate field happened on a gorgeous Sunday in the fall of 1997. It was my junior year at Flagler College in St. Augustine, Florida, during our weekly pickup game on the grounds of the Castillo de San Marcos National Monument. I was at the goal line having smothered a deep cut when someone lobbed a backhand to the center of the field. Running after it was one of our freshmen, a box truck of a kid named Ryan. I saw him clomping after it, decided I could get there before him and took off. By all accounts it was a pretty spectacular play. I laid out nearly five yards chest high to emphatically knock it away – or at least that’s what my teammates told me later. Just after I knocked the disc away, Ryan’s shoulder slammed into my left temple. A brief blur of green and blue melted into midnight. I vaguely remember helicoptering through the air in the darkness. I don’t remember hitting the ground.
I opened my eyes a minute or two later to see a ring of backlit heads against the sky.
“Cramer, are you dead?” one of my teammates joked.
“Yeah,” I mumbled. “I’m dead.”
One of our best players, a 6’7” surfer named Andy was snapping his fingers in my face. “Cramer, stay with us, bro. How many fingers do I have up?”
“Son of a bitch,” I answered. “God looks like Andy.”
“You really think you ended up in heaven, Cramer?” another guy said.
“Son of a bitch,” I grunted as the world slowly got clearer. “The devil looks like Andy.”
I sat out three points before returning to the game because – ultimate. I think one guy asked me, “Hey, are you sure you’re ok to go back in?”
I chugged some water and nodded. “Yeah. Yeah, I’m good. A little dizzy but I’ll run it off.”
“Jesus, Cramer, you’re tough.”
I just smiled. “Don’t forget it.”
I’ve since come to realize that at twenty, tough and stupid are often confused. I played every point of the next game, went back to my dorm and didn’t think anything of it as I drifted through the next week or so in a lazy, unbalanced fog.
I had no idea what was happening the day in 2002 when I got my first migraine. I was halfway through the day at my internship at the junior high in Philipsburg, PA when my right eye went blind as I was sorting student schedules. I spent a few minutes waving my right hand beside my head in freaked-out amazement as it disappeared and reappeared again. Fearing I might be in my last few moments of existence, I knocked on the door of the school counselor I was working with that semester.
“Hey, so this is going to seem insane but I uh….can’t see out of my right eye all the sudden.”
“You can’t see?” she responded.
“Can’t see a thing,” I said waving my arm around. “Over in this area. At all.”
“Is it a migraine?”
“I have no idea. I’ve never had one before.”
“Sounds like you’re getting a migraine. You should get down to the nurse.”
I got down to the nurse and spent the whole rest of the afternoon laying on a bed staring at the ceiling with a throbbing headache wondering if these hours were going to count toward my degree or not.
It wasn’t a particularly bad migraine, all things considered. When school ended, I was able to walk out of the building and drive over the mountain back home to my apartment at Penn State. I promptly forgot about it and headed to ultimate practice.
It probably wasn’t a coincidence that the migraines began in 2002. Between July and October of that year, I was knocked black three times. The first occurred over July 4th weekend at the Mars co-ed tournament in my hometown of Pittsburgh. At 24, I was the old vet on a team of high school all-stars from around the city. In our second to last game of the tournament, one of my young teammates floated a flick over my head toward the end zone. I leapt high and stretched out for it only to watch it glance off my fingers just as the defender behind me socked me in the back of the head. The hit sent me straight into the shoulder of another defender who’d been charging in from the goal line. My shades flew one way and my hat the other. I wasn’t out for more than a second or two, but I had zero idea where I was when I came to. I got to my knees, looked around and recognized nobody.
My buddy Matt was the first to get to me. “Cramer, are you ok?”
What I saw was a strange red-headed dude I was pretty sure but not absolutely certain that I knew. I wanted to answer, “No, I’m not. I should probably sub out,” but it came out, “Nnnnnn.”
I stumbled to the sideline where I stayed for the rest of that game. But even though I was obviously wobbly, I went back in for our last game of the day. It was the D bracket championship for god’s sake. Glory was on the line. How could I remain on the sidelines for something like that?
The next two came on nearly identical plays. Both happened in October at Penn State practice. On the first, I came out of the vertical stack, planted and turned to cut deep. Apparently, it was a crisp enough cut that my defender didn’t have time to decelerate. His chin hit me square in the right temple so hard that it gave him a concussion through his jaw. I stumbled, fell over and woke up thirty seconds later. While he smartly went to the campus health center, I went home, wrote a paper and was at practice the next day.
A week or two later, it happened again as I cut the opposite way out of the stack. As I planted to go deep, my foot slipped in the wet grass. I put my arm down to catch myself and continue my deep cut just as one of our captains was sprinting by on defense trying to catch up to an in-cut. His knee clubbed me in the left temple. I didn’t get up for five minutes. They talk about seeing stars when you get hit. Well, that night the Hubble telescope had nothing on me. I discovered four new supernovae heretofore undiscovered by science. If I could pinpoint the moment that triggered my headaches, that would be the one.
