“… for the crowd that hears no screams other than its own.”
— Mark Kram
Start with his eyes. “Paul’s eyes,” Chelsea Oliver says, “instantly drew me in.” Rise from the pinewoods off Hadaway Road in Kennesaw, battle under the fiercest lights of the SEC, land in the NFL — and there’s much to see. Whole worlds. “Laser beams,” Tra Battle, Paul’s teammate with the University of Georgia and the San Diego Chargers remembers. “It’s like his eyes wouldn’t shut,” Chris Burgett, a college teammate says. Coming home late from a road game at Arkansas, Chris once woke to the whole bus snoozing, but there was Paul. Looking out the window. Dreaming in real time.
Maybe the intensity of childhood’s gaze never left him. Growing up with two big brothers, he had to pay attention. “Paul was aware,” Price, the oldest by two years, says. “Had to be,” Patrick adds. “But you could always tell exactly where Paul was at,” Chelsea says “from the look in his eyes.” So see here, now, the wide, bright eyes of Paul Oliver. Remember them. When they close, yours must open.
You end up loving so much, but first you love a voice — We hand it off to Herschel, there’s a hole. 5… 10 … 12 … He’s running over people. Oh you, Herschel Walker! — the gravel-throated, urgency lights you all up.
The voice belongs to Larry Munson from Hennepin County, Minnesota. He served as a medic in the Second World War, played piano for Sinatra. His broadcast voice was cut in Devils Lake, North Dakota.
You’re a child. You know none of this. You don’t know he got his break following Curt Gowdy on KFBC as the play-by-play voice of the Wyoming Cowboys. You’re four years old in 1980. Georgia loses just four games over the next four years. In those seasons and in that voice, you hear in his pronouns (“we,” “us,” “our,” and “them,” “they,” “these people”), a primal claim for home itself.
You’re 10 when your dad takes you to your first Georgia game (Duke, ‘86 season opener). TV simplifies football. From the stands in Sanford Stadium, the action feels distant, disconnected. Your dad, a native Hoosier, watches with Zen detachment. Sensing your confusion, he tells you to watch one player and not just the quarterback. Note the position. Study his movements. See his body language. Mark his adjustments.
So you focus on a single player. Troy Sadowski. You note the position. Tight end. You watch the pattern. And then, you move to the next. Cassius Osborn. Wide Receiver. And you repeat. Gradually, the game unfolds.
Your father claims to root for both Georgia and the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. If pressed for his favorite, he’ll say, “The Atlanta Falcons.” But you remember how he tossed you in the air after Herschel went airborne against Notre Dame. You recall how he and your mother led you in breathing exercises as you wept through the final seconds of the 27-23 loss against Penn State in the ‘83 Sugar Bowl.
In the second quarter of that ho-hum ‘86 season opener, your dad takes off his headphones and places them on your head. The radio runs hot with Munson’s voice. These people are in this thing and don’t think for a moment they’ll stop coming at us.
On Sunday nights you call the Bulldog Hotline on AM750 WSB to speak with Georgia head coach Vince Dooley and Larry Munson. Munson growls and fumbles your name every time. “Let’s go to … Jerome … in Decatur. Jerome, whaddya got?”
“Coach Dooley,” your pre-pre-pubescent voice begins, “can we bring back the red road pants that Herschel wore against Tennessee?” And later: “Coach, what’s your favorite Herschel memory?” Also too: “Coach, how awesome was Herschel?”
On those Sunday nights, after Munson signs off, WSB plays Billy Graham’s Hour of Decision. You need Graham’s somnolent tones and drowsy hymns as your blood runs hot with a voice that pounds with your heart in the dark: Herschel, Georgia, Touchdown.
The Moment: All on Paul
On Nov. 25, 2006, Paul Oliver was tasked with the impossible. Stop No. 21.
The demands of his assignment stretched from the sawdust floor of Holcomb’s Barbeque in White Plains, Georgia, to the high-rise condos of Midtown Atlanta. For more than 20 years, Georgia fans had waited for the next Herschel: a transcendent talent who’d restore national glory. But Walker was gone. So we waited and winced in ‘90 as Tech claimed a national title. Through four presidents, an Olympics in Atlanta, and two wars in Iraq — we waited — weathering the rise of Tennessee and Florida’s reign. And every season, Larry Munson warned believers from Camilla’s pecan groves to Chickamauga’s cloudy peaks: there’d never be another 34.
Twenty-one wasn’t a running back. The greatest talent the Peach State had produced in a generation was a wide receiver and a Georgia Tech Yellow Jacket. The mind boggled, but since his days at Sandy Creek High School in Tyrone, everything Calvin Johnson did boggled the mind. With size like Herschel, skill like Herschel, Johnson was Herschel-like, too, in his humility. After a physics-defying catch against NC State, the All-American, Biletnikoff winner, allowed himself: “I’m amazed myself at that one.” State coach Chuck Amato put it differently. “He’s got a cape and he’s got an ‘S’ on his chest.”
Tech soared into Athens on Johnson’s coattails at 9-2 and already 2006 ACC Coastal Division Champs. While there’s no exact phrase for the fullness of the Indian summer that greeted all of us pouring into Sanford Stadium that Saturday, get the picture: The second day after Thanksgiving. Seventy degrees. Sunshine. Treetops all fire and flame. Tech and Georgia: the 99th year of Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate. Tech and Georgia: the 100-yard field, faded down both hashes, lined and shadowed with harvest, with consequence.
At 7-4, Georgia had already dropped games to Vanderbilt and Kentucky. In a dismal season, Paul Oliver’s emergence at corner was one of Georgia’s few bright spots. Back in October, Bulldogs fans took to AM sports radio and message boards with calls for Oliver to play both ways, like Champ Bailey years before. Oliver, a Parade High School All-American at Harrison, who’d also starred at receiver and returner, deflected the attention. “There is a lot of talent over there [on offense] and those guys are really capable of making plays,” he said. “It is just a matter of doing it.”
Doing it against 21 was up to Paul, but he wouldn’t be alone. Safety Tra Battle, a 5′10 former walk-on who’d hit and ball-hawked his way into an All-American senior captain, was one of Paul’s roommates. “Watching film that week, we saw teams doubling Calvin,” Tra remembers. “We weren’t going to do any of that. We trusted our scheme. We trusted Paul.”
Tra had reason to trust. Two weeks earlier, against fifth-ranked Auburn on the road, they had been nearly perfect and saved Georgia’s season. Tra had three interceptions, a touchdown; Paul posted a pick, a sack, and two tackles for losses. Now, they needed an encore.
Standing in section 109, I shielded my eyes as Tech — white tops, gold pants — swarmed the field, sun blazing off their brilliant golden helmets. Georgia countered. Storming out of the tunnel in silver britches, the Bulldogs formed a great wave of red — fire alarm red — and poured onto the field. We rose and roared.
My Bulldog date, Alice, who would later become my wife, squeezed my hand. Eric, my Bulldog buddy, put his arm on my shoulder and howled.
Toe met leather and Tech received the kickoff. On first down, Tech went deep, but Paul and Tra converged on 21. Incomplete. Tra, who yielded half-a-foot to Johnson, shot to his feet barking. Calvin and Paul jogged back silently. Battle kept jawing. “You know,” Tra says, watching the replay this summer, “I should’ve picked it.”
Over the next four hours, Tra did the talking as Paul did it all. Paul shadowed, hand-fought, and hounded Calvin Johnson and beat him on every contested ball. Johnson’s stat line for the day: two receptions, 13 yards.
“We had a wolverine on Calvin Johnson the whole game,” defensive lineman Ray Gant told reporters moments after Georgia’s 15-13 victory. “Paul Oliver played like a champion today.” Georgia’s defensive coordinator Willie Martinez said, “We put it all on Paul. To do what he did, that’s hard. That tells you what kind of player he is.”
Many of us already suspected what kind of player Paul was. The year before — 2005 — I stood in section 109 as Oliver made one of the almost great plays in Georgia history. Against Auburn that night, he was everywhere: Six tackles, two caused fumbles, a pick. With less than two minutes remaining, Georgia protected a two-point lead.
On fourth-and-10, Auburn came to the line with Georgia’s national ranking of No. 4 and Auburn’s of No. 6, in the balance. I watched Paul and Tra on the far side of the field. As Auburn’s quarterback Brandon Cox took the snap and looked downfield, Auburn receiver Devin Aromashodu found a vast expanse of green — wide open — and caught the ball. He soon shook Tra and streaked for the end zone, but a bright red blur had an angle.
As Paul gained on Aromashodu, my own neuronal lightening cast the ghost of Alabama’s George Teague yanking the ball from Miami’s Lamar Thomas in the ‘93 Sugar Bowl. While Teague rode and ripped, Paul leapt and punched and out came the ball.
The Immaculate Fumble. The oblong ball, however, would not obey and Auburn recovered and was awarded the ball on the 3-yard line. Milking the clock, Auburn chipped in a field goal, and celebrated. What happened to Tra? Where was Tra?
One true story is that Georgia called Cover-3 and Tra Battle peeled out in cover 2. Another true story ran online the next morning. Concussion Limited Battle. Tra sustained the brain injury in a collision with a teammate before the half. Woozy, unsettled, Tra managed to avoid detection, told trainers he was fine, and played the rest of the game.
Ten years later, at Cream & Shuga Coffee in Jefferson, Georgia, Tra Battle sits across from me at a table by the window with his 4-year-old son, Emmanuel. When I ask about Aromashadu’s catch and Paul’s leap, Tra shakes his head. The entire second half is a blank. The question Where was Tra? is a riddle even for neuroscientists. Tra was on advanced autopilot. Tra was playing zombie-ball. Tra was there, but not there.
Tra and I watch the play on YouTube more than once. “When Paul punched the ball out,” Tra says, “that’s when I woke up.” Tra leans closer and we peer into another slow motion ESPN replay of Paul Oliver catapulting through space. “Right there,” Tra sighs, “that’s when … I reappeared.”
After the game, Tra wandered the sidelines, staring at the lights. Teammates gently explained that the game was over.
But at the end of the ‘06 season, Tra’s “missed assignment” and Paul’s leaping almost-heroics from ‘05, fit neatly into a new narrative. Against Georgia’s two most historic and hated rivals, Tra Battle had earned redemption and Paul Oliver validation.
The final moment with Tech even suggested a perfect ending. With a minute left, Paul picked off the final pass intended for Johnson. Lingering on the ground, he clutched the ball to his chest. Victory, Georgia. I kissed Alice, hugged Eric, and turned to find Paul Oliver. As the stadium — 92,746 — shook, Paul lay motionless near the far sideline.
As teammates and trainers circled Paul, the CBS broadcast crew told viewers at home that freshman Matthew Stafford, with his modest 171 yards passing and one touchdown, was The Ruby Tuesday Player of the Game. In the stands, we knew better.
