Matt Solomon: Making Hard Choices after Multiple Sports-Related Concussions
Host: Welcome to the Gaylord Specialty Healthcare Podcast. This podcast will feature patients, families, and medical professionals dealing with serious illnesses or injuries and is meant to inspire bring hope, insight, and a message of belief that life after a traumatic illness is possible.
Host: Hello listeners and welcome back to the Gaylord Specialty Healthcare podcast featuring our ThinkFirst series. Today we're going to talk a lot about concussions and the effects that concussions have on our youth and people in our community. There was an article in the Quinnipiac Chronicle, actually from Quinnipiac University, back in February of 2022 that states, “I wish I never played hockey.” One of the former Quinnipiac men's hockey players reveals the life-threatening effects of the intoxicating smashmouth culture, they call it, that has left him searching for answers. This gentleman played hard hockey throughout his career and then he coached it and he continued to preach that hard hockey feel and now he's suffering from changes in his behavior, his emotion, and his mental status. He has a lot of pain he suffered from alcohol addiction. And these are some of the things that can happen after repeated blows to the head. Now he's saying it could be something like CTE. But that is only really is diagnosed when someone has passed away but he seems to be living with these severe chronic issues of changes in his brain that affect his family life the way that he emotionally reacts to certain situations and sort of can be a hard problem in a marriage and dealing with children and things like that, it carries over to all those things. So concussions after concussions can lead to some of these chronic issues. And today I actually brought in a high schooler Mr. Matthew Solomon here from Taft school who's here to tell us a little bit about how concussions have affected his life and playing some of these high school sports and how that has changed him and made his career decisions and life decisions altered by the impact of concussions.
Host: So Matthew, welcome to our ThinkFirst series.
Guest: Thank you for having me. I'm really excited to talk with you and kind of explain my story and talk to everyone else out there about, you know, concussions and all that.
Host: It's very important that you share this because I know in high school it's like you want to fit in, you want to be part of sports it is such a huge part of growing up. I want you to start off maybe by telling us a little bit about how old you are, what grade you're in where you're from, that kind of thing.
Guest: So, I am 17 years old. I'm a junior at the Taft School in Watertown Connecticut. I grew up in New York City. I went to preschool there went through elementary school and up until eighth grade. I did ninth grade at my school because it went K through nine. And then I re-classed to the class of 2023 at Taft because I was the youngest at my old school in my grade. So I kind of wanted to be a little older, especially because at boarding school there's a lot more re-classes, everyone's older because sports is such a dominating factor, as we're going to talk about in a little bit. So it's my third year there, I came as a freshman and it's been really great. The concussions have limited the experience a little bit like we'll talk about, but I think overall I really enjoyed it and it's been great for me.
Host: Is there a reason that you chose the boarding school over a regular high school?
Guest: At my old school, about half the kids in the graduating grades went to boarding schools and half went to day schools, either in the city or in other places. And my uncle went to Taft, so I already had a connection previously to the whole application period. But Taft really stood out with me. I love the campus, and the campus feel. I love the students’ positivity when I came there. You know, when I was going out, my tour guide, everyone's saying, you know, happy birthday and that's kind of a thing where you make the people attending the tour feel bad, it's like, oh it's your birthday, happy birthday where it's not actually your birthday. But you know, that's kind of a joke with tour guiding. That really stood out to me and I loved my interview. I interviewed with the football coach, he's also in the admissions office. It was great. I really enjoyed it and I just felt like I could fit in. So when I got the letter for admissions, I was super excited. I didn't even look at any other admissions. I just told the school, hey, I'm coming so be ready. So, it was kind of a fit from day one and you know, it was tough transitioning, but I think once I got past that little hump, in the beginning, it's been great.
Host: And initially you went on to the football team, like, right when you got there?
