Love, Zac: Small-Town Football and the Life and Death of an American Boy, Reid Forgrave. Chapel Hill: Algonquin, 2020.
Summary: The account of Zac Easter, who grew up in the football culture of small town Iowa and his family, played hard, until he began to experience the consequences of repeated concussions, when his life began to unravel.
Zac Easter grew up in small town Iowa in a football family. His father Myles was a player, college and high school coach at his high school. Both his brothers played. Small for his position, he made up for size with intensity. Hit after hit, using his head as a weapon to make up for his size. Hit after hit. Getting his “bell rung” many times. A final concussion and an alert trainer ended his athletic career in his senior year. Sadly, by then the damage was done.
Chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE. Zac didn’t know what to call it then. He had problems with short-term memory, impulse control, headaches, and focusing his attention. Things didn’t get better. In fact, additional concussions during a stint in the National Guard compounded the problems.
Reid Forgrave renders a sobering account of Zac’s downward spiral from a happy-go-lucky team captain to the abuse of drugs and alcohol in an attempt to self-medicate, alternating with attempts to get his life back on track, with the support of his family and girlfriend Ali Epperson. It was a spiral that ended one night at his favorite lake, as he took his own life.
Forgrave sets this against the backdrop of the American ideals of football, in which masculinity equates with the physical toughness that shakes off injury and pain, including a few “dings” to the head. Every player has them and carries the wounds of battle with aching knees and other injuries. “Playing hurt” is what “real” men do. Only sissies take the bench.
It’s one thing when it results in a gimpy leg. Then came Mike Webster and Junior Seau and a Pittsburgh researcher working with brain tissue of players who had died early, some by suicide, identified brain plaques that were the sign of something with the ominous name of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. This was the result of the brain’s attempt to heal itself from repeated concussive injuries.
Zac learned of this research and began to suspect that this is what had happened to him, and was going on inside of his brain. He visits a number of doctors, but none really can make him better. Somehow, he finishes college and works for a time with his brother.
Forgrave chronicles the struggle through Zac’s journals and texts. From one entry:
“Working out was my only escape when I realized something was off with me from the concussions. For years, working out has been the only thing that actually made me feel human again and made me feel less depressed. The only way I knew how to handle my depression and feel good inside was by my one my faith in god [sic], listening to music, lifting, and running. Many people just thought that I was super motivated and determined to be army special forces, but in reality I kept up the super muscle image to look tough on the outside when I was really crying everyday on the inside….It’s hard to hold back tears even now when I think about the times I was feeling so down from depression that I loaded up my .22 rifle or shotgun and put it to my head…”Zac Easter
Zac’s words are supplemented by the author’s interviews with family, coaches, trainer, and girlfriend. A common theme that runs through all these accounts is an ambivalence toward football. These are people who love their football and even think it a positive influence on young men. And it took Zac from them.
This ambivalence is set against a growing national ambivalence from the numbers of former players afflicted with CTE. On the one hand is reforms to rules on kickoffs and tackling to attempt to take the head out of the game. Each year new helmets come out and concussion protocols are thoroughly implemented. On the other hand is the evidence that even sub-concussive injuries may be causing damage, and players endure hundreds of those. Even when you take the unnecessary roughness out of the game, there is the necessary roughness, without which you would have a game of a different character.
I grew up watching the Saturday night fights on TV when boxing was a big deal, and the epic matches with Ali, Frazer, and Foreman. Ray Mancini grew up in my home town, went to my wife’s high school. When he knocked out Duk-koo Kim in the 14th round of a match, resulting in a fatal brain injury to Kim, Mancini’s life changed, and so did boxing. Forgrave raises the same questions about football. Despite its place in our culture, is it time to ask if our entertainment and the values the game purports to teach are worth the destructive effects on men’s bodies, even if they willing accept them? Men like Zac.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer Program. The opinions I have expressed are my own.
[Note: Contains coarse language and explicit material.]