Tech’s defense slinked back onto the field. Was Paul moving? Sitting up? Officials stopped the clock for the young man still on the hard earth. On the Tech sideline, Calvin Johnson stood with his hands on his hips, staring past the open west end zone to a spot on the horizon where the sun had already set.
A great ring of hands gathered Paul up and he walked off the field, recovering his breath with each step. The clock started again. Stomping, we hollered unintelligible hallelujahs into the night as Paul Oliver’s moment became our moment, his triumph, our own.
After one final knee, with time expiring, Matt Stafford turned and flung the ball up into a future where he and Calvin Johnson would team together as Detroit Lions and Paul and Tra would both be San Diego Chargers.
In California, Paul married his college sweetheart Chelsea, a volleyball standout at UGA, and native of Southern California. They had two dogs — Dooley and Herschel. And then came the little ones, Simeon and Silas. Paul played four seasons with the Chargers, where he was converted to safety. Appearing in 57 games, he totaled four interceptions and 113 tackles, and when he became a free agent, he signed with the Saints. Paul saw the NFL much like his mother would tell him: you are a manual laborer, you work with your hands, this is your job.
Kissing Chelsea goodbye in the mornings, he’d announce, “I’m going to work.”
That work came with occupational hazards and dangers unacknowledged by his employer. In 2010, Paul sustained a concussion against the Raiders that blacked out the entire second half. He never left the field. Later, with the Saints, in a preseason game in Oxnard, Paul tackled Raider Michael Bush on the sideline, but was slow getting up.
Chelsea didn’t hear from him. Simeon was only a few a months old and Paul had been calling and Skyping multiple times a day. Now she called and texted, frantic. Finally, after two days she got a hold of him on Skype. With bloodshot eyes, Paul told her that he’d been concussed again and that he’d call soon.
His brain needed to rest. The Saints put him on injured reserve. The Chargers needed veteran help in the defensive secondary. Paul put on his pads, cleats, and helmet and went back to work in San Diego.
Paul was never the same.
That last year in San Diego, Chelsea watched Paul transform. Previously, he’d map out their days and meals — looking for places to take Dooley and Herschel, new recipes to cook, new restaurants to try. Paul had told Chelsea he had wanted to play in the NFL for 10 years. Now, he had a constant headache. Now, he came home and sank into the sofa with his iPad. Or he retreated upstairs into silence and darkness.
The 2011 season was Paul’s last in the NFL. The family stayed in San Diego another year. Paul tried to recharge. The Titans brought him in for a workout, but didn’t sign him. Physically, he couldn’t lift weights or run without the headaches, the perpetual jackhammer and icepick. In 2013, Paul packed his family up and moved back home to Kennesaw. He wanted his brothers and his mother to know his family. He knew he was taking Chelsea away from hers, so he began a mission to convince her brother Garrett to move to Georgia, too. Paul surrounded himself and Chelsea with a network of family and best friends so they could begin their next chapter.
That chapter back in Georgia would be brief: While Chelsea coached high school volleyball, Paul stayed home, a dad. He’d taken care of his NFL money and talked to Price about opening a turnkey company (“Prestige”) as owner and general contractor. Using Price’s knowledge in residence management and maintenance and his father-in-law’s experience in general contracting, Paul saw potential. Coaching, too, was an option. Both Price and Patrick coached in the Cobb County youth football league. From the outside, Paul had options, connections, resources, futures to choose. But in his every waking moment, his brain was betraying him.
You know this story, even if you don’t know Paul’s story. From years of football, Paul had sustained repeated blows to the head. Season after season, the avalanche of these hits cascaded into microscopic neurological protein deposits known as tau. These proteins wrapped and tangled around brain vessels and cells as part of the progressive, neurological disease known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) a progressive degenerative disease of the brain caused by repetitive trauma. Robbing reason, stealing the keys to mood, ransacking memory, CTE erases the very essence of what allows for a human being.
Yet, he was still Paul. Sure, he kept asking Price and Patrick for recommendations on garage door openers. Yes, he told his best friend Andy he didn’t feel quite right. But do you repeat yourself? Lose things? Sometimes, inexplicably, feel off? Paul remained the undisputed champ of every backyard barbecue, the cookout king, master of the grill. Smiling as he handed you your plate, Paul asked you about your dog, your job, your day.
Back home, exhausted, Paul unraveled. He blew up at Chelsea: shoving her, kicking her, pulling her hair. Before, he rarely raised his voice and never his hands. The next day, he’d apologize as if it had all been a bad dream. “Something’s wrong with me,” he said, “I can’t control myself.” Paul pleaded — the next time he fell apart Chelsea should repeat the names of their sons. “Just say Simeon and Silas,” Paul said, “until I snap out of it.”
Did it work?
“No,” Chelsea says. “Well, at first. The first few times it did.”
On Sept. 17, 2013 Paul sat across from Chelsea’s father, Jeff Young, at the dining room table in the ranch home where Chelsea grew up in Fountain Valley, California. They drank wine and talked into the night. Paul was in Orange County for a full-body scan from the neck down. The receipt for glory? A double hip replacement by age 40; severely impaired shoulders; two Achilles hanging by threads; two swollen hands buckshot with bone chips. He was 29 years old. Two weeks later doctors planned to conduct neurological tests and a brain scan.
Jeff poured them both another glass and asked Paul how he even managed get around. Paul smiled and shook his head. What he really wanted to know about was his brain. Paul told Jeff his memory was slipping. Sometimes he’d walk into rooms without knowing why. At the grocery store, he’d turn down an aisle and just stare. He rarely left the home.
“Something,” Paul said, “is going on with my brain.”
They discussed the return trip: Paul and Chelsea and the boys would stay with Jeff. Chelsea would see her two brothers and sister. Simeon and Silas would play with their cousins at the beach. And Paul would receive a full-battery of neurological testing.
Before Paul left, per custom, Jeff wrapped him in a bear hug. In Georgia you might shake hands, Jeff warned Paul early on, but in California we hug.
Seven days later, on Sept. 24, 2013, 11 years to the day of Mike Webster’s death, Paul Oliver woke to a world he could no longer recognize or sort. “That morning,” Chelsea says, “his eyes were almost completely glazed over.”
They argued that afternoon. Paul railed about dirty dishes in the sink, but the sink was empty. Into the evening, he raged. Patrick was on his way to the house, but Paul called and told him not to come over. Chelsea said she was leaving the house with the boys. Paul hopped over the baby gate and climbed the stairs to their bedroom. He went to the dresser and grabbed a recently purchased handgun. Standing atop the landing, with Chelsea looking up, Paul pointed the gun to his head.
No one wants to hear what happens next. And I don’t want to tell it. The moment requires both facing and turning away. But even in turning, maybe we can recover a measure of what’s owed Paul Oliver while doing some basic cost accounting with the game we love.
The day after, Jeff and Garrett Young flew a red-eye from California into Atlanta. Garett and Paul’s Uncle David first entered the quiet and empty home. Their instructions were clear: one high chair, the clean clothesbasket in the laundry room, and two sippy cups.
Love Note: October 1996
When did you realize you loved it in a way you couldn’t love anything else? Maybe you were in Bryant-Denny Stadium on the fourth Saturday of October 1996. Alabama is up 13-0, but Peyton — squinting hard through a driving rain — has Tennessee on the march.
As sheets of rain fall on Manning and the 100,000 souls in every possible shade of orange poncho in Knoxville, you sit bone-dry and alone in Tuscaloosa.
You’re a college sophomore and member of the Speech and Debate team. You’ve been eliminated from each event after round one at the University of Alabama Invitational. The judges let you know the score. Style: too conversational, too casual. Argumentation: grandiose, hyperbolic. Eliminate the personal pronoun. Hands out of pockets. Tighten your tie. No suit? You’re 20; you write bad poetry. You like to think yourself as a seer of secret truths, a lyrical stylist. You don’t own a suit.
Exiled, you wander the deserted quad, under the shade of magnolias. Strolling past Denny Chimes, the campanile tower, you stand at the entrance of Foster Auditorium where George Wallace shrieked against the “unwelcomed, unwanted, and unwarranted.”
In the lobby of a student center, you find the game on a TV. A semi-circle of old folks in wheelchairs, all white, huddle in front of the muted large-screen. Each senior citizen holds matching gray stuffed elephants in Crimson Tide sweaters. Two black nurses, in starched white, keep an eye on the drips and oxygen tanks. Are they alumni? Did they watch Namath and Stabler? Does superstition anchor them here?
You could ask, but that would break the spell with words.
One nurse bites her nails on third downs as the other leafs through a magazine. The old folks, clutching their stuffed dolls, shake their heads as Peyton busies himself with being Peyton: the dutiful honor student, ruthlessly efficient, somehow joyless.
You decide for some fresh air.
The sign on the chain-linked gate clearly defines trespassing as a criminal offense, but if the city fathers truly mean it, would the 15-foot fence be so climbable?
Crows line the stadium’s upper deck. Pigeons hunt between the bleachers. Stray crimson streamers stick to the concrete, plastered by bourbon and Coke. In Knoxville, along the banks of the Tennessee River, the fourth quarter begins, but in Tuscaloosa, inside the enormous silence, you dream of kickoffs.
“It’s all in the balance,” Faulkner writes in Intruder in the Dust, “it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun.” While Faulkner was imagining Pickett’s charge, for future generations those fields were 100 yards long. Before playing Yale in 1910, Vanderbilt coach Dan McGugin told his team, “It is the South versus the North, Confederate against Yankee. Remember the campfires of your fathers and forefathers.” On the road, teams like Virginia wore gray. When Ohio State went south to play Auburn in 1917, The Birmingham News noted: “(The) game will be fought in the proud shadow of the Confederacy, and the grandfathers of these southern boys … were the men that hurled back those Yankee invaders.” After VMI defeated Penn in Philadelphia in 1922, the VMI band struck up “Dixie” and soon the tradition spread throughout the South.
If college players were mock soldiers, the original soldiers had fans too. Before the First Battle of Bull Run, Union Captain John Tidball noted the gathering crowd:
They came in all manner of ways, some in stylish carriages, others in city hacks … everybody seemed to have taken a general holiday … All manner of people were represented in this crowd, from the most grave and noble senators to hotel waiters.
While the D.C. crowd cheered for the North, they were rooting for the grandeur of the contest, something ancient. William Howard Russell, London Times, notes:
The spectators were all excited, and a lady with an opera glass who was near me was quite beside herself when an unusually heavy discharge roused the current of her blood — ”That is splendid, Oh my! Is not that first rate?”
Those Civil War tailgates couldn’t last through the slaughter that followed. Demure eyes turned from the terror and prayed. There would be no picnics at the Hornet’s Nest in Shiloh, the wall at Fredericksburg, or Fort Pillow and Donaldson. Home fronts vanished into front lines. Farms and fields flipped overnight into amputation tents and mass graves. Southerners sought safety from the horror, and if all we’d known was pillage, plunder and the perpetual whip, we lit out for a point behind the blue lines toward freedom.
