Blake Lawrence is one of 300,000 NCAA athletes that suffered a concussion in 2008 as a result of their athletic participation. A recent study shows that nearly 10 percent of college football players will suffer a concussion at some point in their college career.
Here is the story of how Blake went from a concussion-free starting player for the number one defense in college football to making the difficult decision to end his football career after receiving four concussions in 18 months.
Spring 2008. Lincoln, Nebraska. The lights of Hawkes Field shine down on the Huskers. Adrenaline pumps. Intensity is high. Linebacker Blake Lawrence, looking to prove himself a starter for this upcoming football season, looks out from the huddle and awaits the play. Lawrence lines up on the 20 yard line. His black cleats grinding into the fresh white yard markers.
"Hike." After a quick toss from the quarterback, Lawrence sees an opportunity to crush the running back Marcus Mendoza in the open backfield. The two collide head on and Lawrence smashes his white helmet into the ground after impact.
"Nice hit, baby!," middle linebacker Colton Koehler yelled. Lawrence jumps up in excitement and heads back into the huddle for the next play of the scrimmage. But something isn't right. Lawrence looks around at his fellow teammates but can't remember their names. "What's wrong?," he wonders.
"Watch the run," says Koehler. But Lawrence can't recall the plays. He is in a state of confusion. His mind blanks. "Where do I go?," Lawrence thought to himself. He remembers he has to lineup across from the running back, but that is all. He stands on the white line across from Mendoza. The next two plays blur together. Lawrence did not follow his assignments or align himself properly.
Koehler knows something is up. "What's wrong with you, Blake?" asks Koehler. Lawrence did not know what to tell him. All he knew was he couldn't remember a single play. The linebacker coach Mike Ekeler knew something was wrong and took Lawrence to have tests.
Fall 2008. Kansas State vs. Nebraska. A big game for Lawrence; his first game as the Blackshirt team captain. He lined up across from the running back assuming his crouched position. As the play started, Lawrence looked and saw a gap. He ran through the line for a huge hit. Following the play, he felt confused. He ran into the huddle and continued to play against his better judgment. The running back crushes through the line right past the dazed Lawrence for a 15 yard run.
"What are you thinking Blake?," Coach Bo Pelini screamed from the sidelines. Lawrence stumbled over to the Husker sideline. "Coach, I'm not thinking. I hit my head again," Lawrence said. Lawrence sat out the second quarter of that game but returned to play every snap of the second half.
His memory of the game is foggy. "My parents said I looked goofy in my post-game interview," Lawrence said.
He finished the last two games of the season injury free and without suffering from second-impact syndrome, a very dangerous brain injury that occurs in 19 percent of athletes who suffer concussions.
Spring 2009. Lawrence suffered his third concussion after colliding with a lineman in practice. Coach Bo Pelini met with Blake to discuss his future with the Huskers. "Blake, if you were my son, I would never let you play football again," Pelini said. These words caught Lawrence off guard. It never occurred to him how dangerous his concussions were. But he wasn't ready to give up football.
Fall 2009. The Husker defense rated number one in the nation. Lawrence elected starter for the Blackshirts. Prior to regular season play, Lawrence set an ultimatum. If he suffered another head injury he would remove himself from football forever. It was drastic, but a decision that needed to be made for his future health. After a losing to Texas Tech, the Monday practice was brutal. During linebacker drills Lawrence paired up with Kevin Thomsen, a big hitter. It was their turn to hit. Lawrence smashed into Thomsen on the left side of his head yet again. His brain was in a familiar state of confusion. The Nebraska linebacker coach, grabbed Lawrence and said, " You got another concussion, didn't you?"
Lawrence shook his head and continued to play. He wanted his coach to be wrong. As practice went on, he realized he had suffered his fourth concussion in 18 months. He stood by himself most of practice and finished with minimal contact. Lawrence had a decision to make. He left practice and went past the head trainer's office on his way to dinner. He got only five steps past the office when he turned around. "I knew I had just taken the steps to end my career forever," Lawrence said.
Lawrence sat down and told his coach he had suffered another concussion. Coach was thankful Lawrence told him and knew it would be a difficult time emotionally for him and his family. Tests confirmed that Lawrence had suffered his fourth concussion. He called his parents and made his final decision to end his football career.
"It all happened so quickly," said Lawrence. Just 18 months prior he was a concussion-free player in a starting position for the number one defense in college football. Now, his playing career was finished. Although he was presented with a difficult decision, it is not one he regrets. "I am proud to say that because I stopped playing football, I feel I preserved my health," Lawrence explains.
Luckily, Lawrence is doing well and has little lasting effects from the concussions. He now speaks to groups all over the country about his experience with head injuries and how his concussions affected his life.
"I have been given a opportunity to make a difference in the football community and beyond. For that I am thankful."
— Story by Paige Dimakos