FORT WORTH, Texas — Mitch White watched football last week, a framed New Orleans Saints jersey mounted on a wall over his shoulder at his home. White watches football differently from most people. He likes to analyze the offensive line, fitting for a tackle out of Oregon State who was a sixth-round draft pick of the Saints in 2001. And on most days, around the hour the early games would reach halftime, White needs to lie down for a nap.
The Saints jersey has its spot, but there were other stops with other teams, too, so many that White sometimes is confused about what order the teams came in and who the coach was. Everywhere it was the same, though. White never played in a regular-season game, always stopped by a freakish injury, a newly signed player, or even one extended battle with the staph infection known as MRSA. After that, White asked the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to allocate him to NFL Europe, now defunct, hoping it would help him get back into shape. White was a journeyman backup and practice-squad player, on perhaps the most anonymous rung in the NFL player hierarchy, trying to hang on to his career.
Now, seven years and one crushing hit later, he is one of the more than 3,000 former National Football League players who are suing the league over concussions. At 34, White is unable to work and is sometimes so debilitated by migraines that he cannot care for his two young daughters.
He takes as many as eight medications at a time to ease his headaches, to smooth his erratic moods, to soothe his sleeplessness. He spends much of his time exploring treatments to find relief that rarely lasts longer than a few days — Botox injections, massage, sensory deprivation. White and perhaps just a few hundred plaintiffs like him did not enjoy much of the glory or the riches that playing on Sundays usually bring. But they suffered the damage that they believe is the NFL’s calling card, too.
In White’s case, it was one hit at an NFL Europe training camp in March 2005, when a blitzing middle linebacker crashed into the right side of White’s head as White was pulling from his right tackle position. That sent him tumbling to the grass, knocking him out for a few moments and altering him so severely that his mother said, “When he first came home, it was like my son was gone."
To see White now is to get a glimpse of the challenges of living with the effects of a head injury. He looks healthy, back down to his high school weight of 245 pounds, down from his high NFL weight of 335. He and his family live in a comfortable house with a big portrait of their daughters on a mantle, in a well-maintained subdivision. This was a good day, his wife, Jennifer, said, meaning he got some sleep and had restrained himself from physical activity enough — a workout at the gym can set him back for three days. The headache, while there from the moment he woke up, was at least tolerable until midafternoon.
But after 90 minutes of talking, White began to lose his energy. His speech became more deliberate. Sitting on his sofa, he shaded his eyes from the overhead lights in his living room. He gets lost if he drives more than a few miles from home.
The Whites were recently out to dinner with friends and after two hours, White said he could not talk or think normally. When they have plans, White said, he will load up on medication and try to get through it. Or they will simply cancel. He used to be really funny, he has told his wife. He misses that, she said.
“I try to act normal," White said. “I just want to be normal."
White, a San Diego native, did not start playing football until he was 16 as a high school sophomore. He does not remember sustaining any concussions in high school, nor in college, where he was a starter for the 2000 Oregon State team that routed Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl.
The hit that injured him, White said, was not even the hardest one he had ever taken, although he thought his helmet was not inflated properly.
“I tried to stand up, and fell over, I did that like twice," White said, sitting in his living room, which is usually kept cool and dark because heat and light can make his headaches worse. “A lot of people have told me — I don’t remember like two or three days after that — I guess I walked up to the huddle, I thought I was in the huddle, but I was three feet behind the huddle. All I remember is I went back in. I just remember being in my stance and trying to lift my head up, and it was excruciating."
White’s odyssey through postconcussion life winds through doctors and hotel rooms, starting first in Tampa, Fla., when he was given Tylenol and Advil for his relentless headache but was still told to go to meetings and watch practice the next day. The nadir came during three months in Birmingham, Ala., where players with longer-term injuries were sent. One doctor told him that he had a mild concussion and should be ready to go in another week or so. But he could not sleep. He was made to run at one point, and ended up vomiting. He spent most of his time alone, in a dark hotel room.
“I wasn’t thinking clearly at all," White said. “I was severely depressed. I had suicidal thoughts, big-time. It just kept popping in my head. I was thinking of hanging myself with shoestring, or every time I was in a car, I had an urge to jump out of the car on the freeway. I knew that was wrong. I couldn’t control it."
A neurologist finally told White that the concussion he had was more moderate to severe. Later, a doctor in Pittsburgh was irate that White had been isolated in Birmingham. He told White to go home, to be around family members who could be supportive. His mother called that time “a disaster." She and Mitch fought, and he had mood swings. “It was like he had a void in his eyes, there was no emotion," his mother, Donna Stacy, said. Finally, doctors told White he would never play football again. He was stunned.
“I was waiting to get better," he said. “It’s just the mentality; you just want to be in there, you feel like you’re letting your friends down. I just thought it was like a knee injury. Rehab and get better and go. It was extreme depression."
White worked briefly with his brother in a food delivery service. But working a full day made his headaches worse and led him to take more migraine medicine than he was supposed to. He had to cancel meetings and lie on his office floor when the migraines struck. After about six months, he stopped altogether.
“It drives me crazy just sitting around," White said. “We are meant to work."
White was able to live off savings for about a year and now he receives about $8,000 a month in payments from the NFL and players union funds. His closest friends understand why White stays at home. But the mothers who take their children over to play with his daughters sometimes may wonder why he is in bed, he said.
White met his wife after he was injured, and everything about their lives together is clouded by his health. Jennifer White works the overnight shift as a registered nurse two days a week, so she is home to help care for their children. When she is not there, he calls his mother or mother-in-law for help. Jennifer is due to give birth to a son this year and she doubts her husband will be able to care for three children. Stacy lives about 20 minutes away, but she is considering moving closer.
Some people have asked why they are having another child, given the situation, and Jennifer replies: “We’re not going to not have children. We’re trying not to let it take over."
Jennifer White would like to quit working when their son is born, but they count on her job for medical insurance. One of Mitch White’s doctors, Gary Tunell of Texas Neurology, hopes that, eventually, White will not have to take so much medicine, but Tunell cannot guarantee that White’s symptoms will get substantially better.
“That this has gone on seven years makes you more doubtful," Tunell said. “I think they will be diminishing in severity over time. I’ve tried to get Mitch to carry on normal activities. He needs to do some form of progressive exercise, and try to work through these headaches. Because right now, they are controlling his life."
The Whites have not given up hope that some new treatment might work. But the awful possibilities loom, every day.
“What he fears is early-onset Alzheimer’s," Jennifer said.
They do not expect much money from the lawsuit, although White is convinced that the league concealed for years its knowledge of the potential risks for players. They hope that improved education about concussions will prevent someone else from going through what White has endured.
Last month, the NFL filed a motion to have the lawsuits dismissed, arguing that they should be resolved under the terms of the collective bargaining agreement and not by the courts.
“The NFL has long made player safety a priority and continues to do so," the league said in a statement. “Any allegation that the NFL intentionally sought to mislead players has no merit."
As for White, he said he would let his son play football.
“I don’t hate the NFL," he said. “I love the sport. I in no way want to damage the league. I just thought I’d get better eventually. I had no idea this could be for the rest of your life. That this will affect you, your family, your wife. I expected to be hurt. I knew there was a possibility I could be paralyzed. Did I know I could get brain injury and be like this? No. I couldn’t fathom that happening."