Afterward, we held no Truth and Reconciliation Commissions, no public forums in schools and churches to air our grievances and sort responsibility. We burned the churches and schools and reaped the coals and ashes. And in time, we erected high school altars and college coliseums as staging grounds for some irrecoverable violence.
Oh, but what grounds! Start in the Carolina Lowcountry and Summerville High, where rice once ruled. Ride west along the Black Belt, where flesh was flayed for short crop cotton on the plains of Valdosta, home of the Wildcats, 23-time Georgia State champs. Dip south into the everglades, into Pahokee, into the Muck Bowl. Scoop the deep dark loam that yielded so much torture and sugar. Go west, past Birmingham’s furnaces, over Red Mountain, through the bluffs of Natchez, and across that big brown river. Tap the brakes as you enter the villages and hamlets of Louisiana, Arkansas and Texas.
Under those autumn lights, roars go up for young men who take the field in the singular and furious name of something we can’t fully fathom.
This frenzy crests in stadiums throughout the SEC. Take measure on a Saturday night in Tiger Stadium, late in quarter four, in the Valley marked Death. Mark the trembling the earth. Stand in Jordan-Hare as the golden war eagle circles the field with sunlight clipping its wings. Note the crack at your chest. Hear — at Georgia — the lone trumpeter in the upper deck of the south stands split the silence before kickoff with the first seven notes of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Keep one eye dry. At least try.
The thunderclap of the SEC isn’t rooted in dusty echoes of New York press box scribes. Our pageantry isn’t a tournament of roses. Antique jugs, axes, and wooden buckets are not our prizes. Instead, crackling through the sonic southern nights is the leftover voltage from our American Civil War — agony, fury, and jubilee.
Before you leave, you know you must. As the sun sets, you walk onto the field and pace the sideline. The moment requires words, but they have to be earned. Unsure of which acreage he stalked, you march across the 50, and patrol the western sideline too. Under an almost crimson sky, with your hands in your pockets, you say: Bear. Sugar. Sugar Bowl. Sugar Bear. Paul Bear.
Behind The Wheel
Price Oliver accelerated through traffic and missed his turn. Damn, he thought. He’d driven the route countless times. On the night his youngest brother died, Price got a call from Patrick giving him the news. Price thought Patrick and Paul were pulling a prank. Not funny, Price said. Patrick said he wasn’t joking and to get to Paul’s house now. Price hung up and hit the gas. Not funny fellas.
The Oliver brothers had recently lost both their grandfather, Simeon Scandrett, the family patriarch, and their Uncle Peter. The boys’ own father was out of the picture, but they had father figures, in their uncles and grandfather, next door in Kennesaw off Hadaway Road. The land sat a few miles from Kennesaw Mountain, where Sherman clashed with Confederate forces. Simeon had cut trails through the pine-studded acreage with a Bobcat bulldozer, connecting the three family homes. The Oliver brothers fished, chased dogs, played extra-extra inning baseball with cousins, ran from dogs, scrambled up trees, built intricate forts, fought pinecone wars, and for a long time didn’t know that they were poor.
Price called Paul’s cell. No answer. He missed a turn, cursed, tried Paul again and again, voicemail. Seriously guys? C’mon.
When the water was shut off, they hiked in shifts to Simeon’s house with buckets. When the electricity was cut, Simeon supplied flashlights and candles. When the random pickup stopped in the cover of night on Hadaway — with its passengers spilling out squealing nigger this nigger that while wielding baseball bats to the family mailbox — Simeon Scandrett, a Korean War vet, made sure the box was back up by morning. He instructed his grandsons that when they got the mail to bring the mailbox up, too. And in the mornings, before the school bus arrived, Price, Patrick or Paul would carry the mailbox from the porch back down the drive and plant it into the red soil under a hard rising sun.
A joke like this constituted a genuine brotherly tiff. Price would have to punch both kid brothers square in the chest, without word or warning.
He first spotted the parked police cars, the crime investigation van, the quiet, and then Price knew what he already knew: you don’t joke around about something like this.
“Bald Head is gone,” the late night text read. “I think he took his own life.” The message, from former Georgia teammate Mario Raley, sent Chris Burgett outside and under the stars. His first thoughts went to Chelsea and the boys. And then he thought of his old roommate. As one of the best high school running backs in Georgia in 1999, Chris had lead Chattahoochee over Paul’s Harrison team in the playoffs. At Georgia, Chris switched to the defensive secondary and formed a bond with Paul. They’d spent late nights in their dorm solving the problems of the world, bumping music, and casting their own futures. Chris had a million questions, but one took hold and would not let go: why?
The night after Paul Oliver died, Georgia coach Mark Richt received a late call. The voice was indistinct. The caller choked back tears. It took Richt a few minutes to hear the words of his former captain. Tra Battle had been driving all day up and down the back roads between Athens and Jefferson in northeast Georgia. He’d parked his car on the bridge of the Bear Creek Reservoir, a few feet from the water. Occasionally, he’d thought of suicide during his depression once his playing days were over. Now, Tra told his former coach he was scared. He told Richt he wasn’t sure all of what Paul was going through, but he felt he was going to do the same.
“I kept trying to rationalize why. Initially, I assumed he was going through the same thing as me. Maybe he felt as I felt emotionally,” Tra tells me. “By the point I got to Bear Creek I felt, maybe this is the way, maybe this is what should happened, maybe this is how I end the problems.”
Richt told Tra to come to his house right away.
That same evening, Hall of Fame linebacker Harry Carson gave a talk in Boston for an advance screening of the PBS Frontline documentary, League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis. After the showing, Carson fielded questions. One of the very first questions was about Paul Oliver.
Carson connected Oliver’s death to blows to the head sustained in football. Here Carson spoke from experience. Drafted in 1976, Carson found that by 1981 he would become unexpectedly depressed and suicidal. He had to resist the urge to drive his car off the Tappan Zee Bridge and into the Hudson River. Carson noted other changes too: a slower memory, delayed speech. He filed these feelings away and played seven more seasons. After retiring, he was diagnosed with post-concussion syndrome.
I asked Harry Carson over the phone in the summer of 2015, why he spoke out that night about Paul Oliver. “I’ve been speaking out for some time because I know that there are players out there who are suffering. I want them to know that they are not alone.”
Football players, by nature, feel the need for stoicism. But there is a tipping point, according to Carson, where strength becomes weakness. “Most of us are not aware of what we experience neurologically. We are trained, sometimes overtly, to not be vulnerable or admit to pain. Suck it up. Don’t cry.”
League of Denial, which debuted on PBS two weeks after Paul died, depicts the discovery of CTE by Dr. Bennet Omalu and Mike Webster’s horrific demise caused by the disease. During his decline, a consulting doctor asked Webster if he’d ever been in a car accident? “Oh,” Webster said in a humor that betrayed his condition, “probably about 25,000 times or so.”
According to Stefan Duma, a professor at Virginia Tech, who has been studying the G-forces in football collisions since 2004, this number of 25,000 is actually “highly probable.” Duma also notes that not all car crashes are created equal. Some are mere fender benders and most football hits register somewhere on the car crash rank of 20-30 G-forces. Concussions are believed to occur at 90 G and above. However, recent studies by Professor Eric Nauman and his team at Purdue University have revealed that it is precisely these repetitive lower end collisions, where concussions aren’t even registered, that can most dramatically impact and alter the integrity of a brain. The impact is cumulative. The damage is done in doses.
An automobile is designed to absorb impact — the “crumple zones” absorb energy, protecting the driver and passengers. A football helmet, a hard plastic encasing, prevents skull fractures and rarely cracks, but it does not absorb the energy to protect the brain. In the course of any game, where up to 22 individual car wrecks can occur on a single play, no helmet can’t stop the human brain for sloshing and slamming into the skull. And one major symptom from this brain trauma — that almost took Harry Carson over the Tappan Zee Bridge and perhaps drove Tra to the edge of Bear Creek — are ideations of suicide.
While Carson managed to steady the wheel, for others it turns. Former Pittsburgh Steelers offensive lineman Justin Strzelczyk weaved through on-coming traffic at 100 mph, heading the wrong way on I-90 in central New York, before colliding with a diesel tanker. The plume of smoke was spotted a mile away. In Charlotte, Chris Henry, a wide receiver for the Cincinnati Bengals, stood in the bed of a speeding bright yellow F-150, arguing with the driver, his fiancé, before falling to his death on Oakdale Road. Two years before his death from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, Hall of Fame linebacker Junior Seau, headed south on Carlsbad Boulevard in southern California and hurled his silver Escalade over a guardrail, down a rocky cliff, and toward the morning surf.
Strzelcyk died in 2004; Henry in 2009; Seau in 2012. All had CTE.
Paul Oliver had been dead one week when I passed out copies of James Wright’s poem “Autumn Begins in Martin’s Ferry, Ohio” to my first period high school writing students in Arvada, Colorado on October 1, 2013.
For 15 years, I’ve handed out copies of Wright’s poem during the first week of October. The poem depicts fathers in eastern Ohio working unforgiving jobs while their wives sink under the weight of loneliness. Together, though, they share football, the love of their sons.
That October morning, I stood in front of a room of teenagers, gazing at the words I knew by heart, unable to read. My job is to read — the students write — together we discuss. I stared at the lines, stumbled, and stopped. A hard pause. Sorry guys. A hand in the back. Yes? A volunteer. Thank you. A student finished the last stanza I could not start:
Their sons grow suicidally beautiful
At the beginning of October
And gallop terribly against each other’s bodies.
Tragedy would not follow tragedy that night at Bear Creek Reservoir. Tra Battle put his car in reverse and drove to Richt’s home. When Georgia took the field against No. 6 ranked LSU days later in Athens, the team wore black stickers on the back of the helmet. “PO.”
Chris Burgett stared at the ceiling and remembered how he and Tra had to joke around in practice to get Paul to smile. When the pads were on, Paul was all business. Off the field, even years later, Paul remained the humble guy who Chris counted as a brother. Even in the NFL, Paul’s close friends were teammates like Mike Tolbert, who could count on one hand how many stoplights were in their hometown. Chris remembered something else too: he and Paul had promised each other when they were roommates at Georgia that they would start a foundation one day to educate and empower children. Both had been raised in affluent north metro Atlanta suburbs — Kennesaw and Alpharetta — as black kids in a white sea. They wanted to give back. They also figured they had time to chart that course.