Guest: Yeah, so I was planning to play football there. I joined as a freshman right away. I was definitely the smallest on the team. I was probably 5’ 8” and 130 pounds, whereas there were kids who were like 6’ 5” and 300 pounds, a big team. My school sends kids to play college football every year. There are big kids there, they bring in lots of recruits. So I, I felt, you know, kind of out of it. I didn't really feel big enough, strong enough, or fast enough and I just felt kind of, upset because coming in I had high hopes, I wanted to get some good playing time, maybe start. And once I came I was like, oh, this is not going to happen at all. It was a big jump, it's a big team. I was kind of down at the beginning, but you know, but I stuck with it. Freshman year, I played on JV and we only had like three games, which they are were great. But you know, obviously, I wish I had played more and on the last JV game of the season, this was the week before the big varsity rivalry game against a rival school Hotchkiss, I got my first diagnosed concussion. So that's where it really all started. I couldn't go to the rivalry game I had to watch at home, which really sucked and it really, really hurt. That was the first time I really felt the effects of it and it sucked to put it simply.
Host: You couldn't be with your team.
Guest: No, I couldn't.
Host: What is a concussion was it? How did you know that you had it or who pointed that out for you?
Guest: So the way I got it, it's kind of a funny story. I was going to block a punt and the way I got the concussion was instead of the punt hitting my hands, it hit my head. So it's a really interesting way to block a punt. It worked, it stopped it, and we got the ball. But I played the rest of the game. I didn't really feel any effects. I mean for about 10 seconds I felt kind of dazed but I think the adrenaline just kept me going and then after the game I was feeling, you know, nauseous and had a big headache and tired and just all that and it wasn't feeling great. So, my friends had me go to the health center there and they diagnosed me with a concussion pretty much right away. So the biggest effects I had were just, you know, nausea, and dizziness. I couldn't really think straight. I had some like clouds in my eyes so it wasn't too bad, but there were definitely some effects there. It took me a few days to kind of get back in the swing of things and I had to just sit in a dark room with nothing like no music, no screens. You're like when you have a concussion, you just have to, they say rest your brain, which is really hard to do! Like you use your brain for everything, like talking right now I'm using my brain. Just looking around the room, I'm using my brain everything uses your brain. So to have someone tell me, I just have to sit there and do nothing for two days. It was really boring and annoying. I didn't want to have to do it again!
Host: So they didn't let you go to classes or anything..
Guest: No classes, no work. When I told them I was telling them like, hey, I feel better. Like, no, you’ve go to stay in there. It takes longer than you think. So, you know, after a day or two, I felt pretty much okay, and then, you know, it still took a few days to kind of get reacclimated into it. My first days back in class, were just me sitting with my head down listening because they want you to kind of go slowly into it. And so I missed about a week of school just from one little concussion and they called it a mild concussion. So it wasn't too severe, it wasn't too light, but still, it took me about a week to recover from it, which might not seem like too long. But in school, when you're going, you know, quickly every day, you're learning and learning five classes each day, it builds up and then you have to recover from it and it just takes a while and it's, not the best thing to do.
Host: And so for our listeners too, we just want to explain what a concussion is a little bit, it's actually a mild traumatic brain injury. It's literally any bump blow jolt to the head that results in some kind of those symptoms that you experienced and it's scary because you can't see inside your brain. So you don't know if there's a little bleed or what kind of impact that blow had on your head. And like you said, it actually did take a few days for you to feel normal again and then return to activity.
Guest: And what's also crazy is that it doesn't have to be direct contact with your head. It can be what's called. I remember one of them, another concussion I got later is a whiplash concussion where I was hit a little below my neck, kind of in my chest, and my head was kind of thrust back. It didn't even have contact with my head. I thought at the beginning it wasn't a concussion because I don't even hit my head on anything. But you know, the head is, the brain is so it's so easy to hurt or injure and it's so hard to take care of it that you just have to, you really got to go out of your way to keep it safe, especially if you're playing a contact sport like football or hockey or lacrosse or something like that. Because, you know, even these helmets now that are approved by big-time corporations they're going to protect you and they're going to help you but they can't stop everything. And it still happens no matter what. And I feel like it's going to keep happening. So I just want people to be aware of that because it's very common and kids tried to hide it. I tried to hide my last one because I didn't want to stop playing. I was nervous. I didn't want to tell my parents. I had another one and I wanted to hide it. That's probably the worst thing you can do because these are serious and I realized that after,
Host: Yes, there are many studies. I mean, there are so many kids that just aren’t counted because they don't report them. They want to keep playing for sure. You're not alone. And that's great that you're actually telling people this because we need more people to report it. These are longstanding things that can stay with you. And so you said you had even more, right? You had a second one, the whiplash one. And then what was the last one?
