Monday, May 14, 2012

So long y’all: My farewell to Coastal Georgia

Spanish moss-draped live oaks in one of Savannah's famous squares
 (my last column for The Frontline)

When I moved to Savannah nearly five years ago, I was expecting to find a black hole of sports. I moved to Georgia from the Washington, DC, area, where Redskins football, Capitals hockey and Nationals baseball ruled the airways and going to the stadium or arena was a common occurrence. Before that, I’d spent my life in and around Boston, growing up at Fenway Park and living and breathing the Patriots, Bruins and Celtics. So Savannah, while a lovely town, was an anomaly to a major sports fan – who did the people in Savannah even follow, the Braves and the Falcons? Really, Savannah is much closer to Jacksonville, so I wondered if it was a town of Jaguars fans – if a town of Jaguars fans even exists?

When I first arrived and made my way down River Street, around Forsyth Park and to Fort Stewart and Hunter Army Airfield, I quickly realized that I was deep in Southeastern Conference country. In fact, early on I learned that THE Georgia Bulldog, Uga himself, was a fellow Savannahian. My goal soon became to meet the pride of the University of Georgia in person, as I heard his caretakers took him on daily jaunts around Forsyth. Alas, four-plus years later, the closest I’ve ever come to the revered pooch is watching him on TV. But every time I go to Forsyth, my eyes are peeled for the gorgeous four-legged creature.
At Grayson Stadium watching a Sand Gnats game with my then-two month old (never too young for sports!)

While there aren’t any major professional sports in town, I quickly came to appreciate the “small townness” of Savannah Sand Gnats games – I mean, what major sports team has “Thirsty Thursdays” where you get two drinks for the price of one? I reveled in sitting in Historic Grayson Stadium with locals and fellow transplants, watching the “maybe” stars of tomorrow on a warm summer night under the "Big Ass Fans" (the actual name), all for a $5 ticket. And where else can you watch a game live, have a drink (or two on Thursdays) and dinner for less than $15?

Once I looked below the surface, I found so many other sports around Savannah to love, from the annual St. Patrick’s Day Rugby tournament at Forsyth Park, to the annual run over the Tallmadge Bridge, to the Rock and Roll Marathon that made its debut last November, and even the annual “Weiner Dog Races” on River Street during Oktoberfest. All of these events are uniquely Savannah, along with Spanish moss draped live oaks, Paula Deen and Southern hospitality.

Savannah's Tallmadge Bridge
As I venture to leave this town I’ve fallen in love with, I look back on my time in Coastal Georgia to see how much I’ve learned and grown here. Savannah is the first place my family called home – it’s where I met and married my husband and where my daughter was born; it’s where I met some of the most wonderful people I have had the privilege to know, from neighbors and coworkers to those I met around Fort Stewart, Hunter Army Airfield and Savannah; it’s a town and a community that has truly captured my heart.

I will miss Fort Stewart and Hunter Army Airfield and I will deeply miss working for the Army; I will miss the historic district, the true Southern hospitality and the frequent references to “the book”; I will miss the Savannah Sand Gnats, but not the pesky sand gnats; but most of all, I will miss the people that make this charming town so exquisite.

Savannah's (in)famous River Street
So in a couple of weeks, when I hop in my Jeep and head down the road to Atlanta, I will leave a small piece of my  heart in this lovely, sleepy town that I will always call “home.”

But at least I’ll have the Braves, Falcons and Hawks.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Seau’s death brings concussion talk to forefront of sports discussion

Tiaina Baul "Junior" Seau Jr.
January 19, 1969 – May 2, 2012

Last week’s untimely passing of legendary linebacker Junior Seau brings up a sad reality of the National Football League – the short lifespan of its athletes.

Seau is the latest in a long list of professional football players dead before their time. The story this seems to weave is that, whether we like to admit it or not, all of the hits take their toll. Football players as a whole suffer more concussions than other athletes, which have been found to lead to brain damage.  The popular belief is the brain damage can lead to depression, which results in former players not taking care of themselves. In extreme cases like Seau’s, suicide can occur; but even outcomes such as former athletes just not watching their weight anymore (many die of heart attacks) or taking unnecessary risks (many die in accidents, as well) fall into the same category. I believe the correlation is undeniable.

Seau’s family is thinking about allowing scientists to study his brain to see if he suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which is a progressive degenerative disease, diagnosed post-mortemin individuals with a history of multiple concussions and other forms of head injury. Individuals with CTE may show symptoms of dementia, such as memory loss, aggression, confusion and/or depression, which may appear within months of the trauma or many decades later. The way he killed himself – a shot to the chest – seems to indicate he wanted his head intact. Many have drawn the conclusion that he wanted his brain studied, like Dave Duerson, the former Bears player who shot himself in the chest to save his brain. Duerson’s intent was undeniable – he left notes and sent text messages indicating he wanted his brain to be donated to Boston University's Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy. Seau didn’t leave a note, but the manner of his suicide is eerily like Duerson’s and one would be na├»ve to think Seau didn’t know the message he was sending.

Duerson and Seau are not the only retired NFL players to kill themselves and the results are startling. The list of former players whose brains tested positive for dementia in examinations following suicides or reckless deaths include Terry Long, Tom McHale, Justin Strzelczyk and former Atlanta Falcons safety Ray Easterling who shot himself in April shortly after joining a lawsuit against the NFL.

In recent years, more than 1,500 players have sued the NFL, believing that the league hid the link between repeated concussions associated with football and brain damage. In the most recent lawsuit filed in Atlanta, more than 100 players, including former Falcons running back Jamal Anderson and Easterling, alleged the NFL "repeatedly refuted the connection between concussions and brain injury."

And that is where Roger Goodell comes in; while his suspensions for bounties and illegal hits may seem harsh, he is doing it to protect the game. As more and more studies prove the correlation between concussions and brain injury, the game must change because the players won’t. The innate nature of those few men who become professional football players will never change; they won’t idly sit back and let doctors tell them they can’t play after a concussion, it is in their nature – which got them to the NFL level – to push their bodies to the limit and not think about consequences. So therefore, the commissioner has no choice but to change the way the game is monitored for the safety of players and the good of the game.

There may be a link between Seau’s death and repeated concussions leading to lasting brain injury, or he might have killed himself because of many other personal reasons. Unfortunately we’ll never know his personal reason for this tragic ending, so we have conversations about what we think triggered his demise.