Hours after Paul Oliver died, Price Oliver parked his pickup as his brother Patrick rounded the corner from the driveway. Price was a sprinter in high school. He held the Harrison High School record in 100 meters for more than a decade and still holds the record for 200 meters. Patrick, a state finalist his senior year for powerlifting — bench pressing 315, squatting 415, deadlifting 450 — opened his large arms and embraced his brother. Without a word, they wept. Paul, their “little big brother” had Price’s speed and Patrick’s strength and a style that was his own. The three had always moved as one, but as Price and Patrick gathered themselves and walked to Chelsea and the boys, they took their first steps into a world unknown.
Georgia played the 2013 season with the PO stickers on the back of the helmet, but in 2014 the stickers were gone. My questions remained and ran through October, into the holy wars of November, and beyond bowl season. So in the summer of ‘15, I packed my car and headed to Georgia. The highlights and victories — were they the sum of my bargain with Paul Oliver? What are the limits and terms between player and fan? Was I not entertained?
Camp: June 12, 2015
The first whistle blows at 9 a.m. — 50 high school kids from Metro Atlanta stretch and warm-up. Their cadence, clapping, and calisthenics echo through the fog and mist hugging the pines that surround Cobleigh Field at Harrison High School.
Legions of American high school football players this morning are doing the same. But these players at the Paul Oliver Football and Life Skills Camp might be the first to attend a camp whose goal is to not only improve their skills, but to raise awareness of CTE.
The white and black kids self-segregate into straight lines. Each wears a camp T-shirt with Paul’s No. 27 on the back. Counselors and coaches — former University of Georgia, and Harrison teammates and opponents — stroll down the lines, including Patrick and Price Oliver.
During his senior year, Patrick teamed with Paul in his transcendent junior season. Too amped to sit still, Price had to watch alone as his little brothers perfected moves they first mastered on Hadaway against each other. Price, who now works as a maintenance supervisor at Camden Properties, and Patrick, who works for Coca-Cola, haven’t stepped on this field in ages. Both smile as the sun bears down on the kids clapping and chanting.
Strolling through the lines of campers, twirling a whistle, walks Chris Burgett. The more Chris read after Paul died, the less he slept. The less he slept, the more he read. Could playing football result in brain damage? When the link between Paul and CTE was confirmed, Chris reached out to Chelsea. Together, they formed The Oliver Tree Foundation: a non-profit organization to empower young athletes and promote awareness about CTE. Chris knew Paul would spear a foundation; he didn’t expect the work of that foundation to be done without Paul.
High up in the stands is a solitary figure, a woman in a white blouse and blue pants. She sips from a Dasani water bottle. It’s unclear if she’s smiling or squinting from the sun. As a whistle blows and the camp divides into stations, Price walks closer and says:
“That’s mom. That’s where she always sat. And she never missed a game.”
Dorsey Levens, the longtime Green Bay Packer and former Georgia Tech Yellow Jacket, stands by the track, watching football without the pop, thud, or crack from helmets or pads. Levens, who has made a documentary Bell Rung on concussions and CTE, is the camp’s keynote speaker.
As Levens watches, I ask if he feels the paradox.
“Totally,” he says, without me having to unpack the particular paradox.
“Every time I step onto a football field I feel it.”
Later, as we talk on the phone, Levens explains. He watches the sport, follows it closely, even plays fantasy football, but it’s not the same.
“I watch the game differently now,” he says.
“I cringe a lot more.”
As the campers take a knee and gather around, Dorsey Levens tells a basketball story. During his junior year, in the New York High School State Championship, he missed a critical late free throw. He decided the next summer he’d do whatever it took to be in the best shape possible. So he woke up early and lifted. In the afternoons, he ran. He shot free throws and jumped rope into the night.
“I made a choice to be different. How many of you have made the choice to be different?”
Levens’ message is boilerplate sports camp, but his presence commands attention. As he speaks, I realize I’m nodding along and then notice other coaches doing the same. Levens has a second message for the campers. “The sport you’re playing is violent, OK? You must be aware of all sorts of things. But first and foremost be aware of your own health. Especially your brain. Pay attention to your head.”
He tells the group that when they see stars, experience fogginess, or get their ‘bell rung’ that means, “You’ve had a concussion. Get off the field. Tell a coach.”
The scenario he describes feels at odds with the basic DNA of football. A high school pulling guard, perfectly and violent executes a block, but feels woozy, dinged, and instead of going back to the huddle, jogs to the sideline? A coach greets him with a series of questions that do not belittle his toughness, patriotism, or the legitimacy of his birth, but gauge his baseline neurological functioning?
Yes. If football is to have a future, such conversations might be required.
When I ask Levens, a veteran of 11 NFL seasons, if he thinks he might have CTE, he doesn’t hesitate: “I think we all do. All of us who played at a high level. We have some form of it.” He knows a former teammate who has just recently been diagnosed with dementia and a prominent former player who spends days inside with the lights out, ‘Going Dark.’ When I ask Levens if his son will play someday, he says, “No way. My child will not step onto a football field.” He walks that back a bit and measures his words: “Let’s put it this way. Should it come up, it would be a very, very careful conversation.”
As he wraps up with the campers under a scorching sun, the kids close out and head for lunch. Coaches get in line with their phones to pose for pictures. Levens smiles, accommodates, and makes sure he speaks with Patrick, Price, Chris and Mrs. Oliver.
Lunch is the staple of every Metro Atlanta sports camp for decades: soggy Chick-fil-A Chicken sandwiches (two pickles) with bottled water. The groups of black and white now blur: some sit together and complain about the pickles or Algebra II; others gossip about girls; some rag each other about their shoes; others quote Drake lyrics back and forth.
The whistle blows and the collective groan goes up. “Seven-on-seven,” a coach calls out.
A bank of clouds block the sun and a drizzle starts. Perfect weather for a camper, not so for an English teacher or a mom in the bleachers. I move to the sideline where Janice Oliver now stands. When the rain picks up, we both head for cover.
As a single mom, who managed a day care, raised three boys, and took night classes for ten years at Kennesaw State University to complete her degree, Janice Oliver does not suffer foolishness. These days, she works for the state in helping implement and ensure delivery of the HOPE Scholarship at universities and college throughout Georgia.
We talk education policy, the pleasures and perils of teaching, and before long our talk turns to Paul. She shares what many will tell me on this day: they didn’t see it coming.
Days before he died, Janice watched Paul put Simeon, age 2, in a timeout. Simeon protested. Paul gently put him back. Simeon tried to escape. Paul, even more patiently, redirected. Simeon asked for his truck, but Paul explained timeout was for thinking about his actions.
“Paul was a good father,” Janice says. “And he loved those boys.”
Laughter from the field is punctuated with shouts. The sun is shining and rain is pouring: a Georgia monsoon. One seven-on-seven game is quarterbacked by Derrick Tinsley, a former star running back at Marietta High School and later with Tennessee. Mario Raley, from Independence High School in Charlotte and a former Georgia receiver, leads the other.
I ask Janice if she saw any other signs in Paul when they moved to Georgia.
“You replay events. You wish you’d known. You wish you could go back and help.”
The rain echoes against the bleachers hard and loud.
“But Mrs. Oliver,” I say, “Paul had an aggressive neurological disease. His brain was damaged. What could anyone have done?”
“Can I ask you a question, Mr. Collins?” Janice says.
I tell her she can.
“Are you a parent?”
I tell her I am. Two little girls. Rose and Grace: ages 3 and 8 months.
“Then you know what goes into loving a child,” she says.
Another celebratory whistle blows — three short blasts — touchdown Team Tinsley.
“So you can imagine,” she says.
My imagination reaches for the unimaginable.
Janice Oliver then turns, faces me, and lowers her sunglasses to the bridge of her nose.
“The pain is always and the responsibility is forever,” she says.
When Georgia kicks off months later against Louisiana-Monroe, I’ll hear those words. Later that night when Alabama battles Wisconsin, I’ll hear Janice Oliver’s voice when Badgers safety Michael Caputo takes a routine knee to the helmet. Dazed, Caputo lines up in the Alabama huddle until a Crimson Tide lineman calls to the bench. Wisconsin trainers guide Caputo off the field and away from the fury.
I will hear those words.
The rain lifts and the waves of humidity rise higher. The field radiates its own heat and seems to shiver like an oasis, a mirage.
Paul’s Uncle David Scandrett, who played linebacker at Tennessee, pays a visit. So do former Bulldogs Sean Jones, a safety with the Cleveland Browns, and Fernando Velasco, an offensive lineman with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Tennessee Titans. Other former UGA players BJ Albert and Patrick Croffie shout encouragement. Each player at the camp serves as a reminder — just as every smoker won’t develop cancer and not every boxer will get punch drunk, not every football players will not wage an invisible battle with CTE.
But enough will. And the more one plays, as the hits pile up, so do the odds. According to a recent Frontline report, 96 percent of NFL players examined and 79 percent of all football players who played at the high school level and above have CTE. And as national authors and prominent bloggers announce they’re against football and wash their hands of the gladiatorial blood sport, America’s children continue to play. “We are not advocating the end of American Football, but we are advocating the beginning of open communication about brain injury,” Chris Burgett will tell me in an email later. “We have become advocates to communicate how contact sports can potentially affect an athlete’s health and mental well being from a long-term perspective. There are too many ties between high profile football players and depression, brain injury, and suicide to turn a blind eye.”
When the final whistle blows, Mrs. Oliver comes to the field. The campers — black, white, linemen, skill positions, soaked, stinking and smiling — pass Janice Oliver as she leans against the fence. She’s smiling, too.
The coaches banter and trade barbs from their own glory days at midfield. When Janice approaches, the group goes quiet. Some remove their hats. In the front, they take a knee and everyone forms a semi-circle around Janice Oliver.
“Today was a good day,” she says, “and I want to thank you all for making this special.”
The coaches line up to hug Janice and thank her. Everyone poses for pictures. They all promise to do it next year. Word will spread. The camp will grow. And then the coaches, former teammates and opponents, say goodbye. Life is rarely simple. That’s one reason we need sports. Sports simplify. And the scene at the end of this camp is unmistakable: a grieving mother and her two sons walk off a football field, alone together, missing one.
A week after the camp, I sit in the living room of Andy Elliot’s home in Marietta. Andy was an offensive lineman, a counselor at the camp, and Paul’s best friend. When Paul and Chelsea moved back to Georgia, Andy and his wife Ashley’s back porch was their favorite spot. Paul and Chelsea were looking to buy a house down the street.
Often both wives stared as their husbands spoke a language that was all their own, one they perfected in long silences of high school and college, when they’d disappear for days to fish. They grilled whatever they caught along with Po’ Boy Sausages while listening to Nas, Outkast and Pastor Troy.
After Paul died, Chelsea and the boys stayed with Andy and Ashley before they left for California. Getting Simeon ready in the mornings was a challenge. Those duties had been Paul’s. Paul loved spoiling Simeon with candy. To try and maintain a sense of normalcy, everyone made sure Simeon got Kit-Kat candy bars.