Guest: So when I was, when I was little…this was before I really started playing tackle football. So we weren't really worried about concussions, but I had my friend up to my house and we were just throwing a football around and he was bigger than me. He was almost twice my size because like I said, I was smaller when I was younger, so he had a big arm, he was strong and he was throwing me the football from like five feet away. I'm not sure why he was so close. And he threw it harder than I guess he intended to. And because it was five feet away, I didn't really have a chance to catch it and it hit me right between the eyes. Like I said, I didn't go to a doctor, but that night I was - head was in serious pain. I was crying. I was probably in fourth grade. It was a while ago, but it hurt like crazy and I was dizzy and I don't remember it too well because it was a little while ago. I just remember I couldn't really sleep that night and for the next couple of days, it was hurting like crazy. So I kind of assumed that was one even though it wasn't exactly diagnosed. And then sophomore year, I was very close to having one, I went in for a tackle and I'm not really sure what happened. I kind of hit the guy and I tried not to, you know, obviously when you tackle, you're not supposed to lead with your head. I tried to get my head out of it but when I hit him, I just, I couldn't really grab him and I kind of fell down. My head was just ringing. So, I went to the health center they said fortunately I didn't have one, but I was really, really close and then last year I was in practice like I said with the whiplash. We were in a drill and I got hit in the chest by someone else and my head flung back and my head was hurting for the rest of the practice. So, I went to go sit down and I tried not to try to just walk it off and went to go sit in my room and it took a dorm parent on my floor to be like, hey, you have to go to the health center. I knew something was wrong and I was nervous. I was scared. I was upset and I didn't want to have to tell my parents because I knew it was a concussion. I didn't want to have to tell them. And you know, once you go and they diagnose you, they tell your parents even if I don't. So they were going to find out and when they let me call my mom for the first time she was, you know, I could tell she was upset, she was trying to stay calm because she wanted me to be okay. But she was really upset and I knew my dad was going to feel the same because he had a few concussions when he was growing up and he dealt with them. He played soccer, he dealt with injuries a few times, so he knows what it's like. So they were really nervous about it and I really wanted to just, I don't know, I didn't want to quit, but I didn't want to tell them that I was dealing with these concussions left and right. So it was kind of nuts.
Host: So, who initially broached the subject about actually quitting football?
Guest: I knew that it was going to be a topic of discussion because I knew last year after, I almost had, when my mom and dad told me, look, you can keep going, but we're nervous and once you get another one, we're going to have to talk about it. So I was really nervous when I had to go home and talk to them about it. It took me a couple of days of just, you know... because I had to recover from it. I just have to sit there And I had to think about talking to them and that was even worse. I think it was like 2-3 days of just thinking of all the scenarios of what's going to happen, thinking about what I'm going to say, what they're going to say, how they're going to react. I'm going to react and I didn't really know there were millions of things going through my head when I'm not supposed to be thinking of anything. So once I, once I felt okay and we sat down at the dining room table, I forget how it was initiated, but I felt really upset and they saw I was upset and they were like, look, we don't want to do this, but we think you should maybe take a break and I was upset. I didn't say yes right away, but I think after thinking about it and talking with some of my coaches and my friends and teammates that it was the right decision. So it wasn't that they made me and it wasn't that I wanted to. So right away, it was kind of a combination. I realized that it would be better for me in the future. I know like CTE and dementia are [results] of even more severe concussions and I didn't want it to get to that point. My mom's dad has dementia, so it's been pretty tough on my grandma and my mom just to kind of deal with that. He was like perfectly fine a couple of years ago and he still is physically healthy. It's just that dementia makes it very tough. So we know how tough it is firsthand and I didn't want to get it, I don't want it to get to that point ever. And I knew that my family would be hurt by it and it would hurt them physically and mentally.
