How Playing Football Almost Caused This Boy to Become Paralyzed

This 11-year-old’s brain injury completely rattled one devout gridiron family.

Mike and Brogan CallaghanJake Chessum for Reader's Digest

It was a crisp Sunday afternoon in Missoula, Montana, and Mike Callaghan stood in the blustery sunshine doing the thing he loved best: coaching his 11-year-old son Brogan’s football team. Brogan Callaghan was the Panthers’ 2015 season quarterback, but he was the kind of football prodigy who also played defense—linebacker, in fact, a position his father had once played with the Montana State University Bobcats over in Bozeman.

The game against the Chargers was in the second quarter. Brogan had just thrown a touchdown to tie the score at 14 and then quickly switched over to defense. As the opposing team’s offense lined up, Mike noticed their running back go into motion early. “Sweep!” Mike yelled from the sidelines, but Brogan was already on it, slipping right around a big offensive tackle. Brogan was just about to take down the runner when he was slammed from behind—an illegal hit that flexed his spine, snapped his head forward, and sent him colliding into one of his own teammates. He went down hard, banging the back of his head into the dirt.

Mike went straight for the referee, screaming that this was the second time that player had made the same illegal block.

“That’s twice,” Mike yelled. “You’ve got to call that.”

But another Panthers coach, Eric Dawald, noticed something more alarming: Brogan wasn’t getting up. Dawald rushed onto the field and found the boy on his back, barely conscious. Brogan opened his eyes and looked up. “I can’t see,” he said.

Brogan’s mother, Shannon Callaghan, was chatting with friends in the bleachers when she heard somebody say, “I think that’s Brogan.” She ran to the field, reaching her son at the same time her husband did.

Brogan looked up at his parents. “I can’t feel my legs,” he said. An ambulance drove onto the grass, and a paramedic removed the face mask from Brogan’s helmet. They asked him what day it was, and Brogan answered incorrectly. They asked his birthday, and he didn’t know that either.

Some of his teammates were crying as the paramedics strapped their quarterback to a backboard, placed an oxygen mask over his face, and loaded him into the ambulance. Shannon climbed in, and they sped the boy across the Clark Fork River to St. Patrick Hospital.

Mike drove separately, his mind racing through worst-case scenarios: We’ll buy a one-level house. I’ll change jobs so I can be home more, learn to care for a paraplegic child. Another thought intruded: I was the coach. This happened on my watch. How did I do this to my kid?

While the emergency room doctors evaluated Brogan, Shannon’s and Mike’s parents arrived at the hospital. After filling them in about Brogan’s condition, Shannon turned to Mike’s father. James Callaghan was an oral surgeon who had played football in college and loved watching his grandson play as much as he had loved watching Mike. In fact, in all of Mike’s years of playing youth football, his father had missed just one game, when Mike was in the sixth grade. “I don’t ever want Brogan to play football again,” Shannon told her father-in-law. “And you have to back me up on this.” James told her it was none of his business.

Finally settled at the emergency room, Brogan looked at his father and asked, “Am I paralyzed?”

I think you are, Mike thought. “You’re going to be all right,” he said. He watched a tear roll down his son’s cheek and thought, He knows.

Brogan looked up at Mike and said, “Who are you?”

For years, many doctors believed that children were less likely than adults to suffer serious head injuries in football, for the simple reason that they weigh less and run more slowly than adults do. Now it’s well understood that until about age 14, a kid’s head is much larger than an adult’s compared with his or her body, yet the neck is weaker, which means the head bounces around more in response to collisions. Researchers at Virginia Tech found that seven-year-old football players experienced head blows comparable in force to the impacts suffered by college players.

