77 : The Power to Stand, Chris Norton

A little over a month ago, our former Episode 47 guest, Eric LeGrand posted the Facebook Live video featured below.  I watched in amazement as Chris Norton worked with the team from Barwis Methods in Plymouth Michigan during one of his rehab sessions.  Chris, who on the same day as Eric LeGrand (October 16, 2010), was also severely injured while making a tackle on a kickoff for Luther College in Iowa.  Chris fractured his C3-C4 vertebrae and was told he had a 3% chance of ever regaining movement below the neck. Chris has defied the odds every step of the way. His determination is apparent when watching each rep being accomplished in this video.  The amazing support system around him, led by his fiancée Emily, is also a driving force in Chris's recovery.  Since Chris’ injury he has also set up the SCI CAN Foundation, which raises funds to address equipment and other needs at hospitals and rehabilitation centers for patients that weren’t as fortunate as he was.  I immediately sent Chris an email to get him on the podcast after watching this video and highly recommend you watch it before reading the rest this post.

 

Chris and I started off the episode by talking about his football career leading up to his spinal cord injury.  Chris seems like he played the game a lot like I did and prided himself on being a tough player who was not afraid to throw his body around and make contact.  Chris then took me through the moments that led up to the injury.  At the time, Chris was a freshman trying to make a name for himself on special teams.  The opposing player who returned the kickoff had a full-back like build to him.  Being a freshman and somewhat undersized because of that, Chris went low to make the tackle. For anyone who has ever played football before, you hear the phrase "low man wins" at nauseam. The easiest way to tackle a player who outweighs you is to take them out by their legs (as long as they are not a defenseless receiver, but I digress).  In trying to keep his head in front of the ball carrier, which is also constantly taught by coaches, he was kneed in the head and subsequently injured his spinal cord.

Initially he thought he just had a stinger and didn’t think much of it, but as time went on and his feeling and movement wasn’t coming back he began to realize the severity of his injury, especially when they called for a helicopter.  Chris said he felt embarrassed when he was lying on the field unable to get up because he prided himself on not being hurt and playing through injuries (sounds like someone I know...).  Believe it or not, while in the helicopter, Chris was able to remain calm, despite having extreme difficulty breathing.  He focused on taking one breathe at a time to calm himself down.  When he arrived at the hospital, doctors gave him 3 percent chance to regain movement below his neck.  We talk about how that kind of grim news from doctors can affect people in their response to adversity.  In the early stages of Chris' rehab, his therapy consisted of simply nodding his head yes and no.  Eventually was able to shrug his left shoulder, clench his stomach and then move his feet and he preaches to all injured athletes and non-athletes that over time those little inches add up.  This is a theme that comes up frequently from guests on the podcast.

I asked Chris about his rock bottom moment and he told me it was every time he tried to go to sleep because it's quiet and your thoughts easily creep in.  Not to mention that he couldn't move or adjust anything, which left him with an intense feeling of claustrophobia.  He combatted these nightly feelings by working as hard as he possibly could during the day so he would be exhausted by nightfall.  Chris went on to tell me a story from when he was in the hospital and was telling one of his doctors about a new sensation he had in his foot.  The doctor then went on to tell him that it was a, "phantom" feeling.  He remembers this being the only time he ever saw his Dad cry.  Right after “Dr. Phantom” gave this news, Chris's Dad told him to not let anyone tell him what he can or can't do. Chris was devastated, but not even a week later he wiggled the toe that was deemed a phantom feeling.

Naturally we talked about the loss of Chris' identity as an athlete and competitor and how he began to question the value he offered to the world.  Early on Chris realized that he needed to disassociate his pre-injury abilities from his post-injury abilities if he was ever going to be happy.  This was the first time any of my guests brought up this point and I love it.  Unfortunately, you aren't always going to recover back to a level you were at pre-injury.  If you are constantly chasing that bar you will never be happy and that mindset can lead to negative thoughts. Like Chris says, if you focus on getting a little better every single day and show gratitude towards those small achievements, you just might find yourself in better shape than you were before. Through his motivational speaking and the creation of his non-profit called the SCI CAN Foundation, Chris has come to learn that physical movement is not everything.

Throughout Chris' recovery it has been a requirement to be surrounded by positivity.  In doing research for this interview, it became obvious very quickly that his fiancée, Emily was a major source of that positivity.  Chris met Emily three years after his injury through a mutual friend and I asked him if he ever worried about finding a girl who appreciated him for who he was and could see past the wheelchair.  Chris responded by saying "If you're going to focus in on the wheelchair other people will too"  and that "being authentic and true to yourself and being motivated is attractive whether able-bodied or not."  Emily was the one who found the Barwis Methods and their Neurological Reengineering Program.  Chris credits this program and Emily for helping him achieve his goal of walking across the stage at his college graduation. (See video below, good luck not crying).  His new goal is to walk Emily down the aisle at their wedding next year!  Chris went on to talk about the atmosphere at Barwis Methods and how its important that your trainer, physical therapist or ATC wants you to succeed as much as you do.

