Haunted by a Player’s Death, a Coach Walks Away From His Sport

The accumulated effect of dozens or hundreds of blows over many years can apparently leave players with many of the same symptoms seen in Alzheimer’s patients. One or two blows in a game, though, can sometimes result in death. Over the last four years, 19 players have died from brain-related injuries in high school football, according to Terry O’Neil, the founder of Practice Like Pros, a group that advocates reducing collisions in youth football.


A jersey worn by Ridge Barden, who died during a football game in 2011 after suffering a fatal blow to the head, is now kept at the home of Charles’s parents

Heather Ainsworth for The New York Times

In the days and months after the game at Homer High, Charles went from rising at 6 a.m. to waking up at 3 or 4 in the morning after having bad dreams and restless nights. He went from cheering on his daughters while they played softball to being nervous that they would hit their head sliding into second base.

“I didn’t want to sound like a quitter, but after my first year back I knew,” Charles said. “I coached 10 ball games and I struggled every 10 weeks. It wasn’t fun. There was more anxiety every week.”

Charles lasted one more season. He said he saw a therapist twice, but wasn’t sure if it helped.

“It affected us because I knew the problems that he was having and I couldn’t help him,” Charles’s wife, Missy, said. “He needed somebody to talk to. I didn’t know what to say to help him.”

To the naked eye, there was nothing unusual about the play six minutes into the third quarter. The hit was not especially violent. Charles, a doctor and two medical technicians were by Barden’s side in seconds. The ambulance was there within minutes.

Charles said he has watched the video countless times searching for answers. One minute, the 235-pound defensive tackle was up and playing and minutes later he was face down and moaning that he thought he hit his head. Two hours later he had died from a cerebral hemorrhage.

Charles put a small container with some of Barden’s ashes on his mantle under a framed No. 70 jersey, got a tattoo on his bicep that memorialized Barden and spent several months lobbying to have the school pay tribute to him. Charles said his proposal to have the school name the field after Barden was rejected, as was a request to name the weight room after him.

Instead, Charles said, the school opted to place outside the coaches’ offices what Charles called, “a puny plaque that makes me mad every time I see it.”


A small plaque honoring Barden was placed near the football field at John C. Birdlebough High School in Phoenix, N.Y.

Heather Ainsworth for The New York Times

Chris Byrne, the school district superintendent, said the school made multiple efforts to honor Barden’s memory.

“There is a scholarship in his name,” Byrne said. “To date, no one has worn his jersey. There is a plaque at the stadium. And I believe they had a moment of silence during when would’ve been his graduation.

“This has been very tough on our community,” Byrne added. “We think about the family. They are always in our thoughts and prayers.”

When the 2012 season ended, Charles took a job as assistant principal at the nearby Fulton High School – which he started before the school year finished. Charles told Barden’s father, Jody, that he wasn’t leaving coaching because of what happened.

“Of course, that was a lie,” Charles said.

Administrators had suggested that he stay with the school and step away from coaching, but he thought it would be too hard to constantly field questions about when he would return to football.

Charles had been the guy who attended a high school game every Friday night and spent all day Saturday watching college football and Sunday watching N.F.L. games with a pack of Miller Lite. In 2013, it was, “If I saw it, I saw it,” he said. He recalled watched one half of a game all year.

As time went on, things got a little bit easier. There were reminders of Barden at Birdlebough and Homer high schools, but Barden’s death faded from the forefront of most people’s minds. There is a small orange plate with “70” on it that hangs in Homer’s weight room, but some students don’t know what it represents.

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