“Just a few weeks ago,” Andy says, smiling, “we found a wrapper under the sofa. And then another by the blinds.”
On that October morning in 2013 when Chelsea and the boys drove off with Janice for the Atlanta airport, Andy buckled Simeon into his car seat. “Simeon looked at me with those big eyes … and there was Paul,” Andy says, before his words break off.
Later, I confess that I struggle with the paradox of watching football after knowing what happened to Paul. Andy nods.
“Look, Paul was more than football,” he says. “We didn’t even talk football. We talked about our lives. We talked fishing and music. That day of camp was great, it meant a lot to see everyone, but it’s hard. It’s hard to be around the game.”
Leaving Andy’s house, I drive toward Kennesaw Memorial Park, getting turned around more than once, before pulling into the open gates. Patrick and Price told me where Paul was buried, but Price warned: “You can go there, but Paul isn’t there. Paul is wherever there’s a kid chasing a ball or running from a dog. Paul is with us in the woods as we swap stories. Paul is with those boys right now in California.”
I read the names of strangers. I don’t know a soul buried here. I used to root for one, but as I’m learning, I barely knew him at all. Andy’s statement There was more to Paul bounces against truisms told around tailgates and televisions: It’s only a game, but it’s the only game. And: Football is not a matter of life and death: it’s more important than that.
Up and down the rows of graves in the sweltering midday sun, I keep an unofficial scoreboard. I count: two plastic Mother Marys, one star of David, two ceramic angels, one model car, several deflated balloons, dozens of faded plastic flowers, and three Georgia Bulldog flags. Go Dawgs.
The red and black banners sway in an afternoon breeze that brings neither comfort nor relief.
Grace Note: January 2001
Georgia head coach Mark Richt walks into the Ramsey Student Center in a black leather BCS coat, followed by his newly minted coaching staff. It’s his first Monday on the job.
You do what any self-respecting Georgia fan would. It might be the first day of classes, but there’s plenty of time for introductions. You walk up and offer your hand. He takes it. And then you place your other hand on top of his. It’s probably not the first time he’s been stopped that morning. Probably too not the first time he finds himself praying with a stranger about the program he’d inherited.
“Prayer” might not best capture the tone and content of your exchange. You don’t bow your head or close your eyes. Neither does he. It’s unclear, exactly, what mutual deity you’re petitioning. In Richt’s eyes, you don’t detect motions of the Holy Spirit, but you do catch possible hints and hues of Tom Landry’s cobalt blues.
You don’t say: Sweet God, Coach, this state produces more SEC players than any other. Close the borders. Recruit Rome, Tifton, Austell, Villa Rica, Warner Robins; seal off Stone Mountain, Tucker and all of Metro Atlanta. Shut the state down.
Coach, you don’t whisper, if you can stomach it, watch last season’s Tech film. We had 11 NFL players on defense as Tech quarterback George Godsey — who runs a sub-6 40 — donkey-trotted 33 yards down the sideline untouched.
Coach, you don’t explain, on a dark night in ‘99, we spotted Auburn 38 points and allowed the very pedestrian Leard to Daniels combo look like Montana to Rice Reincarnated. No adjustments, no attitude, nothing. Losing happens, you don’t say. Some things you can’t control, but Coach Richt, for the love of God, compete.
Instead, you recite, word for word, The Serenity Prayer. “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Then, instead of Amen, you offer, “Coach, welcome to Georgia. There’s work to be done.”
“Well, thank you,” Richt says, your hands still clasped, “We’ll do our best. No one will be working harder.”
Coachspeak, of course. Cliché, sure. Every coach gets hamstrung by the lexicon.
The difference? On that gray morning, as you walk away from Coach Richt, whose record stands at 0-0, you believe every word.
The Good Coach
Entering his 15th season, Mark Richt (136-48 .739) stands as Dean of SEC coaches. His Georgia teams have played for five SEC titles, claiming two. During Richt’s tenure, Spurrier has left a Gator, returned a Gamecock; Saban has pulled a wide U-Turn too; rivals Florida, Auburn and Tennessee have turned over eight different coaching regimes.
And now, Richt is kind enough to not confess forgetting our first meeting.
“Wow,” he says, “that sure was a long time ago.”
The main wall of Richt’s office is covered with Governor cups, given for each of his 12 victories over Tech. He runs a clean program and a clean office. After our talk at an adjacent table, he applies Windex and terry cloth to the prints left by yours truly.
“I’m kind of clean freak,” he says, almost apologetically.
Richt gets brandished in some circles with “not winning the big one” label. Such critiques forget that Georgia’s own Vince Dooley needed 17 years before he won a National Championship. Or that Bobby Bowden took 18 years and Tom Osborne 19.
Richt is also known for his outspoken Christian faith and his family’s adoption in 1999 of two toddlers — Anya and Zach — from Ukraine.
The night after Paul died, when Tra pulled up into Richt’s driveway, a collection of former teammates who played with both Paul and Tra greeted their former captain. Richt called them, along with the team chaplain, in advance. Richt and Tra, who grew up the son of a pastor prayed late into the night.
That Saturday, Georgia defeated LSU in a raucous 44-41 battle of Top 10 Teams.
Four days later, Richt took his seat at Burnt Hickory Baptist Church in Kennesaw. After Paul’s funeral, the family held a private burial at Kennesaw Memorial Cemetery.
“The hearse drove off and we were all kind of standing there,” Richt says, “and there were probably 30 to 50 former Georgia players. We were looking at each other and reminisced and the mood lightened.”
Richt told the players he was planning an event in the spring. “I’m going to call it The ‘PO Network,’ to name it after Paul. We need to meet just for the sake of being close to each other, for the sake of trying to help everybody find their way.” Richt hoped the network would help provide job opportunities for players when the final game ended.
Paul Oliver would be buried within the hour, but forces were in motion to establish what that legacy of help would mean. As Richt arrived back in Athens to game plan for Tennessee, Chelsea heard from Paul’s agent. Chris Nowinski of the Sports Legacy Institute was curious: Would she be willing to donate Paul’s brain?
An autopsy could confirm what Paul himself had suspected. The significant catch: Paul had been buried. For the autopsy, Paul would have to be exhumed, his brain removed, and the body re-buried.
“I tried to imagine what Paul would want me to do,” Chelsea says, “and then I acted.”
Paul’s brain was flown to Boston and to the lab of Dr. Ann McKee, Professor of Neurology and Pathology at Boston University’s School of Medicine. Due to a backlog of brains — athletes, soldiers — the results of the autopsy would take six months.
In February 2014, the first PO Network event was a success. Chelsea and Price and Patrick Oliver were there. Tra Battle and Chris Burgett were able to connect and share how hard they had taken Paul’s death. While professional networking was covered, the reunion aspect of the PO Network created a support system for returning players. For Richt, whose life changed as a graduate assistant at FSU in 1986 when Seminole linemen Pablo Lopez was shot during a fight outside a party, Paul’s death left little doubt in his mind on the necessity of such a network.
“The PO Network exists because of my desire to bless our players, to help them transition from football to life.”
Richt’s transition reads across his office. On one side on the main wall is a picture from his playing days at Miami. The other holds an image from his coaching days at FSU. That transition, however, was rocky. After a brief stop in Bronco camp alongside fellow rookie John Elway, Denver cut Richt loose.
“All of my identity was in that [football] and then it was going up in flames. I did a bunch of stupid stuff that I never dreamed I would do, just because I didn’t know how to react to not being that guy — not realizing the dreams I had set for myself.”
For Paul Oliver though, the challenge of that transition wasn’t philosophical, but pathological.
A month after the first PO Network Event, Chelsea was notified that the autopsy results were ready. She called Price and Patrick to be in on the call with Dr. Ann McKee.
“Paul Oliver had Stage 2 CTE,” McKee tells me. “There were parts of the brain that were missing due to the gunshot wound and the difficulties which were encountered in harvesting the brain,” she says. “But there was still tissue that was in good condition.
“CTE was most predominant in the temporal lobe, the amygdala, and the hippocampus,” she explains. “We also saw it in the frontal lobe. It was clear. Undisputedly, CTE.”
Many players struggle with the loss of notoriety and purpose, or as Richt says identity.
Paul Oliver’s brain was under siege.
“We weren’t shocked,” Chelsea says, “We knew. But now we knew for sure.”
“It still didn’t change the fact,” Price says, “that Paul was gone.”
While the results confirmed what Paul and Chelsea suspected, it raised new challenges for The PO Network. No amount of networking can rewire a damaged brain. Reunion with trusted teammates cannot wish an aggressive neurological disease to a halt.
Currently, CTE is not on The PO Network’s agenda. I ask Richt if college football — coaches, players, media, and fans — are prepared to have an honest discussion on CTE. Richt’s natural register is toward calm and careful calibration with his words. But the silence between us now lingers a bit longer.
“I don’t know enough about it to be honest with you. But as most things in life, whether you’re ready or not, those discussions, if they need to happen, will happen,” he says.
Many don’t share Richt’s faith in the inevitability of such conversations. Harry Carson says, “No, they are not ready. Not until it is their own son or family member on the field who ends up suffering.” Carson also says cognitive decline haunts generations of players. “Many current coaches played at high levels. They’ve been around. They know. They know former teammates who are suffering,” he said.
Carson’s words echo in Richt’s office and reflect off the image from his Miami days.
From slurring his speech on Cleveland sports radio, to confessions of insomnia, pounding headaches, and financial woes, Bernie Kosar’s cognitive slide hasn’t been secret. His troubles fit a familiar pattern: a 2006 divorce settlement sited his “increasingly erratic and bizarre behavior and addictions” and a 2013 DUI arrest notes he was driving a black Cadillac 74 mph at 2:40 a.m. through a construction zone.
When I bring up Kosar, Richt stands and reaches for the picture.
He hands me a photograph of the ‘82 Miami Hurricane quarterbacks and says, “Take a look there.”
Looking there, in black and white, is a curly haired Kosar, redshirt freshman, numbered 20. True freshman Vinny Testaverde squints into the future. Senior star Jim Kelly smiles, cocksure. Boyish backup Kyle Vanderwende and coach Earl Morrall do not smile. And there stands a stoic Mark Richt, also a senior. They look young, indomitable, and forever quarterbacks. Sunlight cracks through the black and white. When the final playing gun sounds, between them all there will be nine Super Bowl appearances, 70 miles worth of NFL passing yards, and almost 800 professional touchdowns.
None of those numbers belong to Richt. The game humbles all. The frustrated athlete is the father to the man.
We discuss the hard luck of Morrall, a former coach whose story Richt can trace with his own. Despite leading the Colts to Super Bowl III, Unitas replaced Morrall after an early pick. In ‘72, he led the Dolphins to perfection — many people forget that — but Morrall ceded the spot back to Griese before Super Bowl VII.