We finish the interview by discussing kickoffs in football.  Chris thinks it’s the biggest risk factor for spinal cord injury in the game.  He likes the changes they are making to the game to improve player safety, but says he would not be opposed to getting rid of kickoffs completely. Despite what he has gone through, Chris still believe's his and Eric's injuries were freak accidents. Frederick Mueller's Article published in 2014 titled "ANNUAL SURVEY OF CATASTROPHIC FOOTBALL INJURIES 1977 - 2008" states that "The incidence of catastrophic injuries is very low on a 100,000-player exposure basis. For the approximately 1,800,000 participants in 2008 the rate of injuries with incomplete neurological recovery was 0.72 per 100,000 participants" (Mueller, 4).  In this same article, the majority of the injuries resulted from the athletes attempting to make tackles.  My intention is certainly not to scare athletes, parents or coaches by sharing stories like mine or Chris'.  Both Chris and I believe there are risk factors for everything we do and we both appreciate the value of football has to offer.  My hope is that you can learn from the lessons Chris has taught us and find inspiration through his journey.

WHERE CAN YOU support the sci can foundation?

WEBSITE | FACEBOOK | TWITTER | youtube

WHERE CAN YOU FIND chris norton?

Website | BookINSTAGRAM | FACEBOOK

Download Episode 77 : iTunes | Stitcher | SoundCloud

76 : USA Football Modified Tackle Round Table w/ JR Nisivoccia, Brian Bond & Justin Papa

From left to right, Kevin Saum, JR Nisivoccia, Justin Papa, Brian Bond

From left to right, Kevin Saum, JR Nisivoccia, Justin Papa, Brian Bond

A few months back, my friends at Mind Of The Athlete posted an article on their Facebook page about a new proposal for modified tackle football by the sport's governing body, USA Football.  This is an an attempt to mimic similar sports leagues like little league baseball which has a gradual progression to the traditional sport.  I decided to organize a discussion on this new variation of American football with some of my friends and former guests of the podcast.  JR Nisivoccia (episode 3) is a Physical Therapist and serves as the USA Football Safety Coordinator for his town's recreation football program. Justin Papa is a post-rehab personal trainer and a former high school football mad-man who was never afraid to throw his body around on the field.  Brian Bond (episode 31) is a former professional football player who overcame 3 ACL injuries.  The proposed rule changes listed in the NPR article are as follows:

Big Rule Changes Could Make Youth Football Games A Whole Lot Smaller

  • A smaller playing field, which dramatically shrinks the 100-yard field to a length of 40 yards. The smaller size allows a typical field to be split in half, so that two separate games can be played on the same surface at once.
  • Fewer players on each side. In a typical game, 11 players for each team would be on the field at once; in the modified version USA Football plans to audition, that number will be reduced to seven — though it hasn't ruled out the possibility of anywhere from six to nine.
  • There will be no special teams. In other words, that means no special teams in a bid to cut down on the punishing open-field hits those plays often involve.
  • Players at the line of scrimmage cannot use a "three-point stance" — a body position that allows for great leverage and more power off the line.
  • Players must rotate positions, rather than specialize in just one.
  • Coaches must ensure players of equal size are matched up against each other.

Below is an outline of our conversation:

  • What will a smaller playing field do for the game?
    • Potentially more collisions 
    • Less room to pick up speed
    • From JR's coaching experience, most of the big hits in youth football occur at the line of scrimmage.
    • Less incentive to run?
  • Does decreasing the number of players on the field (6-9) improve safety ?
    • Rugby Seven, Sprint football comparison
    • Does more running = better fitness?
  • How important are special teams to the essence of the game?
  • Who is affected most by not allowing "three-point stance" on the line of scrimmage?"
    • We came to the conclusion that the interior defensive lineman will most affected.
    • Will this avoid helmet contact?
  • How feasible are mandated position rotations?
    • Pros and cons
    • Avoiding sport specialization
    • Will this deter bigger athletes?
  • Can coaches be trusted to ensure players of equal size will be lined up against each other?
    • How realistic is this?
    • What happens when the big kids rotate to a ball-carrying position?
  • JR's experience with the USA Football Heads Up Tackling program
    • Sees a lack of translation on to the field
    • Feels that coaches are the problem
  • Toughness Definitions

Overall, our opinion as a group was that this modified version of tackle football will most likely not improve safety, but we all respect the efforts of USA Football to create a more sustainable game.  I would love to hear your thoughts on the topic.  By discussing the issues at hand, we will make the sport and culture safer for the athletes who love to play the game as much as we did.