Host: For you to have the wisdom at the stage to know that, to think about how your parents would react and looking down the road at your life. That, I mean, that's really admirable.
Guest: Yeah, my parents and my coaches in high school and also in middle school. They did a very good job of explaining what a concussion was and what can happen if you get one, what the consequences are.
Host: Were you educated in school about it too?
Guest: Yeah, my middle school did a very good job talking about it, even though even at a young age when I started playing football, they always would read to us very seriously what the concussion was, what the consequences were, why it could happen, how it happens. So, I knew about it early on and I stayed healthy and in middle school, I don't think I ever got a real injury, didn't get a concussion, didn't break any bones or anything. So I felt pretty good going into high school, I thought I was kind of invincible. Not invincible but you know what I mean. I felt pretty good. I mean, most kids had broken something, or torn something, or gotten a concussion and I hadn't, So I felt good about myself and you know, the first football season I got my first diagnosed concussions. It was like, all right. It's a setback. It's nothing huge. And I was, you know, pretty close to getting another one the next season. It's like alright, I’ve got to realize what's going on. And I got a third one. You know, if this is going to happen every year, I got to stop.
Host: Was your coach supportive?
Guest: Yeah, absolutely! My head coach and the other assistant coaches are very great. And the great thing about my school is that my coaches are also teachers or admissions officers. So they work at the school. So they're not just my coach there, you know, advisors, their friends, they are you know, like kind of like parents. Like they're all, they're all there for me. So that was really nice of them and I really appreciate it. They made sure that I was going to be okay. They made sure that they cared for me and that they would be there for me. So they made sure that no matter what my decision was, they'd be there. You know, they wouldn't offer, they wouldn't tell me what to do because they wanted it to be my decision, but they offered advice saying, look, it sucks. It happens. You know ultimately it's up to you, but look out for your health. So I did that. I looked out for my health and I ended up stopping.
Host: Yeah, that's amazing for a coach and people that you really respect to tell you that because I'm sure there are some people out there who have hotheaded coaches who are like pushing you to get back on the field and you know, oh, you're fine, that kind of thing. Which used to be one of the bigger mentalities and obviously the culture has changed, which is wonderful. But it also shows...how early education on this subject can really make a difference. You know you said you learned it back in middle school. So as you were approaching high school and getting into these contact sports, all that knowledge was like, oh, these really bad things can happen, and here I am faced with it.
Guest: I'm very thankful for that. They did a great job. I'm very happy and once I came back for a reunion once and I had to tell my old coaches what happened and they, you know, obviously we're upset, but I told them that, like, hey, you guys were the ones that help me out here, if not for you, I might have kept going and might have hurt myself even more, which would have been permanent. So, I'm very thankful for that and I think everyone should have the ability to learn that at a young as young age as possible because it doesn't matter, the sport doesn't even matter if it is a sport, you can get a concussion anyway possible. So I think everyone should know what it is, why it's so serious, why it's different from any other part of your body, you know how to, how to prevent it and how to get past it.
Host: Yes, that's one of the awesome things about ThinkFirst, right, exactly what we want to do, is educate our youth about injury prevention. What have you done to stay connected to the team since? Are you involved? It was like cut it off, cold turkey?
Guest: So the season ran from September to about November, Thanksgiving time. After it happened, it was very early in the season, it was only the third week into it, we only played one game. The rest of the season was left and I wasn't really sure what to do. I came out to my coach with ideas and he told me he'd be glad to welcome me back whether it was as a player or not, but I told him, I might take a break from being a player for now and he offered to let me stay, he knew how passionate I was about football. Not even just playing it, just kind of studying it and coaching it and learning about it. So he offered to let me stay as kind of an assistant coach to help out with like the freshman on the JV team and also to help out with keeping statistics from the teams, like tracking the stats of the players from each game, tracking the game stats, what would help the team that doesn't help the team, which I thought was really cool, that's kind of what I want to do when I'm older.
