Youth football, concussions and masculinity are examined in this tragic story of a 24-year-old stricken by CTE.
In 2015, 24-year-old Zac Easter took his own life, unable to cope any longer with the physical and mental symptoms that he suspected were the result of brain trauma sustained as a high school football player. Zac was sure that repeated concussions had caused him to develop chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease that has been linked to the premature deaths of several NFL players. Post-mortem examination, which is currently the only way to identify CTE, showed that Zac did indeed have it.
His case is, first of all, a family tragedy, but it takes on wider significance because, unlike many high profile players with CTE, Zac did not play football professionally. He didn’t even play in college. If high school football is enough to cause the condition, and that condition could become intolerable by the time the player was in his 20s, then how can football be considered safe?
This is the central question that runs through Reid Forgrave’s book. Forgrave takes us into small-town football in the Midwest and shows the central role the game played in Zac’s family, which has been in Iowa for generations.
Zac’s father, Myles Easter, was a hard-hitting safety as a student and became a coach for his son’s high school team. Zac, under-sized and lacking pace but full of attitude and determination, became a “thumper”, using his head as a weapon to deliver punishing tackles, in part to impress his dad. He bulked-up with steroids and took to lying about his concussions to keep playing.
When Zac played, even with emerging evidence linking concussions to CTE, coaches and players still saw them as something to shake off. The culture of masculinity that drives football players to throw themselves into brutal collisions and then stay silent about the pain they endure is well illustrated. Zac’s high school head coach, Eric Kluver, discusses his guilt about whether he should have known something was wrong with Zac, while Sue Wilson, the team’s trainer, tells of parents yelling at her if she took their concussed sons out of the game to protect them.
It wasn’t until he had stopped played that Zac’s health began to deteriorate. He tired easily, felt sick and dizzy, and experienced memory problems, language difficulties and depression. He turned to drugs and alcohol to help him cope and it became hard for him function. Searching online for help, he read about CTE, which matched what he was experiencing. He started keeping a diary about his experiences and, once he had made up his mind to take his own life, this became a document that he hoped would help others to understand what had happened to him.
Zac’s diary is vital in showing us what he was going through but Forgrave also talks to Zac’s family, friends and girlfriend about how they tried to help him. Like Growing Up On the Gridiron, published recently, Love, Zac raises important questions about how the concussion issue can be dealt with. Why did Zac develop CTE while his father and football playing brothers didn’t? It might be enough to say that adults understand the risks, but is football safe for children? Forgrave, a football fan himself, acknowledges that there are no easy answers. The questions, however, are not going away.
Reid Forgrave is a journalist with the Star Tribune in Minneapolis. He previously covered sport for FOX and CBS, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times Magazine and GQ. Love, Zac is his first book.
Years later, even as Zac Easter’s mind was breaking apart, he wrote words that would have made Lombardi proud: “I remember being one of the hardest hitting linebackers ever since I started … I learned around this age that if I used my head as a weapon and literally put my head down on every play up until the last play I ever played. I was always shorter than a lot of other players and learned to put my head down so I could have the edge and win every battle. Not only that, but I liked the attention I got from the coaches and other players.”
At the time, that way of thinking still seemed admirable.
“I first started having constant headaches while playing youth football and played through it in fear of telling someone, and feeling like a pussy,” Zac wrote when he was wrestling with the impact of past concussions. “I started playing youth football a year early in 3rd grade because my older brother was on the team and my dad was the coach. I started off playing the two positions that I played throughout my career, linebacker and full back.”
Kluver pauses and collects his thoughts. He’s not crying. Real Football Men do not cry. But his voice gets quiet, thoughtful, emotional. “We called it ‘dinged up.’ But it wasn’t like Zac was staggering around all the time. That’s the shocking part now, after everything has unfolded. Because you do think, ‘How could I have missed this? It was so obvious!’ But in reality, it really wasn’t.
“I truly, honestly didn’t know what was happening to him. I think I’m able to cope with it easier because I didn’t know. Because none of us knew. But yet the guilt is there. Because we shoulda known. I’ll be a better coach because of that. We can’t let this ever happen again.”
In the writings he left behind, Zac gave his family and friends clear instructions: They should not let his death be in vain. His family framed his suicide not as the ultimate selfish act but as something very different: as a sacrifice that meant his death could take on a greater meaning and could be used to help others like him.
I don’t say all this as some self-righteous tut-tutter of America’s football hypocrisy but instead as a full-blown participant in it. I’m still a hard-core NFL fan. Even as I write this book about how football played a role in Zac Easter’s death—as I interview family members of others who committed suicide after suffering from football-induced CTE, as I nod in agreement when my wife says there’s zero chance our two young sons, Owen and Lincoln, will ever play the sport—I still watch.
There is much about CTE that remains puzzling – it is clearly linked to football but how strong is that link? Why do some people get it and not others, why does it affect some earlier than others, is it caused solely by concussions or linked to other factors, and so on. Underneath all that, however, is the story of a young man’s death and how that tragedy affected those who knew him.
Forgrave handles the multiple layers deftly. He doesn’t force a particular view of CTE on us, but he is clear about the implications the disease has for football, particularly youth football. He allows Zac’s family and friends to talk with remarkable honesty about Zac’s decline and how his death affected them. Throughout it all, Zac’s own voice is weaved into the narrative from his diaries and messages to his girlfriend, Ali, who offers remarkable and unwavering support as her boyfriend unravels.
Books that begin life as magazine articles, as this one did, can sometimes lack sufficient material to work at book length. That is not a problem here. Forgrave adds depth and colour to his material, creating a moving and engaging read. It shows the human cost of a frightening disease.