Download Episode 76 : iTunes | Stitcher | SoundCloud

75 : The Role of Cannabis in Sports Medicine, w/ Retired NFL Lineman Eben Britton

Photo from Howard Stern.com

Photo from Howard Stern.com

I remember being a junior in high school and my buddy on the football team had some of us over to hang out one night in the off-season.  After eating some dinner and probably playing some Halo on Xbox, we went to one of his neighbor’s houses to meet up with some other friends.  When we got there I remember a few of the kids bringing out some marijuana to smoke. This was the first time I had ever even seen marijuana or a bong.  After a pretty successful junior campaign, my dream of playing college football was at an all-time high (no pun intended) and I was about as straight-edged as they come.  I was so laser focused and obsessed with this goal that I refused to be put in any situation that might jeopardize the achievement of that goal. So naturally, I called my mom to pick me up.  To my friends credit, they waited to smoke until after I left.  People often ask the question, “where do you think you’ll be in ten years?” 

If you told me in the car-ride home from that gathering that I would be attending the World Medical Cannabis Conference (pictures below) in ten years I would have said, “are you f***ing high?!” (Pun intended).  I was significantly influenced by the stigma associated with cannabis from a young age, particularly because of the D.A.R.E. program at school which told us our brain’s were going to turn to mush if we ever smoked marijuana and the only thing we would be great at in life would be collecting Dorito dust on our parent’s couch.  To this day, I have never consumed even an ounce of cannabis (well…maybe some second-hand).  It’s funny how worried I was about what a plant would do to deteriorate my brain and not about what smashing my skull into everything with a different colored jersey was doing to it.  I certainly learned the hard way that running people over and making big hits probably isn’t the best way to conserve brain cells. To be honest, I worry about my brain health as I get older and so are a lot of other former football players and NFLers.  Believe it or not, the very plant that we have been told was going to ruin our lives might be the remedy for preserving brain health and saving the game of football and this week’s guest Eben Britton teaches us why.

Photo from jaguars.com

Photo from jaguars.com

Eben Britton spent 6 seasons (2009-2016) in the NFL on the offensive line.  The first four seasons were with the Jacksonville Jaguars and the last two with the Chicago Bears.  Prior to the NFL, Eben was an All American at the University of Arizona where he studied creative writing. I drove out to Pittsburgh to meet Eben where he was speaking at the World Medical Cannabis Conference (as mentioned earlier in this post) where he and three other retired NFL players (Todd Herremans, Marvin Washington and Nate Jackson) spoke on behalf of an organization called Athletes For Care. Athletes For Care is a non-profit organization founded by a group of pro athletes who are uniting as one voice to advocate for research, education, and compassion when addressing important health issues facing athletes and the public at large. In the steel city, Eben and the rest of the Athletes For Care team were advocating for the removal of cannabis from the list of banned substances in the NFL.  Each athlete spoke about the ways they have been able to use marijuana to alleviate the pain that inevitably comes when playing football both during and after their career’s.  Many NFL players become addicted to the opiate pain killers they are prescribed when in the league (like previous guest David Vobora) and after attending the conference and listening to Eben’s story, I am a true believer in this cause.  I was blown away by the countless benefits cannabis offers to the world.  After speaking on the Athlete Panel during the conference, Eben generously took time to share his story and teach us about the benefits of cannabis on the podcast.

Photo Courtesy of Eben Britton

Photo Courtesy of Eben Britton

Eben was raised in a family that was holistically minded.  Natural remedies were always the first go-to medicines and he frequently went to yoga classes as a kid.  He didn’t start playing football until he was a freshman in high school and that was after a lot of convincing to his mom who was always terrified he was going to get hurt.  Even before he suited up and walked out on to the field for the first time, he was focused and determined to be the best football player he could possibly be and everything he did went towards achieving that mission.

Fortunately, Eben didn’t deal with a lot of injuries in high school or college besides a chronically subluxating shoulder.  However, while playing the Chiefs during his 2nd season in league, his shoulder fully dislocated for the first time. He was also dealing with a herniated disc in his back and was on a handful of medications including Adderall, Toradol and Vicodin. Eben says that he and most of his teammates would get a shot of Toradol before each game, which is extremely destructive on the human body considering an NFL football season can last up to 6 months.  Standard recommendations for Toradol are as follows: “Toradol should not be used for longer than 5 days, including both injection plus tablets. Long-term use of this medicine can damage your kidneys or cause bleeding.” 