Host: I was going to ask you if you had like career goals to be a football player or like where your mind was as a freshman going in. Yeah, obviously you know growing up the dream is to you know play in the NFL, be a superstar, you know, Hall of Famer and all that and then I realized, you know, that's extremely hard to do so I might tone it down a little but you know once this all happened I realized that you know playing football doesn't last forever and if I wanted to stay connected I had to find other ways to do it. So I kind of researched more into like coaching and management styles, I'm a big Giants fan and they haven't done that great, so I always come up with ways to kind of fix the team myself because I feel like I would do it better, but that's the goal. I want to work in the NFL. I want to be either a coach or work as a general manager or a scout or something like that. I love scouting, I love coaching, I like tracking the numbers as I mentioned, so I think all of that is really awesome. I had to say what I want to do when I'm older it's just finding a way to stay connected and work in the NFL, that would be great.
Host: So it's very unique because, you know, you, you weren't just a high school athlete you actually do want to move towards, like the NFL and college football and all that.
Host: So this was a huge decision for you to make to actually quit playing.
Guest: Yes, and I think another reason why it helped was, you know, obviously the keeping my head safe, but also it would help me to, to move away from playing and kind of transition into what I want to do when I'm older and I feel like, you know, it's kind of hard to figure out what you want to do, but I'm pretty sure I know what I want to do. I think now that I know and I'm still pretty young, I'm a junior in high school, but I think now that I know I can kind of work towards it and, you know, they don't teach like sports management in high school, it's more of a college thing, so it's kind of hard for me to do it in school. But you know, when I have free time, I'll watch a YouTube video and I'll just learn. I got some pretty great advice from a former NFL GM saying at your age, just like pretend you're like a sponge, just like soak in all the information as possible. And I've kind of lived by that. I like, you know, watching videos, reading books, reading articles, stuff like that anything related to football.
Host: It really sounds like you use your brain.
Guest: Yes, like we said that the brain support and you got to use it for this stuff, so keeping it protected.
Host: Well I love that you're trying to come on board with ThinkFirst and be a part of our program as well and go out and serve the community and tell your story and try to make a change, you know, be that advocate for, for people who are probably on concussion number two or three as well and sort of want to keep playing hard and you've got to promote that. You know, it's not all about that, it's about being smart, honestly. What made you want to do more with your story?
Guest: Yeah, I saw that, as you said, a lot of kids don't have this information available to them and it's kind of looked over because, you know, breaking a bone or tearing a ligament is more painful and I feel like we sometimes associate pain with severity and a concussion might not be that painful right away. Like I said, it took me a few days or a week to get over mine and that's kind of it. And once there early on they don't really last that long, the more you have, I think the easier they are to get and the more severe they can be. So, you know, I think kids don't really realize that concussions are a very severe injury to have even though it might not seem like it. And I want kids to know that because when I would tell kids why I tell my friends and classmates and other people why I stopped, they'd be like, oh, you only have three concussions, that's not that many. I'm like, well, yeah, it's like, look, it might not seem like that much, but it's, it's a lot and it can really hurt you for a long time, for the rest of your life. So I feel like a lot of people don't know that even in my school, which is a very good school, I'm very proud of where I am, but some people don't understand how severe it is and I feel like there are so many kids now that are just looking over it because of a coach or a parent or a family member that just wants them to keep going and kind of ignore it. And I think everyone should know the implications of what a concussion is and what it can do to you.
Host: Yes. And, what made you come across ThinkFirst? How did you find us basically because you sought me out! Which is awesome.
