MISSOULA — In the 14 months that have passed since August 2017, six University of Montana football players have publicly cited concussions and their after-affects as spurring their retirement.
At least one other player, who asked not to be named due to an ongoing medical retirement process, also is in the process of leaving due to a concussion. And another former Grizzly, who also asked not to be named, retired from the sport in the off season due to multiple injuries, including concussions.
"Would I then say we have more concussions or injuries or whatever in the last year compared to years previous? I wouldn't necessarily say that," said J.C. Weida, head athletic trainer for UM. "I think people are more cognizant of what they have going on in their body. Because of that, they're more aware, therefore we're more aware."
The university doesn't track concussions and isn't required to, it told the Montana Kaimin. The student newspaper, citing a 2017 report in the Atlanta Journal Constitution, said only about one in six athletic programs do not count student-athlete concussions by sport.
Weida has been an athletic trainer working with UM football since he was a student back in 1992 and was hired as a professional in the fall of 1996.
Along with the rest of the training staff at Montana's Rhinehart Athletic Training Center, Weida treats everything from hangnails and tweaked ankles to torn ACLs and concussions. He said it wouldn't be "beneficial'' to say how many concussions are treated each year.
"We took care of concussions way different in 1996," Weida said. "But the care of everything has changed."
Concussions occur when there's a blow to the head or another part of the body that results in an alteration — but not necessarily unconsciousness — in mental status.
"We used to say, 'Did you get knocked out? He doesn't have a concussion,''' Weida said. But now, trainers realize that a blow to the head can affect a player's inner ear or mental health — things not easily seen.
"Just because he's not walking sideways doesn't mean he doesn't have a concussion,'' he said.
According to a study by Harvard University and Boston University, only one in 27 head injuries among FCS players was reported in 2013.
"Research shows that people who wait the longest have the longest problems. That's one of the things I let them know," Weida said. "What we stress with a head injury, your body is telling you something for a reason."
The most recent Grizzly to retire from football is Thayne Jackson, a sophomore who would have started on the offensive line this fall.
Jackson estimates he's had "four or five" concussions since the beginning of high school, with three coming while he was at Montana. Jackson doesn't know the true number because he never reported any of them.
"I felt like, this isn't the coaches. This was all me," Jackson said. "I love each and every one of those dudes to death. I miss them. I felt like I had an obligation to be out there and I wanted to play for them."
Jackson's worst concussion came during spring ball in 2017.
He doesn't remember what led up to it. All Jackson remembers is hearing a large crack. Then everything became fuzzy and began to spin.
"I didn't really know where I was," Jackson said.
Jackson said he went back to the line of scrimmage for the next play. After practice, he went to the Food Zoo.
The lights were too bright. The noise was too loud. His head throbbed. He became angry over small things.
"I just sat there with my head in my hands, covering my ears," Jackson said. "I couldn't look at the lights, but I knew I needed to eat. So I did that and went straight back to my dorm room, shut the lights off and went to bed."
The largest part of Weida's job, in addition to rehabilitating student-athletes, is the education component that goes along with injuries.
Before the season even starts, Weida and his staff address all student-athletes, regardless of sport, about injuries.
"We talk about it before it happens," Weida said, by emphasizing that "hiding any injury is not helpful'' and explaining that the coaches and other athletes value team members who take care of themselves.
Weida knows that finding a balance between keeping people safe and letting them play is important.
"It's a tough job," Weida said. "Because every concussion is different and every person is different and their response to that injury is different, we as health care providers have to play that balancing act."
Football players don't suffer concussions at a higher rate than other athletes.
Various studies show different results, but a 2015 study conducted by the American Physical Therapy Association concluded NCAA men's and women's hockey both saw higher rates of sports-related concussions than football. Women's soccer is up there as well.
So why the emphasis on football in the media? Thank the NFL.
In 2002, former Pittsburgh Steeler Mike Webster died at the age of 50. His cause of death was originally listed as a heart attack. Dr. Bennett Omalu discovered that Webster had a disease that would later be called chronic traumatic encephalophathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease that's found in athletes, veterans and other people with repetitive brain trauma.
When the NFL found out, it formed its own committee to research brain trauma and published its results in the medical journal Neurosurgery. The NFL's published findings minimized the dangers of concussions and said that there is no issue with players returning to play after head trauma.
The book "Concussion" by Jeanne Marie Laskas and the film of the same name told the story of Omalu's battle against the NFL, as did the book "League of Denial," which eventually was turned into a PBS Frontline documentary.
Weida said "the whole situation was being falsified," which put football under the microscope.
Thousands of former NFL players have accused the NFL of concealing the dangers of concussions while making a profit from glorifying hits that cause them. More than 5,000 former NFL players filed separate lawsuits.
U.S. District Judge Anita Brody approved a class-action lawsuit settlement in 2015 that applied to all NFL players who retired on or before July 4, 2014. As of Oct. 15, the NFL concussion settlement has surpassed $569 million.
Since CTE was discovered, there have been several studies conducted on CTE and football, including one from May 2018 that found children "who start playing tackle football before age 12 will, on average, develop cognitive and emotional symptoms associated with (CTE) much earlier than those who start later."
