Ep. 1: ‘It’s not a success story’

Grant Feasel was all set to pursue a career as a dentist, but everything changed when he was drafted in the sixth round of the 1983 draft.

Cyndy Feasel, Grant’s wife of 29 years, shares her story of how severe brain trauma changed her husband and devastated her family. She witnessed heartbreaking changes in her husband, who slid into alcoholism after 117 brutal games in the NFL. Grant would eventually be diagnosed with stage 3 CTE following his death in 2012 at age 52.

Listen to her story in Episode 1 above.

NOTE: If you prefer to read, I’ve included the script below …

Feasel_Cyndy.jpg


Episode 1: ‘It’s not a success story’

Cyndy Feasel: Look, I’m not blaming Grant for all the problems that we had, but it’s not a success story when people get addicted to anything. It tore our family apart. Our family is still broken. Grant’s been dead for almost six years and our family is still in shambles and we’re still trying to just survive. It’s devastating to me that every Sunday people watch these games and act like this is the greatest thing in the world when it’s just destroyed a ton of families.

INTRO

For many decades, football has been America’s favorite sport. We love its athleticism, speed and grace. And we admittedly love its violence and brutality.

[AUDIO: HE HASN’T MOVED SINCE HE TOOK THAT HIT]

The players are modern day gladiators — sacrificing their bodies for every inch of coliseum turf.

[AUDIO: ONCE AGAIN A VIOLENT COLLISION, THIS ONE HEAD-TO-HEAD]

They get dinged up, they get their bells runs, but then they shake it off and get back out there … all for our entertainment.

[AUDIO: ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?]

But it is becoming increasingly apparent that there is a price to be paid for this entertainment … long-term effects that can dramatically impact the lives of both the athletes and their loved ones.

[AUDIO: OMALU CLIP]

Welcome to season one of the Razed Sports Podcast, in which we’ll tackle the issue of concussions and CTE — brain trauma — in the sport of football.

[AUDIO: TOOK A VICIOUS HIT, HE’S STILL DOWN, HASN’T MOVED]

What does it all mean for the future health of the athletes — these modern day gladiators?

[AUDIO: I DON’T KNOW IF THERE’S ANYTHING YOU CAN DO…]

And how will our growing knowledge of the issue impact the future of the sport itself? In the long run, IS IT ALL WORTH IT?

[AUDIO: ATWATER JUST KILLED RANDY HILLIARD]

Episode 1: ‘It’s not a success story’

In football, nothing begins until the center snaps the ball. The quarterback can call for it all he wants, but until the center actually gives it to him, nothing happens. The next thing that generally occurs is that the center crashes headfirst into the man lined up against him. Two 300-pound men, their brains encased in hard plastic helmets, smashing together. This happens pretty much every play.

Grant Feasel was a center — first at Barstow High School, then at Abilene Christian University and finally for 117 games in the NFL with the Colts, Vikings and Seahawks. The game took a tremendous toll on Feasel’s body, and he died in 2012 at the age of 52 — officially of alcoholism, but as you’ll see, it’s a little more complicated than that.

Cyndy Feasel: “He did not understand that he had a brain injury. He died not knowing he had a brain injury. … [PAUSE] … He would say ‘I know I’m going to have problems later with my knees, and I’ll probably have to have knee replacement.’ He said ‘I may have to have a hip replaced.’ He talked about those kind of things that acted as though they could be surgically fixed, and then he can have somewhat a quality of life. But again, you only have one brain. You don’t get a transplant and it can’t be fixed. And we had no idea that that was the most serious and crucial injury of all of the ones that he had.”

That’s the voice of Cyndy Feasel, Grant’s wife of 29 years. This is really her story more than his. In the six years since Grant’s death, Cyndy has been open about how football affected her husband. She wrote a book called “After the Cheering Stops” in which she chronicled their story — Grant’s addictions, first to pain killers and then alcohol — about his mood and personality changes over time. And about how all of this contributed to the disintegration of their family.

But to fully understand how difficult things got for Grant, Cyndy and their three children, you have to go back in time and get a feel for what kind of person Grant Feasel was.

In the NFL, Grant Feasel was known among his teammates as “Fighting Feasel” for his scrappy, physical play. He loved the game, but he was far from a stereotypical jock. Cyndy first met Grant at Abilene Christian University, where they were students. She was an art major and a budding Texas socialite, and he was a mellow California dude, a mountain of a man who shuffled around campus in flip-flops. Cyndy was fascinated by Grant’s intellectual versatility and emotional sensitivity.

Cyndy Feasel: “I like to say that Grant was a renaissance man because he got my attention not because of his football ability. I really knew the football player but I just knew that he was super smart, that he cared about his grades and that he liked to be around people. He was a kind, friendly person and he was always smiling and happy. Those were the qualities that really first attracted me to him. And he laughed because when we were set up on a blind date by my roommate in college, he thought that I would know everything about him and football, and I really didn’t.”