Guest: When I had that concussion, I was, I was down for a while. I was really upset, really angry at myself, at my teammates and everybody and you know, I was kind of struggling in school for a little. My mom wanted to get me, you know, up again. And so she kind of sought out, things like ThinkFirst. She found things first and she mentioned you to me and I was like, well I might as well reach out. I mean I might, you know, try to help kids if I can't do anything anymore. I might try to help others that still can do it. And every time I do that, look at my brother for example, you know, he wants to play now. He wants to, he said carry on the tradition. I'm like Jeff, I've played for like five years, it hasn't been that long, but he's, he's 14, he's a freshman. So obviously I'm a little nervous for him. My parents - my mom is very nervous. She doesn't want him to, but he somehow convinced her. So, you know, I'm happy he did. I'm happy he gets a shot.
Host: Your poor parents.
Guest: Yeah, but you know, I look at him for motivation. I mean, usually, it's, I feel like the younger brother looking at the older brother for something, But I'm looking at him, I mean he's a really awesome kid and he wants to learn and he wants to play. So I look at him and I know there are so many others like him that want to play, but they also, if they're playing, that's great. But they also got to know what can happen and so they have to know, you know about the concussions, about everything else. It is very important they know.
Host: What we teach too is that we're not saying don't play sports were just saying be smart about playing sports. You know your sport, know what equipment is best for, know how to handle yourself on the field and if something happens, report it don't hide it. Reach out to your coaches, and your parents because like you said, it's not just a head injury, it's a lifelong injury, you know, and can be sustained through all those symptoms you talked about, which is really scary. So what do you think you'd say to a high school football player, maybe even a middle schooler who has to make that similar decision that you've had to make.
Guest: That’s a big question. You know, obviously, it's, it's a very tough discussion to have, you know, being the person to say, look, it might be smart to stop for at least a little or, or forever, you know, especially that, that sport activity means something like football did to me and then everything to me and you know, having someone telling me I should stop was like, all right, that's ridiculous I'm not going to listen to you. And that makes sense. I mean I understand why someone would feel like that. I felt like that, but I feel like, you know, once you look at it from, you know, the concussion perspective and how much it can do to you and if you see what it does to you like you see in the NFL, these people get CTE and they do terrible things to themselves. It's like, look, do you really want to do this to yourself? Like, you know, for a few years of the sport? And I know it's great, but it can do things to you for the rest of your life and it's just not worth it. You know, you can do other things, you can protect your brain doing other activities and it's a really tough thing to say. But if it's worth it in the long run, then it's worth it in the short run as well.
Host: That's excellent advice. And I know you're not a parent yet, but if there's parents out there listening to this as well, what kind of things would you say to the parent who's trying to help their child make this decision of, you know, do I continue on with these sports despite concussions? How do I help my child see the risks of this?
Guest: Yeah, I think the biggest thing is just honesty, I think you've got to be, you know, straight up with them and say, look, it's a terrible thing that concussions are such an awful thing that can happen, but it's just what it is. So I think, you know, showing your child like pieces of evidence, articles, videos, stuff about, you know, maybe their favorite players that are getting these concussions and seeing what it does to them. I mean, I think a real life example as much as it might sound pretty awful I think it's just how it works. I think you have to show them what it can do and what the risks are and how it might be helpful to just, you know, maybe take a break or change what you're doing. So it's that advice to watch videos too and see things. I always reference in my school presentations, the movie “Concussions” with Will Smith which is a true depiction of how multiple head traumas can impact your life for sure. So those are very powerful messages.
Host: Thank you, Matthew! You can find more information too on concussions and ways to prevent them at ThinkFirst.org. Or you can look at the Gaylord website and search ThinkFirst and we have posted some things about concussion prevention as well. Thank you so much again for coming in, Matt.
Guest: Of course, thank you for having me. I love talking about this stuff as much as it hurts sometimes. It's good for everyone else to know.
Host: Oh, absolutely. This is the best way to share information to get it out there. All right, well, thank you.
Guest: Of course, thanks for having me.
Thank you for tuning into the Gaylord Specialty Healthcare podcast. We hope that you will join us again to hear more stories that bring hope, insight, and a message of belief that life after a traumatic injury or illness is possible.