“You learn you can’t always get what you want,” Richt says. “It was healthy for me.”
Along the 50-yard line of my consciousness float the images of Johnny U’s flattop, Bob Griese’s Coke-Bottle glasses, and the white cleats of Joe Willie Namath. Palm trees sway and bend at the Orange Bowl and for a moment CTE is just a stain on some slide.
I weigh my next words and look out the office window over Georgia’s plush practice fields. What would you rather discuss with Mark Richt? A brain-damaged Bernie Kosar hooked up to an IV of fish oil in a detox center in Florida or Super Bowl III? The good soldiering of Earl Morrall or Paul Oliver getting stumped by a trip to the grocery store?
Holding the photo, I ask Richt if The PO Network and the college game are better positioned to provide mental health resources for players than the NFL.
“Possibly. I want to help. We are really in the process of finding out how much help we are giving. I want to be where I don’t have limitations to help. Which could include anything. There is a lot of energy — positive energy around it — but we will still try to nail down exactly what is the best way to function, which gives us the most freedom to help.”
What Richt doesn’t share is that he has already done that precise thing. After Tra Battle’s late night meeting, Richt had Ron Courson, head of the Georgia training staff, set up an appointment with a mental health counselor for Tra the next morning. For a year, Tra saw a counselor and learned how to grieve and treat his depression.
Despite Paul’s own suspicions about his brain and the autopsy’s results, the network that bears his name and initials, does not address CTE. While the camaraderie and networking are important, both Chris and Chelsea hold out hope that information and education about CTE will be included next year.
In the end, Richt says: “I want to stay connected to everybody and I want them to know that Georgia is still here at the end to help with the transition.”
But a full reckoning of those transitions would include the thin line between sentient consciousness and the cascading effects of brain trauma.
The PO Network might be a place where college football begins a dialogue on the magnitude of mental health and CTE. And that might require a coach who once went across an ocean with his wife to adopt a child and brought back two. A coach who pounded the table after Paul died and said, “I don’t want this to happen to another one of my boys.” A coach who knows both chapter and verse: Learn to do right. Seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.
Paul Oliver didn’t die of depression from a world without football; he died from a brain disease caused by the repetitive head banging in football. He didn’t need a job to fill a void in his soul; he needed neurological treatment for a ravished brain.
Paul almost received that help. Instead, Chelsea flew alone to California weeks later with the boys. During the same conversation she told the family that Paul’s brain was being autopsied, Chelsea announced she was moving back home.
At Hartsfield-Jackson International airport, officials gave Janice Oliver a security pass to walk Chelsea and Simeon and Silas to their gate. Before boarding, Chelsea hugged Janice. Together, they wept. Boarding the plane, Chelsea thought, “This is really happening.” One stewardess helped Simeon into his seat. Another stewardess handed Chelsea a stiff whiskey.
Both boys closed their eyes, and fell asleep as their mother wondered when exactly she’d stop crying.
I turn off my recorder. Mark Richt cleans the table and replaces the photograph. I share with him my wife’s obsessive cleaning habits. He laughs and we briefly compare notes on Colorado. He was born in Broomfield; I live in Boulder. We walk out together and shake hands. I wish him well with The PO Network and he wishes me safe travels.
Heading down the long corridors of Georgia’s football command center, past the titanic closed office doors of coaches, my feet carry me into Heritage Hall. A tractor beam pulls me straight to the glass display where I spent hours as a boy gazing up at the bright red jersey and battered red helmet.
Now, I stand eye level with Herschel Walker’s gear from the ‘83 Sugar Bowl. The right shoulder is streaked with stray Nittany Lion blue. The ‘G’ at the center of the helmet is smudged. Its black paint bleeds down the side like skid marks from screeching tires.
Footnote: July 18, 2015
You sit in the same coffee shop you used to anchor in your ancient college days. Opening your laptop to transcribe the conversation with Coach Richt, something about Charleston, South Carolina is trending on Twitter.
The coffee shop buzzes with caffeinated Methodists. The United Methodist Conference is back in town. The tables are full of leather bound King James Versions with cracked spines, iPads with glowing Cross-Reference Concordance Scripture apps, and lattes. Across from you lounge summer school sorority sisters and fraternity brothers buried behind their phones next to stacks of unopened Psychology and Finance textbooks. Their T-shirts announce nostalgia for days not yet gone: 2014 Daddy Daughter Softball Day! Kappa Alpha: Faithful Unto Death.
You read the blocks of 140 characters about Charleston. At first, you think you’re reading the synopsis of a new crime show. Facts take shape and the picture forms. Bible Study. Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Race war. Nine dead. Overhead, the speakers play In a Sentimental Mood. You close the laptop and try to think of a place to be alone.
Walking across North Campus you remember your favorite times in Athens weren’t those six Saturdays in the fall, but the summer and winter holidays. Athens opens up with pockets of unexpected quiet. You walk past the library and past Park Hall. You keep a hopeful eye out for Dr. Hubert McAlexander, who’s retired. The dapper professor from Holly Springs, Mississippi, who wore seersucker suits and gold ties, didn’t so much teach Faulkner, but channeled and charmed his ghosts into the classroom’s ether.
And you remember that wintry day in Park Hall with the radiator humming over the silence and Dr. McAlexander’s unmistakable and uncanny Faulknerian voice reading the final words of Absalom, Absalom!: “I don’t hate it,” Quinten said quickly, at once, immediately, “I don’t hate it,” he said, I don’t hate it, he thought, panting in the cold air, the iron New England dark; I don’t, I don’t, I don’t hate it. I don’t hate it.”
You walked out of Park Hall after class and went down to the Jim Gillis Bridge overlooking Sanford Stadium. Full of ponderous undergraduate weight, you balanced thoughts of the South between love and hate, and looked into that stadium that held so much of what you loved.
Now, the stadium gates are locked, but you still have some local knowledge.
High in the bleachers of Sanford Stadium, you sit alone and try to trace a decade ago when Paul Oliver streaked down the sideline against Auburn and leaped into the night. You study the spot where he clinched victory against Tech. You look into the stadium arc lights and imagine them full borne and blazing. You think of Tra Battle gazing up and wondering where he was exactly and what all of it meant.
How easy it is each fall, in all those lights, to lose sight of each who suffers, either from CTE or symptoms identified with CTE. Granted, he’s hard to see — the singular player who suffers — but he contains multitudes: Mike Webster…You saw parts of this man disappear…Dave Duerson…wasn’t fading, but he was…Tony Dorsett…like a fog…Karl Mecklenburg…can’t see…Jim McMahon…can’t get home…Shane Dronett…woke up screaming…it is, Al Toon says, what it is…Tom McHale’s…brain slammed against his skull…Joe DeLamuielleure… saw stars everyday…Fred McNeill…tells his wife that the people chasing him through the night have been replaced by armies of insects…Andre Waters…had various religious reading material scattered throughout the residence…Bubby Brister…is slipping…the ringing, Kevin Kolb says, is like someone shooting a shotgun right next to my ear, every second of every day…Ollie Matson…just endured it…John Grimsley…would lose his temper…Mark Duper…can’t remember…Terry Tautolo…sleeps in a tunnel…Gary Plummer…has dementia…We were told, Leonard Marshall says, if you see stars, take Advil…Charlie Brown…wears sunglasses…Forrest Blue…saw giant soldiers chopping cars on the highway…The NFL, Brent Boyd testified to Congress, is trying to distance themselves from liability for all the carnage left behind by our NFL concussions — just as tobacco companies fought like hell to deny the links between smoking and cancer…Merril Hoge…can’t remember his daughter’s name…Brett Favre…can’t remember his daughter’s soccer season…Steve Gleason…leaves videos for his son to watch when he is gone…Ralph Wenzel…no longer communicates in complete sentences…Kevin Turner…receives oxygen through a port in his neck and nutrition through a tube in his stomach…Steve Smith…uses his eyes to control a computer’s voice-activated system…Terry Long…swallowed anti-freeze…George Visger…pisses blood…Lew Carpenter…began having trouble keeping things organized…Ted Johnson….shuffled from one dark room to another…it is, Wayne Chrebet says, what it is….These young players, Rayfield Wright says, have no idea what’s in store for them…John Mackey…did not want to brush his teeth or shower…Ray Easterling…scoured the neighborhood for toppled trees to chop…Herschel Walker…played Russian Roulette…I got to go, Jovan Belcher said before pulling the trigger, I can’t be here…Hope, Darryl Talley’s daughter Gabrielle says, is not in great abundance right now.
“Something’s wrong with my brain,” Paul told Chelsea’s dad.
Mike Webster — juiced up on a daily regimen of 80 mg of Ritalin — suspected his brain had been damaged too. Webster wrote long, rambling letters on yellow legal paper into the night. On one page, he wrote: “Not revenge, no sir. But reckoning.”
Reckoning: a noun, “the act of calculating;” “a bill of accounts;” “measuring the value of something.”
“Hey!” a voice calls out.
Two construction workers in hard hats appear in an aisle on the upper deck. The older one points in your direction.
“You know, you’re not supposed to be here,” he says, more tired than angry. “Who let you in?”
You try to explain, but what can you say?
“Sorry,” you say, and ask for a few more minutes.
The man in the hard hat looks down to the field and then up to you in the bleachers.
“Two minutes,” he says. “And then you gotta go.”
You nod, spend two minutes more, and then you go.
The pieces on the hardwood floor were marked Straight Track (ST), Curved Track (CT), and (CST) Curved Switch Track. Female (F) and Male (M) pieces, varying in shape and size, were clearly noted. The Bridge and Viaduct and Tunnel did not require notation.
For Thomas the Train Engine to chug to life on Christmas Eve 2014, all Chelsea Oliver had to do was follow the directions in miniscule font and assemble the parts. Near midnight, with the boys asleep, it was all she could do to stop crying.
“I missed him. I missed Paul.”
Chelsea doesn’t often catch herself in tears these nights. Not like that first year. In the weeks after returning from Georgia, she’d walk and weep alone at night on the beach. Sometimes she’d scream. Other nights, she’d sit silently under the stars and watch the tides. She’d always been best in crisis, but this registered somewhere beyond crisis.
So Chelsea rode the uneven swells of shock. Many days were simply so crowded with details, deadlines — the boys, bills, moving boxes — that she collapsed at night.
Other times, she couldn’t sleep and as night eddied into day, she couldn’t eat; she made herself eat; she threw up. Sometimes, without reason or rhyme, the scent of blood and smoke would drift back down the halls of memory.
She knew then that she needed help. She scheduled an appointment with a therapist.
“Now,” she says, “I’m better at anticipating and processing those moments.”
Under the blinking lights of the Christmas tree, Chelsea didn’t need a reminder that grief can go dark for a stretch only to circle back again. She also didn’t need an extended metaphor. She needed Paul.