Even though brain injuries aren't like a broken arm or a torn ACL, athletes go through certain processes when they believe they have a concussion.
The first step is to receive an initial medical assessment. If concussion-like symptoms are present, athletes are told to rest and stop all activity — both mental and physical. Coaches and academic advisers are notified.
If all goes well after that, light exercise is introduced, such as balance exercises or a stationary bike.
"Our first goal is to get people back into school, functioning in school and making sure their activities and daily living are quote 'normal,'" Weida said. "And that includes some level of activity,'' usually biking or running, "that needs to occur before a person could then return to sport activities, lifting weights, practice, games, etc."
Kent Haslam, Montana's athletic director, appreciates all the work Weida and his staff put in.
"Injury prevention and recovery touches a lot of areas in this department," Haslam said. "It starts from education and proper equipment and proper equipment fitting,'' but also includes conditioning, coaching, practicing and post-injury treatment.
Everyone reacts to concussions differently. Jackson said that in his case, it's the physical things.
"I'm developing a stutter. And the depression. I've had a history of depression, though, and that's what really gets to me," Jackson said.
Former UM wideout Caleb Lyons, who stepped away form the sport last August, had a seizure and developed migraines. Former UM walk-on linebacker Gage Smith, who hung up his cleats this spring, developed a sensitivity to light.
Concussions, according to recent studies, also play into mental health.
A 2017 study published by the National Institutes of Health concluded that concussions and impaired mental health, depression in particular, were associated.
One in five young adults has anxiety or depression, according to the National Alliance of Mental Illness, and more than 75 percent of all mental health conditions begin before the age of 24.
Despite the prevalence, the stigma surrounding mental illness, especially with athletes and mental health, persists.
According to an NCAA survey in 2015, 30 percent of student-athletes self-reported being depressed and 50 percent experienced high levels of anxiety.
Lyons, formerly outgoing, developed social anxiety and claustrophobia. Smith's depression and anxiety weighed him down.
"It's been one of those things, like everybody has their (stuff) going on," Smith said of his anxiety back in August. "But I always tried to play it off like I had everything put together. I wanted to be the person who had it all figured out. Obviously I didn't. Hardly anybody does."
Jackson said his thoughts spiraled downward after he retired: "'What if I kept playing? Where could I have gone? What if I don't amount to anything now?'"
Despite his love of football, Jackson realizes that his health is much more important.
"I want to be able to function when I'm older. I want to be able to be a normal human being when I'm older and not have to worry about my head being a scrambled egg and being able to walk around."
Changes regarding safety, like the targeting rule and no more two-a-days, have altered the game of football.
Grizzlies quarterback Dalton Sneed sees the differences, especially with the targeting penalty.
"I think it's a whole different game now, just with the penalties,'' Sneed said. "It's a different game than it was when Coach (Bobby) Hauck and Coach Rosey were playing, or even when I was watching football when I was 6, 7 years old. The game's changed a little bit, but for the better to keep guys safe."
Hauck agrees football has changed.
"Technique's taught better and then the rules are what they are. There's been some changes to make it safer, probably causing more lower extremity injury. The head's the best protected part of everybody's body out here," he said.
"I hear a lot of people saying football's the safest it's ever been. That couldn't be further from the truth," he said. "The helmets are better, the shoulder pads are better, but it makes people reckless.
"The hits, you don't have people back in the 1940s laying down Ray Lewis hits on a receiver coming across the middle. That doesn't happen. The technology is so much better that the game is more dangerous. It's a scary thing."
The conversation surrounding CTE scares Jackson.
The catalyst in Jackson's retirement was watching the Tyler Hilinski news unfold.
Sports Illustrated released a documentary with an accompanying article about Hilinski, 21, the Washington State quarterback who took his own life in January.
Hilinski's suicide came just weeks after the Cougars ended their 9-4 season. Hilinski's autopsy showed he had Stage 1 chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in his brain. The medical examiner determined he "had the brain of a 65-year-old," Tyler's father, Mark Hilinski, told NBC's "Today" back in June.
When Jackson read the article, reality came crashing down.
"That was a good article to come out, because it can open people's eyes," Jackson said. "I feel horrible for his family. I don't want to imagine what they're going through. But that was really eye-opening for me."
Jackson still lives in Missoula, but he's taken a year off from school so he can establish in-state residency after he walked away from his full ride scholarship.
Jackson, an anthropology major, looks forward to getting back in the classroom. But for now, he's enjoying life without football as much as he can.
"As hard as this was, I'm doing good. This is the best I've been in the past three years," Jackson said. "Mentally, I'm doing good."
The future of football, according to Weida, depends on education.
The NFL learned from its initial mistakes. "I think the NFL is going down the right road in some respects in trying to look at rule changes,'' Weida said.
The league is financing research and working to make football safer. "They don't want people not to play, so they're going to have to change the game because otherwise moms and dads are going to say (their kids) can't play.
"I know across campus we've had researchers involved,'' he said. "It's going to continue to drive safety because we're talking about people's brains.''