A Yale football player quits to save his brain

Andrew Grinde was not just another football player. As a running back at C.M. Russell High School in Great Falls, Mont., he rushed for 2,180 yards and 20 touchdowns in 2014, leading the Rustlers to the state title game, and was named Montana’s Gatorade Football Player of the Year.

Swift, stocky, powerful and fearless, he outran some defenders and bowled others over. His highlight video is worth watching. Find it at www.hudl.com/profile/2376679/Andrew-Grinde.

With a 4.0 grade-point average, Grinde (rhymes with Lindy) was recruited by Ivy League schools, as well as the University of Montana and Montana State. He headed off to Yale before deciding to take a year off from school and football. His return to the gridiron the next summer merited a story in the Great Falls Tribune. “I miss it, for sure,” he told the reporter. “I love playing.”

Grinde, who goes by Drew, returned to Yale and in his first collegiate game carried the ball four times for 45 yards and a touchdown. But in practice the following week, he had a bruising collision while pass blocking against a 240-pound linebacker.

The next morning in class, another student asked him whether he was drunk. “I was slurring my words,” he told me by phone from New Haven, Conn. He immediately went to the university health clinic and found he’d suffered a concussion.

He sat out for a week and a half, but when he resumed practice, something was wrong. “I got very lightheaded and could barely feel my legs,” he recalls. That was enough. “I cleaned out my locker that night.”

Grinde had been playing tackle football since he was in fifth grade. He had been a high school star. But he could no longer accept the risk to his cognitive function and mental health.

Even before that episode, he had begun to worry. His brother was studying neuroscience at the University of Montana and told him that playing football “was probably the worst thing you could do for yourself as an adolescent.”

He wasn’t deterred, but every time he got hit in practice, he would think about concussions and the cumulative damage he might be doing to his brain. “Playing football wasn’t the same,” he says.

He had cause for concern. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that chronic traumatic encephalopathy, an incurable degenerative brain disease, “is believed to be caused in part by exposure to repetitive head impacts, including concussions as well as subconcussive trauma.” It adds, “The greatest risk factor for CTE is the number of years of exposure to repeated head or brain injuries.”

Football involves exactly that sort of exposure. A Boston University study found CTE in 110 of 111 brains of deceased NFL players. Of the 53 brains from college players who didn’t make the NFL, the disease was detected in 48 of them — 91 percent.

Scientists examined the brains that the Mayo Clinic had preserved from patients with neurodegenerative disorders. CTE was present in 1 in 3 of those who had played contact sports — and none of those who hadn’t.

The NFL resisted the evidence about the effects of the game but eventually had to admit reality. It reached a settlement covering some 20,000 former players, which is expected to cost $1 billion. The NCAA also is facing lawsuits and last summer settled one from a University of Texas player’s widow who sought $1 million.

Grinde spent years meting out and incurring hits to the head. He now has to live with the fear of developing symptoms of CTE.

Last year, I wrote a column arguing that Harvard and Yale, as two of the world’s premier educational institutions, should stop subjecting their undergraduates to the danger of irreversible damage to their excellent brains. Grinde read it recently and emailed to tell me, “This article aligns with what I have been preaching to many of my peers at Yale, both football players and non-players.” That email led to our conversation.

The Ivy League has tried to curb the problem by banning tackling during in-season practices and moving kickoffs from the 35- to the 40-yard line to increase the number of touchbacks. But these changes can’t fix a sport designed to batter brains. Reducing the number of alligators in a lake wouldn’t make it safe for swimming.

Drew Grinde has ensured that one Yale undergraduate won’t be at high risk of brain damage every fall Saturday. Yale could ensure that none are.

By Steve Chapman for the Chicago Tribune

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