Simeon and Silas sprinted into the living room that morning. She snapped pictures, sipped coffee, and made room for brand new Star Wars action figures, books and Legos. And in the corner of the room, Thomas the Train Engine hummed around the tracks.
The preschool teacher wasn’t sure of what to do. The class was making Father’s Day cards. She asked Chelsea what she should tell the boys, but Simeon took the lead. He told his teacher that his daddy was busy in heaven right now being their guardian angel.
Armed with a feather duster, Simeon Oliver, age 4, runs from his brother Silas, age 2, who wields a pillow. They dart from living room to kitchen, front yard, and back into the ranch home in Fountain Valley, a quiet middle class suburb of Orange County.
Jeff Young grills for the crowd of his four adult children, their spouses, 10 grandkids, and the stranger at the table. Herschel, a huge and happy German shepherd, follows Jeff, room to room. Dooley, Herschel’s companion, passed away a few years ago.
Climbing into his seat — pit stop — Simeon takes huge, uneven bites of his hot dog. The stranger compliments his appetite. Simeon smiles and says, “I am 4 years old. I grew up on my birthday. Now, I’m a big boy.”
After dinner, Jeff and Chelsea and the stranger speak in the kitchen as the cousins play.
“Paul loved being a dad,” Chelsea says. “That’s what he lived for. The boys.”
As she speaks, Simeon and Silas take turns jumping from the sofa. When Simeon jumps, he throws his arms and legs out in an ‘X’ as in here, here marks the spot.
“Paul knew something was wrong,” Jeff continues, “but he didn’t know what.”
Silas follows Simeon and copies the same fearless jump: Arms out, legs out.
The stranger notes the identical jump and the rock rising in his throat.
The mad dash of feather duster and pillow resume: circling the table, down the hall and back again. The stranger takes a knee and rubs Herschel’s belly and neck and scratches behind his ears as Herschel wags his tail.
The winded boys call truce and Simeon, not without ceremony, presents the stranger with the feather duster.
“Is this the secret sword of truth?” the stranger asks.
Simeon’s eyes grow wide and narrow.
“No,” Simeon says, in a tone that’s tender, “it’s a feather duster.”
I’m eating breakfast with Chelsea’s older brother Garrett Young at Dory Deli, near Newport Beach. Like his sister, Garrett has the presence and confidence of an athlete who’s grown up next to the beach. A one-time college baseball player, drafted by the Red Sox, Garrett will team with Chelsea later that morning to dominate beach volleyball. Garrett also works as a police officer in Newport and has another detail on Paul’s death.
Garrett doesn’t require many words to persuade. After volleyball at the beach, he’ll announce that we’re all getting into the ocean. I left my trunks in room 318 at Motel 6.
“Boxers, dude. C’mon.”
Across the sands of Newport Beach, I walk in my Hanes and wade into the chilly Pacific.
But at Dory’s that morning, as the big screen TVs on either side of us broadcast ESPN’s coverage of Broncos training camp, Garrett speaks deliberately:
“Paul first fired two or three shots into the ceiling. After that, he ejected the magazine. Now, Paul was not really Paul. With everything going on in his brain, he was raging and not in control. And he was also new to guns. If you are new to guns, you’re not really familiar with the manipulation of the weapon. So it wasn’t second nature for him to clear the weapon. A part of me thinks that when he put the gun to his head, he was trying to scare Chelsea. He might not have known that even if you eject the magazine, another round automatically chambers. And when the trigger gets pulled, it goes.”
Later that night, in room 318, I stare at the ceiling. One more in the chamber. I want this to anchor every other detail in Paul’s death, but it floats like another note in a sea of sadness that I can’t figure, file, or sort.
For Paul’s birthday on March 30, Chelsea buys the boys Paul’s favorite: Chick-fil-A chicken sandwiches, waffle fries, and two large Cookies & Cream Milkshakes (no cherry, no whipped cream.) Then the boys write messages to their dad on white balloons. Together, Simeon and Silas walk into the front yard, stare up into the sun, and release the strings as their words fold into the enormous blue sheet of sky.
Night falls, as I drive south down I-5. A sports radio show previews the NFC West. Oceanside, my destination, is an hour south of Room 318, where I can’t sleep.
The radio host details the 49ers offseason overhaul: the departure of Harbaugh, and the early retirements of Anthony Davis, Patrick Willis and Chris Borland.
Sedans, souped-up Silverados, station wagons, stretch Hummer limos, tricked out bikes with LED illumination, and SUV’s all hurl down the highway. I stay in the middle lane.
Borland’s name vanishes as the host segues into a sermon on the value of veteran quarterbacking. There’s no mention of Borland’s motivation. No comment on his commitment to maintain the integrity of his brain.
On the shoulder, smoke rises from the hood of an Aerostar minivan. Hazards flashing.
Weeks earlier, back in Georgia, Tra Battle told me that when he moved California he intentionally refused to use his GPS when driving. He wanted to improve his powers of concentration and memory. Intention might be Tra Battle’s favorite word.
As a father of four, a full-time student with designs on medical school or hospital administration, Tra also works full-time as an anesthesiology operating room technician at Athens Regional Hospital. Tra intentionally fills his rare off-days with his four children. Luisa, his wife is from Venezuela, and the Battle home is intentionally bi-lingual. Intentionally, they don’t own a television. With intention, Tra told me, he wants his days filled with meaning and purpose.
In the spring of 2013, when Chelsea texted Tra about Paul’s confirmed diagnosis of CTE, Tra’s thoughts drifted back to the battlefields he shared with his friend. “Our playing styles were completely different. I was always the one to go in and just totally sacrifice my body … fleshbomb! So since then, anytime I get into one of those moods, I wonder: ‘How bad am I?’”
When his own dark moods arrive, Tra says, “I am much better at dealing with it because I am able to talk and share what I am feeling. Then it gets released. And I can do something to remedy the situation.” That remedy varies from working on his short game, doing CrossFit, or riding his road bike for miles and miles. “My endorphin release,” he says.
Motion, meaning, and intention: the values that shaped Tra on the field help him navigate now down a road that others, including Harry Carson, have traveled.
The hazy sea of traffic and lights come to a close as I pull off the exit and down the commercial area of Oceanside.
Before we parted that afternoon in Georgia, Tra asked: “Do you know what professional athlete I respect the most? More than Lance Armstrong coming back from cancer or an athlete competing with a prosthetic limb? Even more than say, Jackie Robinson?”
I told him I didn’t.
“Chris Borland, the linebacker with the 49ers. To make the conscientious choice that this isn’t worth my life. To walk away. To be taller than the game. That required courage.”
Harry Carson, the Hall of Fame linebacker, tells me: “Chris Borland is my hero.”
Carson says a parent would be crazy to allow their child to play football, yet when he and others say it, the words too often slip past without sticking. But a clear and certain logic takes hold when you substitute the name of the game we love with “car wrecks.” Would you allow your child to play car wrecks? A parent would be crazy to allow their child to play car wrecks. Knowing what he knows now, Carson says he wouldn’t play car wrecks again. Carson and Tra Battle, both former car wreck captains, now count heroic the man who walked away from fame, fortune, and years of future car wrecks.
I steer through Oceanside, the former home of Junior Seau, a recent inductee of The Pro Car Wreck Hall of Fame, and turn around in a Jack-in-the-Box parking lot, under a line of palms. On the drive back, I silence the radio, roll down the windows, and listen as the traffic roars.
On most mornings, Chelsea Oliver wakes at 7 and gets Simeon and Silas their smoothies and then whisks them off to school. The drive to preschool isn’t far. It’s the same she’d attended as a little girl in Fountain Valley. Some mornings the boys linger. Other mornings they dart straight ahead without waving goodbye.
On this Sept. 24, she’s not sure what her day will consist, but it’s likely she’ll be at the beach watching the water. She does know exactly where she’ll be next March 30. Chelsea plans to go skydiving. She wanted to do it on the anniversary of his death, Sept.24, but could not find a babysitter, so now she plans to wait until his birthday.
Paul told Tra, back in their UGA dorm, “I’ve found the one.”
“The one?” Tra asked.
Paul pulled up the UGA Volleyball Team website and pointed to Chelsea.
Tra laughed and said, “Good luck.”
Tra had seen teammates hit on Chelsea, ask for her number, throw wads of paper in study hall at her, and trip over themselves trying to open the door for her. Chelsea had a mantra: “I don’t date football players.”
Tra shook his head.
“We’ll see,” Paul said.
On their first date at Paul’s dorm room in the East Campus Village, Chelsea brought over Mr. and Mrs. Smith, starring Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. Chelsea sat on the sofa and he sat on the chair across from her. Halfway through the movie, she could tell Paul was staring at her, “with those big eyes.”
“Do I have something on my face?” Chelsea said.
He smiled and said she didn’t.
“Do I look like an alien?” she asked.
Paul laughed and said, “I’ve never met anyone in my life like you.” Chelsea still wasn’t smiling. Paul tried to explain.
During the movie, she’d made fun of him. She cracked jokes. She cussed. She wasn’t demure like so many southern girls seeking their Mrs. Degree.
Now, Chelsea smiled. “OK,” she said.
He asked if he could come sit next to her.
“Sure,” she said.
Paul was 21. Chelsea was 20. And they were in love.
Two dogs, two kids, two cross-country moves, and seven years later, Paul and Chelsea Oliver sat on the sofa in their house in Marietta, Georgia.
Chelsea recalls Sept. 23, 2013 as a good day. During that last year in San Diego, she could count on a few good days each week. In Georgia, it was a few good days each month.
But that night, as Simeon played and Silas slept, Paul and Chelsea watched Boardwalk Empire and Paul’s favorite, The Food Network.
Putting down the remote, Paul inched closer to her on the sofa. He put his arm around Chelsea and pulled her close. “I love you incredibly,” he said.
“That was,” Chelsea tells me, “our goodbye.”
So next March 30, Paul’s birthday, as the small door of the plane opens, Chelsea will be high above San Diego and all these pieces of Paul and Not Paul. Depending on the haze, maybe she will spot Qualcomm Stadium where he intercepted the Raiders’ Carson Palmer in 2011. Somewhere below will be Arcadia at Stonecrest Village, the apartments where Paul made his “world-famous-down-home” spaghetti night after night for he and Tra. Beneath the clouds will be Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla where Simeon and Silas were born. Far up the freeway, closer to L.A., is the ridgeline of Big Bear Mountain where Paul spent an entire day sledding with his nieces and nephews in thick powder.
Winding their way up the sun-glazed mountain that winter morning, Paul rode the brakes and glanced out the window. He wiped his forehead, his palms. Chelsea finally asked if he was OK. Should they switch drivers? He told her not to tell anyone, but he was really afraid of heights.
I confess a similar affliction and ask Chelsea if she’s scared too. She smiles. “After everything that’s happened,” she says, “what’s left to be scared of?”
