A few years earlier, the coach, Don Horton, had learned that he had Parkinson’s disease, but these new, intensifying infirmities were more commonly linked to chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or C.T.E., a degenerative brain disease caused by repeated hits to the head and linked to football and other contact sports.
Was his deteriorating health, Horton wondered, a consequence of his many years as a football lineman? Even worse, he worried, was he responsible for exposing hundreds of players to the kind of head trauma now impairing his life? After all, as a prominent assistant coach at Boston College and North Carolina State for nearly 20 years, he had recruited and encouraged scores of athletes to play major college football.
In the still of night at home, Horton asked himself what he should say if a parent of a former recruit called to say that a son was suffering from C.T.E.-like symptoms.
“And I would tell him that he could say: ‘I know how it feels,’” his wife, Maura Horton, responded. “And Don didn’t necessarily like that answer. But that’s the truth.”
His brain was donated after death for research purposes, because he came to believe it was necessary.
By donating his brain, Horton believed he could aid the science and, ultimately, perhaps help people evaluate whether to play, or continue playing, the game.
“He wanted to make a difference if he could,” said Maura Horton, 47. “Don would never tell someone not to play the game, because he loved football and wouldn’t betray it. But he wanted them to see a full picture to make a full decision.”
She added: “Don said, ‘If they would be more reflective and be more upfront about things that were happening to them, they might get out of the game earlier if they needed to. Kids try to hide so much about what’s really happening.’”
If those running the sport don’t grasp the wisdom of that and adapt accordingly, it’s hard to avoid thinking that one day their control will be taken away in the name of caution.