To be honest, I never put two and two together until years later when Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby missed the better part of a season due to concussion-related symptoms. And then the NFL lawsuits started gaining traction. And damn near overnight, concussion awareness was a thing. It seems insane that less than a decade ago, a sports-obsessed, medically advanced culture like America could be so unaware of the ramifications of head trauma. But we were. For me in my 20’s, concussions were more of a badge of honor – a sign that you went all out – that you played hard – that you never let up – that you were tough. That they might potentially have life-altering side effects wasn’t a thought that had the tiniest potential to cross my mind. I didn’t think I needed to go to the doctor for something so “minor” because hell, what were they going to do? Tell me to rest? I didn’t want to rest. I wanted to play ultimate.
The fifth and final time (fingers crossed) that I lost consciousness on an ultimate field was in 2004 at Ultimaxx in Greenville, North Carolina. I was playing for a club team out of Philly and five points into our first game, I hit heads so hard with my defender that it ripped off part of my left eyebrow. I swear I actually heard my brain hit the inside of my skull like a grapefruit dropped to a sidewalk. The ER doctor that later reattached my eyebrow told me that, along with the trench-sized gash in my head, I had at least a mild concussion and should pack it in for the weekend. But I didn’t drive from Pennsylvania to play two and a half points. If I was four-states away, I was playing some disc. I rushed back from the hospital to play three more games, laying out, leaping, and crashing to the ground with no regard for the doctor’s advice. Because he was only a medical professional. What the hell did he know?
I’m not writing this article for pity. I have a great life, and despite over twenty years of high level ultimate, pretty good health all things considered. The migraines are crippling when I get them, but luckily they’re infrequent enough (at the moment) that they don’t really affect my overall quality of life. I’m getting treatment for them and the treatment for the most part is working. I’m 39 and still playing the sport I love, which makes me a lucky man. And if I can sit down and write a long-winded article like this, I must not be too scrambled.
Nor am I absolutely certain I got the migraines from playing ultimate. Although they first showed up right after I got knocked out twice on the ultimate field in the span of roughly twelve days, my mother does get migraines on occasion. It could be totally hereditary. There’s no way of knowing. What I do know is that anyone who plays ultimate long enough is going to get knocked around. It’s different than football and hockey. Those guys wear pads and suffer micro-impacts on just about every play, but they’re also a bit more prepared to get hit. As ultimate players, we don’t wear any head protection and when we get walloped, it’s normally a blindside impact we’re not expecting at all. Maybe eight to ten huge hits over the course of twenty years is nowhere near as bad as taking little hits over and over and over like a defensive lineman. But if any research has been done on that subject, I’ve yet to find it. Either way, the impacts we receive as ultimate players can’t be good; it’s not like anyone is getting their head rattled and suddenly learning how to speak Mandarin.
I could look back and say that with the benefit of hindsight, I wish I’d have dialed it back a bit during my younger days. But that would be a blatant lie. I loved running full speed and laying out. I loved getting flipped over and crashing to the ground. I loved it all. And honestly, what are we going to do to make head trauma go away completely? Walk after the disc? Not play sports? Give everyone a golf club or a tennis racket? That society would suck.
My message for the guys and girls who play like I did isn’t to slow down. Go all out for that disc. Do everything you can to get it. But if you do suffer an impact to the head in the process, it’s cool to sit back and re-evaluate for a while. You aren’t letting down your team. You’re not any less of a warrior. You’re just being intelligent.
I now referee in the AUDL, which does have a strict concussion policy and protocol. There are doctors and trainers on site for every game. In fact, we just had an incident recently where a guy from Detroit made a sick two-handed grab on a tailing huck in traffic, but nailed the back of his head off the ground when he landed (losing the disc in the process, unfortunately.) e got to his feet and blankly stared off into the woods behind the scoreboard as if he’d never seen trees before. I blew my whistle and stopped the game immediately.
“I’m gonna….I might uh….need a….” he said.
“Yeah, you’re gonna need a sub,” I told him.
I walked him to the sideline and made sure the coaches and trainers were aware of what happened. He sat out the rest of the first half before he was cleared to come back in.
But that’s not always how ultimate is played. You’re at some podunk eight-team tournament in Statesboro, Georgia, or Bend, Oregon, there aren’t referees or observers to look out for you. Even a hotly contested battle at college regionals might not (and often doesn’t) have someone right there to check on every player. Your summer league team probably has a chiropractor and a veterinarian, but no brain specialists. Most of our games are played without medical supervision. Someday we might be on a different level as a sport, but that someday isn’t now.
So it’s up to us as a community. If you’re the captain of a small college or club team, it might fall on you to make the final call as to whether your star player can enter a big game after taking an accidental elbow. Even if you’re in a summer casual league, it might be on you to tell your best friend it’s probably best to just chill for a while. We all need to be aware. It’s easy to know when you can’t play anymore due to injury. It’s much harder to know when you can but you shouldn’t.
Ten, twenty years ago, we just didn’t know. Now we do, so there’s no excuse. Your teammates in many ways are your brothers and sisters. Many will be lifelong friends. It’s on all of us to make sure they can remember the universe point against Madison Club or Cal Poly or “that one team from Ohio” over a few beers when you’re sixty. Or at least make the beers the principal reason they forget.