Grant liked poetry and he liked the arts. He was down-to-Earth, but also confident enough during their early dating days, to play guitar and sing to her.

He was an excellent student as well, and dreamed — as Cyndy wrote in her book — of becoming a dentist. And despite Grant’s prowess on the field, dentistry seemed at the time like his most likely career. More on this a bit later.

As a father, Grant was a loving and attentive mentor for their three children, Sean, Sarah and Spencer. Sean and Spencer have both referred to their father as their hero, and Sarah once wrote that the greatest compliment she ever received was being told she had a heart just like his. Efforts to reach the three of them for this story were unsuccessful.

Cyndy Feasel: “He was just a great dad. He had patience for them. He would read them books, you know, at night. That was one of his things that he loved to do when they were little and he would come home from football practice and he would read to them at night. It was real important for him to connect with the kids, of course.

“One of the things that happened to him as, I say, now I understand that he had a brain injury so as the brain injury started compounding, I think he had less patience, less tolerance. He had more aches and pains. He was less able to be with them because of the fact that he started isolating. You know once they go to be a little bit older he was isolating and drinking in the evenings and he wasn’t available like he had been when they were younger.”

We mentioned a moment ago that Grant Feasel had wanted to become a dentist. In fact he was well on his way to doing just that as he wrapped up his time at Abilene Christian. He had passed his exams and been accepted by multiple dental schools. They even allowed him to delay entry, so if he was drafted and went to training camp, but ended up not making an NFL roster, he could still enroll in dental school.

And Grant’s NFL expectations were low. Abilene Christian was a small program not known for churning out big-time football players. Grant didn’t really expect to be drafted by an NFL team. And he told Cyndy that he wouldn’t bother to try out for anyone as a free agent. If he didn’t get drafted, Grant told Cyndy, he’d go straight to dental school.

But when the Baltimore Colts chose him in the 6th round in the 1983 draft, it changed everything. And when he made the Colts roster, dental school would wait. Cyndy still struggles to deal with that twist of fate and to think of what might have been had Grant not been drafted.

Cyndy Feasel: “Our lives would’ve been different. And it makes me sad because then I turn it around and think I would have my family, you know. Grant would’ve had a different health record, I think. I mean he might have still had some issues and had to have knee replacements and things like that, but even having brain damage I think he would have been able to have some good years of his career. Now he might have gone downhill earlier, true, but you know, I think that he would have had some better years, I really do. I don’t think he would have died at 52. I mean, 52 is young.”

But in 1983, none of this was on the minds of Grant or Cyndy. Grant was big and strong — 6-foot-7, tall for a center, and nearly 300 pounds — seemingly indestructible. And football became a quest. First, it was a quest to make a team. Then to become a full-time starter, which he did with the Seattle Seahawks. Then it was a quest to hold onto that starting position as long as possible.

Somewhere along the line, the dream of dental school faded into the background, in part because of what in hindsight was a pretty ominous sign. One day Cyndy saw that Grant had left a stack of medical books on the counter. When she asked him about it, he confessed that he didn’t think his body would hold up as a dentist, of all things. Too much standing and leaning over patients. So he decided to study to eventually become a doctor instead — thinking it would be easier on his body. And he would pass the MCAT with flying colors and was accepted to multiple medical schools. But like dentistry, med school would also wait.

Meanwhile, the more he played, the more the injuries piled up. In training camp with the Vikings in 1985, Grant shredded the ligaments in his left knee and had to undergo reconstructive surgery. Three years later, with the Seahawks, he did the same thing to his right knee in a playoff game against the Houston Oilers. After surgery Grant developed a staph infection in that knee, and required more surgeries, and it was so bad at one point that the doctors warned him that if they could not get the infection under control the leg would have to be amputated. But Grant would recover — and keep on playing.

As Grant’s importance to the Seahawks increased, the team started doing what it could to help him manage his ever-increasing pain. Every Sunday after the game, he’d come home with a little baggy filled with pills, courtesy of the team. In her book, Cyndy said she asked him what they were for.

“Everything hurts,” he replied. “The team doctor gave me these when I told him I was in pain.”

Cyndy Feasel: “Grant, his fingers hurt, his knees hurt, his back hurt, his neck hurt, his toes hurt. He constantly had the skin rubbed off of his knuckles and his toenails were broken off. All of those things were hurting.”

“I think that was around the year that he started taking and relying more on the opiates to get through. Of course they were readily available at the Seahawks and so I say that the pills became an issue because he was hurting more and more.

Those were the things that started happening at the end of his career that didn’t seem normal to me. He wasn’t himself, the way he had been prior, and so I think the injuries compounding caused it.”