On Paul’s birthday, Chelsea plans to step into the sky and fall from 12,000 feet. Experiencing rapid changes in temperature and atmospheric pressure, she will plummet through the clouds. With the jigsawed landscape below rising, she’ll feel a jolt. Then, she’ll float. Sailing through the sky, under an impossible sun, Chelsea Oliver will glide gently back down toward solid ground.
Final Note: November 16, 2002
What would you do? Georgia is playing at Auburn with a chance to go to the SEC Championship. It’s been 20 years since Georgia won a SEC Title. Kickoff is 3:30 Eastern; 2:30 Central in Auburn; 1:30 Mountain, where you live. Your CBS affiliate is showing The Mountain West Conference Game of the Week.
On Monday you call the office of programming at KRQE 13, the local Albuquerque CBS affiliate. Sorry, they say. They encourage you to contact CBS offices in New York.
You call CBS offices in New York. They encourage you to contact your local CBS affiliate. You contemplate throwing your phone through the window.
On Wednesday, an owner of a local sports bar says your best bet is to head north past the border. Pueblo. Trinidad. Find a sports bar closer to Denver’s CBS feed.
On Thursday, you pack your bags to drive to Colorado to watch Georgia play Auburn. You feel sick. But you’re a graduate assistant, teaching basic composition. You’re broke.
The answer, a Hail Mary, arrives in the mail on Friday. You open a Discover CardTM and purchase, in the great American tradition, what you can’t afford.
You call Eric, your Bulldog buddy in Athens. No answer. You call a hundred times. You repeat in voicemail after voicemail the flight information.
Delta: window seat. Flight time: three hours. You take off shortly after sunrise. You barely slept. Over Texas, you close your eyes, and pray strange prayers.
Eric pulls curbside at Atlanta’s airport, his pickup covered in mud. He smiles. You toss your bag in the back and can’t remember being so happy to see another human being.
Eric teaches at UGA in Religious Studies as an adjunct. He’s been mountain biking and camping in the woods since Friday morning. He needed solitude before kickoff. He couldn’t sleep. Nervous mojo. Something that morning told him to check his messages.
You stop at a Walmart ATM on the Alabama state line. Eric withdraws his last 200 dollars. The two scalped tickets will cost 150.
Across the plains, under a gray sky, you walk into the Auburn RV Village. A tailgate, booming Jimmy Buffett, calls you over. A foam tiger tail extends from their RV. A man with a gray goatee, camouflage overalls, and orange hoodie smiles while the thinner, more orange Paula Deen at his hip says, “Hey Bulldogs! Smile! Its only a game!”
You aren’t in the mood, but you will not be that guy.
“Forgive us, ma’am,” Eric says, “we’re just sick and tired of losing to Auburn.”
They laugh, you laugh. Everyone shakes hands. They invite you back after the game. Best tailgate in Lee County. Cooking a whole hog. Win, lose or draw! You and Eric make a thousand assurances to break bread with them and fully intend no such thing.
You aren’t fooled. This is, in the words of Larry Munson, total war. And that truth smacks your face and licks when you walk into the roaring wall of orange and blue. Guitar chords rip pure menace as the voice of Axl Rose welcomes you to the jungle.
You bypass your ticketed seats to hunker down in section 11, lower level, east stands, shoulder to shoulder with Georgia fans. The ball is on the tee. You find your radio headset and scan through static until the voice of Larry Munson rings hard and true.
And for the next four hours, the singular thing with a million variations, unfolds with the requisite violence and grace that borders on rhapsodic.
At halftime, Georgia is down 14-3. It’s cold. You can see your breath.
“Gotta get some goddamned points,” a man with a Mr. Clean shaved head turns and says.
Sparkplug built, he wears a game-worn white Georgia jersey from the ‘85 Sun Bowl. He says he played a little special teams back in the day. You’re prone to call bullshit on Mr. Clean, but when he produces a flask from under the jersey and offers, you count your blessings. Fireball. Canadian whiskey. Cinnamon.
Down four, with two minutes to go, Georgia drives toward the south end zone. Munson doesn’t always help with downs, distances, and substitutions. Sometimes you wish he was less Homeric Bard and more Syracuse or Missouri Journalism Broadcast School Smooth. He’s also 80 years old. You know your days together are numbered.
With a minute and 30 seconds to play, Georgia faces fourth-and-15 from the Auburn 19.
Crowd roars at us. Three wide outs. Man, we’ve had some shots today, haven’t we?
Munson’s resignation echoes the voltage of your own central nervous system. Back in ‘82, Georgia had to stop a late Auburn pass in the end zone. Then, Munson pleaded: If you didn’t hear me, you guys, ‘Hunker Down.’ After Georgia halted Auburn’s final heave, Munson cried out: Oh look at the sugar falling out of the sky, look at the sugar falling out of the sky … .
You lock onto Fred Gibson, Georgia’s lanky wide out, on the right side of the field. The snap to David Greene. So has Auburn. The safety help shades to the right.
There he goes to the corner again and we jump up …You follow an underthrown wobbly ball headed for the left corner of the end zone. You see Georgia’s Michael Johnson go up and you lose sight of what you can see next.
Several events happen separately and at once. The orange and blue shakers in the stands go limp. An official’s arms shoot up. The Georgia bench explodes. Larry Munson is screaming: TOUCHDOWN! OH, GOD A TOUCHDOWN!
And then the girders bend. The stadium falls apart. Mr. Clean military presses you into the air. (You go about 190.) You’re screaming, searching for flags. Mr. Clean, who played a little special teams back in ‘85, screams too as he spins you around.
A security guard, clearly from the correct side of the state line, jumps up and down.
Eric hugs David Pollack’s mother and extended family.
An old timer in a Bulldogs Santa hat places his hands over his face.
You’re screaming: “No flags you son of bitches! Throw no flags! No flags!”
Mr. Clean screams: “I swallowed my dip! I swallowed my dip!”
Georgia holds Auburn on downs. Georgia takes a knee. Georgia is going to the SEC Championship. Georgia is going to the Sugar Bowl. The clock shows all zeroes.
As Georgia people dance and cry, your hands tremble. Is this real? You check the scoreboard. Already scrubbed. You smile. A few rows down, jubilant Georgia players reach out to ecstatic fans. Fluorescent vested security maintains order.
Georgia students and fans stormed this field in ‘86 only to be sprayed by high-pressured water hoses. You were 10 and listening to Munson. The next year Auburn fans ripped Georgia’s hallowed hedges in revenge. That was the first fistfight you ever saw. Not a fight exactly, just frat-on-frat violence.
The crowd empties and Eric sits down. You follow. You will stay until you’re the last ones left or the lights go black or law enforcement escorts you out.
The divine electricity shines on the green turf below as the wind blows bits of stray tape and Powerade cups. Alone in that immensity, you won’t charge the field or vandalize shrubbery, but the moment calls for something.
And there, on the other side of the stadium, staring at us from behind the goal posts: The Great Seeing Eye with three famous blue letters against a yellow banner — CBS SPORTS.
The plastic banner comes down easily, folds, and fits securely under your arm.
Outside the brick walls of the stadium, you stumble upon the gate with Georgia team buses and Georgia Highway Patrol cars, blue lights blazing. Coach Richt emerges from the tunnel and we cheer. In a suit now, he waves and is whisked away by state troopers.
Families of players — little brothers, sisters, cousins, grandmas — wait for the team along with boosters: smooth faced cherubic men with unlit cigars dangling from their lips.
The players file out in black Nike warm ups to cheers. Calls of first names! Nicknames! Hugs! More hugs! Big hugs! You think: “This is just like a family reunion.” And then you realize it is. One booster, a fat man in red suspenders, smacks safety Sean Jones, the hero of the day (11 tackles, two INTs) hard on the shoulder. Jones nods, smiles, winces.
Eric spots Tony Milton, a reserve running back and a student in his Western Religion class. Up from poverty in Florida, Milton spent time in high school living out of his car. To call the odds he’s overcome significant is to understate the case.
Milton spots Eric, lowers his head, and walks over.
“Mr. Covington,” he says, “I can explain. It’s almost there. Almost finished.”’
They share a moment of confusion until Eric realizes that Milton’s talking about a first draft on his Protestant Reformation paper. He asks for a Monday extension. Eric pretends to ponder and relents. Monday, it is. Milton says thanks and extends his hand.
“Tony!” Eric says.
“We did it!”
The smile returns to Tony Milton’s face.
“Ah! Yes we did Cov, yes we did!”
They hug and with that you and Eric wander into the night. Bone-tired, you’re suddenly very cold and hungry all at once. You halved a Clif Bar that morning.
Walking across a parking lot, Eric stops and says, “Now, look at that.”
The RV with the huge foam tiger tail is still blasting Jimmy Buffett.
“Easier to show up now isn’t it?” the voice announces.
Red solo cups appear in your hands: Bourbon with a splash of Coke.
A big screen TV shows Ohio State and Illinois, but you join everyone else and watch kids in the parking lot in Cadillac Williams jerseys hurling NERF spirals.
The man with the gray goatee discusses his time-share in Destin with Eric as you’re handed a hot plate, piled high. Menthol slim Paula Deen slides next to you.
“Now, over in Athens y’all wouldn’t be like this,” she says.” Y’all sulk. Admit it.”
You blow on your plate and nod. You admit it.
“And Bama people — just as soon spit on you. Florida folks used to be OK. Then they started winning. And LSU people, can you even call them people?”
You sip your bourbon, their bourbon, and nod. Between bites of Memphis-style barbeque and brown sugared baked beans, you keep nodding as she regales you with stories from the past. You’re thinking of the future. Georgia has freshmen and sophomores at critical positions: contributors, leaders, nascent stars. More, you think. More sugar, endless skies.
And at that moment, your fandom — a hundred-yard Eden — holds nothing to doubt, no denial to parse, no burden of knowledge. To paraphrase an armchair general from those heady days: you don’t know yet what you don’t know.
You know only the ancient rush of food and fire from a vanquished foe.
“Good, isn’t it?” the man with the gray goatee calls out. Chewing, you close your eyes and nod as smoke drifts toward the stars over Alabama.
And at that same moment, in Pittsburgh’s Allegheny Medical Examiner’s office, the slides of Mike Webster’s brain tissue sit forgotten on the desk of the brilliant and brash Dr. Bennet Omalu — who won’t forget for long.
And racing out of Lee County on I-85, a long line of tractor-trailers speed past rows of pines and billboards for Bible verses and breast augmentation. Tearing across Georgia’s red clay border, the 18-wheelers howl for Atlanta. Heading up 285, the 40-ton machines rumble through traffic onto I-75 toward Kennesaw, where a high school student, a beautiful son named Paul Oliver, dreams of football with eyes wide open as the cars slide by, terribly fast, and do not touch.