Mike and Broghan playing footballCourtesy Mike Callaghan (2)
Two generations of athletes: Brogan at age 11 (left); Mike playing for Montana State University in the early ’80s

To make matters worse, the nerve fibers in children’s brains are not yet coated with the protective sheathing known as myelin. As a result, “it’s easier to tear apart neurons and their connections in children at lower impact,” says Robert Cantu, MD, the author of Concussions and Our Kids and a leading researcher of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the brain-wasting disease that has been diagnosed in more than 100 deceased NFL players. The threat to emerging neural connections is particularly problematic between the ages of 10 and 12, when the brain circuitry that helps shape personality is being developed. “If you injure your brain during that time,” Dr. Cantu says, “there is a high likelihood that you will not reach your maximal genetic endowment intellectually, and you’ll perhaps not have the same personality with regard to depression, anxiety, and panic attacks.”

Brogan’s doctors were unsure about the cause of his paralysis, but they agreed that he had suffered a traumatic brain injury. Fortunately, by the evening, Brogan could move his legs, sit up in bed, and walk across the room. The following morning, Mike woke up feeling optimistic. Then a doctor arrived and asked Brogan his name. Brogan got his first name right but couldn’t remember his last name—or why he was in the hospital. Still, after a two-day stay, he was well enough to go home. Don’t miss these 7 concussion symptoms you should never ignore.

A week later, when the family returned to the hospital for a follow-up visit, Mike found himself unexpectedly relieved when the doctor said that Brogan would have to sit out the rest of the football season. “I remember being thankful that the doctor told him so I wouldn’t have to,” Mike says. “I was sort of off the hook.”

Missing a single season was one thing. Still, the idea that Brogan might never play again—clearly what Shannon wanted—was nearly impossible for Mike to contemplate. For one thing, Brogan loved the game and had the makings of a real standout. What’s more, the sport had been central to Mike’s life for as long as he could remember. He started as a fifth grader in the Little Grizzly league; his coach from those days remained one of his closest confidants. Among his dearest friends were teammates from Hellgate High and Montana State. During Mike’s junior year, in 1984, the MSU Bobcats won the NCAA Division I-AA national ­championship—­a feat Montana football fans still talk about.

Of course, football ends hard: You wake up one day and it’s over. Nobody plays tackle ball in middle age. Mike took up coaching at 31, even though he had no kids of his own. He started with his nephew’s team of fifth and sixth graders. Soon a few of his old football buddies, including Eric Dawald, came to help. They loved having a reason to hang out after work, teaching the fundamentals and feeling that old excitement on game days. When one of the group had a son, the others promised to keep coaching as long as the kid played, a pact that soon extended to every son any of them might ever have. Boys they’d coached went on to play at local high schools, the University of Montana, Montana State, and even the pros.

Jake Chessum for Reader's Digest
Brogan and his mom, Shannon, grab a bite to eat after school.

Mike had mostly given up on having children of his own when, at age 40, he met and married Shannon. An interior architect and former competitive swimmer, Shannon had grown up in rural Havre, Montana, with a pair of football-obsessed brothers. She loved the way Mike welcomed Griffin, her nine-year-old son from a previous marriage, onto his team. When Brogan was born, in 2003, Mike insisted his buddies renew their vow to keep coaching.

Brogan started playing flag football in the fourth grade, in 2013. By that time, the relationship between football and brain trauma was well established. Three years earlier, a Missoula kid named Dylan Steigers, who’d started out in local youth leagues, went off to play at Eastern Oregon University and took a big hit in a scrimmage. He died the next day.
Shannon, meanwhile, had been getting warnings from her older brother, Scott Brown, a former high school running back and now an anesthesiologist and pain specialist in Portland, Oregon. “I’d see these 40-year-olds coming in just maimed, having these big surgeries from playing football in high school, college, the pros,” he says. Brown became convinced that letting a kid play tackle football was akin to child abuse. He implored his siblings to keep their kids off the field. Find out when you must go to the ER after a head injury.

But Shannon felt trapped—nobody could tell her husband what to think about football. Most of the CTE research, Mike argued, had been done on the brains of former players known to have problems. He had attended one of USA Football’s Heads Up Football clinics, where he’d been schooled in the latest safe-tackling techniques. And he would never consider letting a concussed kid play before a complete recovery.