Eben described how these opiates mask your pain through the central nervous system by basically telling your brain you're not in pain.  However, Eben believes this isn't necessarily a beneficial quality of the drugs because pain serves a purpose.  In addition, Eben talked about some other negative effects of the drugs most frequently prescribed for NFL players which includes an increased frequency of the negative and dark thoughts that would pop up while on injured reserved, along with the mood swings that caused him to be angry and irrational. Not to mention waking up at 3am with the withdrawal symptoms of chills and cold sweats. Juxtapose this experience with the effects of cannabis and the differences are glaring.  During the interview, Eben discusses the science behind the medicinal herb, cannabis, and how it affects the body naturally.

Fortunately, Eben stayed relatively injury free in high school or college so he didn't need to take a whole lot of pain killers.  The first time Eben tried marijuana he was in high school after football season and had an intense experience, but because of that he didn’t use it again until he got to the NFL.  You might be saying to yourself, "but isn't that illegal?" Eben talks about the structure of drug testing in the NFL and how to not got caught.  Cannabis is considered a street drug in the NFL and these drugs are only tested once a year.  The testing for street drugs occurs anytime between the start of OTA’s to the end of training camp. Performance enhancing drug tests are conducted at random throughout the whole year.

As mentioned earlier, I have never used cannabis, so I asked Eben what cannabis does to the pain football players and athletes deal with on a regular basis. Eben said that cannabis doesn't kill your pain, it just reframes it. He went on to describe cannabis as a comfort blanket.  Eben said that every football player is so overly adrenalized because they spend all day everyday in a super extreme environment and constantly running on adrenaline and cortisol.  In other words, they are in a constant state of fight or flight.  Cannabis, according to Eben, fosters an environment of healing in your body. Eben also went on the drop some knowledge bombs on some of Dr. Mechoulam's research who is considered the godfather of cannabinoid.  Specifically, mice studies have shown when someone or something gets a concussion, receptors in the brain initiate the healing process by releasing the neurotransmitter glutamate, which is toxic to the brain over a period of time, especially in football players who are constantly knocking heads. Glutamate starts to destroy brain matter over an extended period of time and is thought to be one of the causes of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, CTE. Cannabinoids cross the blood brain barrier and are able to shut off the receptors pumping glutamate, neutralize the glutamate and actually trigger neurogenesis to form new brain cells. Eben also went on to tell me that cannabis is actually a bronchodilator, which means that it actually improves lung function.

We finished the episode by talking about Eben's transition to life after football and debunking the stigma associated with cannabis.  NFL is often thought to stand for "Not For Long" by many of the athletes who played in the league, but while you're in it, no one is thinking about their inevitable demise.  Guys who reach the upper echelons of the sport have had to sacrifice a lot to get to that point.  Eben says that his transition to life after football has been one of the biggest struggles of his life, but also one of the most rewarding. He advises that athletes need to be gentle to themselves during their transitions, appreciate the work you have done and have gratitude for that experience. Eben's advice for current athletes is to give yourself some distance from your sport at times.  He believes all athletes have an element of creativity inherently inside them and it is important for them to have an outlet outside of the game.  For Eben, that outlet has often been writing.  Some of his articles have been linked up at the bottom of this post.  Eben is passionate about helping other athletes during their transition to life after sports and has helped start The Athletes Afterlife program through Athletes For Care. This program is intended to serve as a support group for athletes to share their struggle and help translate sports skills to other areas. These groups are for athletes of any level and sport. 

I was a guy who fed into the stigma associated with cannabis my whole life.  To be completely honest, I judged guys who used it.  The judgement stemmed from my lack of knowledge about the plant and from living in a society that demonizes it.  Eben says that we need to shift the paradigm of our thinking when it comes to cannabis.  We need to think of the pills that are made in a laboratory as the stuff that we want to stay away from and view the medicine that grows from the earth and is naturally occurring in our bodies as the stuff that will help us.  I hope this episode will help de-stigmatize the drug and prevent athletes from becoming addicted to pain killers in the future.

Eben's Articles 

First Times: Balancing Football and Cannabis with ex-NFL Lineman Eben Britton

What Does It Take To Stay In The NFL? You Don’t Want To Know

WHERE CAN YOU FIND Athletes for care?

WEBSITE | INSTAGRAM | FACEBOOK | TWITTER 

WHERE CAn you find Eben britton?

INSTAGRAM | TWITTER | FACEBOOK

Download Episode 75 : iTunes | Stitcher | SoundCloud