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As a football player, Chris Coyne had it all. He stood 6'4" and was a well-sculpted 225 pounds. He rarely came off the field and accomplished great things while on it.
As a defensive end for , Coyne dominated opponents and recorded an incredible 16 sacks during his junior season. But when he arrived on campus of Yale University in the summer of 2011 to start his career with the Bulldogs, Coyne also had something else: an alarming history of concussions.
"I had five concussions in high school and four of them were on my medical record," said Coyne, who was a co-captain at Staples High School and a first team All-FCIAC selection in 2010. "Even before I started playing at Yale, the team doctor took me aside to discuss my record of concussions."
Football was Coyne's passion. It didn't define him, but it was a big part of who he was. He wanted to live out his dream of playing college football despite the warnings from the medical staff at Yale. Two weeks into preseason practice of his freshman year, Coyne's dream went dark.
"The drill was for defensive ends to take on a fullback block," Coyne said. "I had partaken in that drill almost every week at Staples. Unfortunately, our helmets were too low and they collided. I knew pretty quickly that I had sustained another concussion."
Before he turned 19-years old, Coyne had suffered his sixth concussion playing football. That's an alarming number for an NFL veteran, much less an athlete who had yet to play a single game in college. The effects from this concussion were unlike anything he had ever experienced before.
"In the weeks following my final concussion, I dealt with headaches, light headedness, difficulty concentrating and memory issues," he said. "My memory was at a point where I would get up off the couch to get a Gatorade only to forget why I got up. I had memory issues associated with previous concussions, [but] this was the most severe instance and first indicator that this concussion was possibly more severe than the others."
After tests and examinations to measure Coyne's cognitive functions revealed numbers that were well below normal, doctors at Yale Univeristy would not clear his return to the football field and strongly advised Coyne to quit the game.
"I did not agree with the doctor's decision and I was unfazed by my symptoms and mulled over transferring to other programs that had recruited me that would possibly let me play regardless of the injury," Coyne said. "It wasn't until three months after the concussion when my congitive functions had yet to improve that I began to worry about the effects of my head injuries on my future. At this point, I accepted the doctor's advice and gave up on trying to play."
Coyne has read the chilling reports about the mental health problems hundreds of former NFL players deal with after their playing days are over. He knows the may have had something to do with numerous concussions he suffered during his career.
"Seeing players that had experienced as many or even fewer concussions than I had and having their lives plagued by cognitive issues and depression has caused me much anxiety and still worries me to this day," he said.
Concussion prevention and care have become the most talked about issue in the NFL. Nearly 1,500 players have filed a lawsuit against the league for what they felt was negligence when it came to dealing with concussions. Former players Andre Waters and Dave Duerson committed suicide after the effects from concussions became too much to bear.
"Concussions are a huge problem, but progress is being made," Coyne said. "The biggest obstacle in preventing long-term damage from these injuries is the current football culture in which it is frowned upon to miss time for a concussion. As long as toughness is glorified and players feel pressured to play through head injuries, these problems will continue."
Coyne is on mission to make sure they don't. He is speaking to coaches, parents, and children about concussion awareness and prevention. On June 14, Coyne will take the stage during "Concussion Safety Night" at in Westport from 7 to 9 p.m.
"I try to stress the importance of reporting them and treating them immediately. I continued to play through all except two of my concussions, and once even received a second concussion only weeks following the original one," he said. "I truly believe that continuing to play with concussions is the cause of the majority of my lingering cognitive issues. I try to stress to people that concussions can be treated if recognized and reported right away, whereas a failure to do so can cause longstanding health issues."
Coyne also believes that coaches should be more responsible when it comes to the saftey of the players.
"One reason players don't report injuries is because they fear upsetting their coach and losing their starting spot," he said. "If coaches make it clear that safety is the top priority and encourage kids to report head injuries, hopefully youth athletes will feel more comfortable taking time off to heal correctly."