Three weeks after his injury, Brogan was cleared to go back to school, but he could last only an hour or so a day. He sometimes flew into sudden, inexplicable rages, and Shannon mostly stopped working to care for him. Mike spent his days at the office and continued to coach the Panthers in the evening. He coached out of a sense of obligation, both to his fellow coaches and to the players. But now it felt different: He watched every tackle with anxiety, waiting for the child to get up and walk it off.

Broghan throwing footballJake Chessum for Reader's Digest

Both of Shannon’s brothers, meanwhile, were relentless. Howard Brown sent his sister one news article after another about kids such as Evan Murray, a 17-year-old New Jersey quarterback; Ben Hamm, a 16-year-old linebacker from Bartlesville, Oklahoma; and 17-year-old Kenney Bui from the Seattle suburbs, all of whom died within a month of one another early that fall. All told, 17 kids died playing football that season.

One night, Shannon tried to share these stories with her husband. “We are not talking about this,” he said.

It wasn’t until seven weeks after the injury that Brogan was able to form new memories. He started neurological rehab therapy and scored terribly on cognitive tests, which included closing his eyes and touching his nose. Math worksheets that would have taken five minutes before the injury now took an hour and left Brogan exhausted. Riding on a stationary bicycle gave him a headache.

In February, Mike and Brogan sat on the couch to watch the Super Bowl. Shannon overheard Brogan begin a sentence with the phrase, “When I play in the NFL …”

“That’s not going to happen,” Shannon said.

Later she heard her husband tell Brogan, “But when you play in high school …”

“It’s not going to happen,” she said.

“We don’t have to decide this now,” Mike replied.

Later still, Brogan asked his mom, “Why won’t you let me play?”

“Because God gave you that big brain so you can do something amazing in this world.”

“He also made me a good football player,” Brogan said.

“But that can’t be your future.”

Mike turned to Shannon. “But what about his dream?”

Shannon thought, Whose dream is it?

But Mike could not let go of football. He thought about all the things he wanted his son to experience: the friendships, the teamwork, the victories.

And despite their differences, Shannon understood. “Mike wants his kid to be a football star,” she says. “And Brogan would be the star. He’s a leader and damn good, and everyone looks up to him.”

Mike struggled to imagine what his own life would be like without football. What would he do on weeknights and Sunday mornings in the fall? When would he see his friends? Who would he be? “Every time I thought about it, my mind just went blank,” he says.

In August, Mike got a call from officials at Missoula Youth Football: Did he plan to coach the next season? After months of agonizing, almost entirely to himself, he’d finally made a decision. “Brogan’s not going to play, and I’m not going to coach,” he said.

Mike couldn’t bear to think of it as a permanent decision, telling his son that it was only for the one season. But Brogan was unconvinced. “You know it’s forever,” he said. “Mom’s never going to let me play again.”

Mike and Brogan still watch football together—high school games on Fridays, Montana State on Saturdays, and their former team on Sunday afternoons. “It’s kind of hard because I’m not playing,” Brogan says. “I think about what I would do against the teams when I watch.” He has hurled himself into basketball and started taking tennis lessons. Brogan admits that he hasn’t yet fully recovered. Schoolwork doesn’t come as easily as it once did, but Shannon isn’t worried. “Brogan missed 234 classes in the sixth grade,” she says, “and he finished with three A-pluses and three As.” Now, instead of going to Stanford University to play football, he wants to go to the University of California, Berkeley, to study architecture—his mother’s passion.

Mike says he often thinks back to a day a few weeks after Brogan’s injury. League officials asked how he wanted to handle that fateful, unfinished game. “A big part of me was, ‘I don’t want to handle it,’” Mike says. But the kids cared about completing the game, and Mike felt it would have been selfish to refuse.

That meant bringing the teams back to the field behind the county fairgrounds. The Panthers and the Chargers lined up exactly where they’d been the moment Brogan was injured—but with Brogan now on the sidelines with his father. The referee set the game clock to where it had stopped and blew the whistle, and they played the remainder of the game. The Panthers lost. For the first time in his life, Mike didn’t care. Now, learn the surprising things about your brain you probably didn’t know.

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