Grant would retire after the 1992 season and initially things were fine. He poured his efforts into Cyndy and their three children, as if making up for time lost to the demands of a busy football career. But gradually things began to change. He became more withdrawn, more moody. The interest in med school faded away and he instead got a job selling medical equipment — when Cyndy asked about that, he simply reasoned that “hey at least I’m still in the medical industry.”

Grant continued to take painkillers when he could get them, and he supplemented that with hard alcohol. Sometimes taking them together. At first, he would go out after the kids were asleep to buy whiskey, or later, vodka would be his beverage of choice. But soon he would simply hole up in his office at home, drinking much of the night, and sometimes during the day.

When Cyndy question Grant about it, he would just say that he was in pain, and this was what he had to do to deal with it. But eventually his evasiveness would change into something a little darker, a little meaner. He’d hide liquor bottles in the house and when confronted, his resistance was more forceful. He’d swear at Cyndy, call her fat and other names, tell her to just leave him alone. There were a couple of instances, too where he got physical with her.

In one particularly frightening episode that Cyndy writes about in the book, Grant storms into the guest bedroom where Cyndy was sleeping. He comes in at 3 in the morning, flips on the lights, brandishing a large knife that he got from the kitchen … and this is Cyndy’s writing right here …

He said he’d just called the police and said I was trying to kill him. I looked at the kitchen knife he was holding.

“You said I was trying to kill you?”

“Yeah, I did.”

“Grant, how could I kill you when I’ve been sleeping soundly in the guest bedroom?”

Grant hadn’t thought of that.

“But you want to.”

“No I don’t. Go back to bed.”

Grant shrugged and left. Once I heard the master bedroom door close, I jumped out of bed and locked myself in the bathroom. I didn’t know if he would be coming back or what he was capable of in his mind-altered state. I hadn’t forgotten how he’d squeezed my arms or choked me in front of my daughter, half-out of his mind with rage. I was afraid of Grant, who constantly called me vile names and slammed doors in my face. No matter how frail Grant was, he was still bigger than me.”

Cyndy Feasel: “It was hard for me. I kept, like you said, feeling him slip away, begging him to get help. And I can remember at one point pretty much every night we had arguments because he would be drinking and I would say ‘you’ve gotta get help. You’ve gotta get to rehab.

“So, it was a huge source of a problem in our relationship and in our marriage because I just continually wanted him to seek help and he just kept thinking he could do it on his own. But you know typical to an addict, they are in denial. And I just think that Grant was in denial a lot about what was going on with him.”

The sensitive, intelligent, well-rounded man was — in a lot of ways — gone.

The pain, led to the pills, led to the alcohol and you can probably see this coming — would lead to the breakup of the Feasel family. Grant’s behavior grew worse and he resisted efforts to help him. At one point he did agree to go to rehab, but he left after what was supposed to be a month-long stay. Cyndy didn’t know what was happening to him, not really. She may have thought he was becoming an alcoholic, but she had no idea that Grant’s brain was damaged and he couldn’t do anything about what was happening to him.

What she did know was that it was becoming increasingly difficult to be around him and so she stayed away. She got a job teaching art. She started going to the gym — his comments about her weight had gotten to her. Grant noticed her absence and accused her of having affairs, an accusation that shocked Cyndy. Except, then, that’s what she did.

It was brief and it was regrettable — Cyndy is open about it in her book — but it was one of the final dominoes to fall in their relationship.

Cyndy Feasel: “I came undone at the end. I think I had a mental breakdown when I had the affair and the things that weren’t right that I did. I’ve apologized for all of those things, but I’m just saying that wasn’t typical of my behavior. I had had as much as I could, mentally. I think that people can only take so much. I’d taken 29 years of the man that I loved distancing himself from me. I don’t know that many people that can stand strong through that. Most people would have left their significant other years prior. I stayed with Grant because I loved and adored him, and I wanted my kids to have their dad. But I think now that maybe I did a lot of damage by just staying. I don’t know.”

It wasn’t long after the affair that Cyndy did leave Grant. And then, about a year after she left, Grant’s liver failed him. He died on July 15, 2012, at the age of 52.

After Grant died, his brother Greg had his brain sent to the Boston Medical Center to have it studied. This was roughly a decade after Dr. Bennet Omalu had discovered a previously unknown disease that he called CTE — chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Omalu discovered it while performing an autopsy on former Pittsburgh Steelers great Mike Webster, who like Grant Feasel played the center position. CTE had also been discovered in the brains of ex-NFL players Terry Long, Andre Waters, Tom McHale and others. Players, and the public, were beginning to notice a trend.

Cyndy Feasel: “By then even six years ago Dave Duerson had killed himself, Ray Easterling, Mike Webster. There were already plenty of guys that had, that were having their brains autopsied. So it was being talked about a little bit, and Grant said ‘maybe I have that disease that Mike Webster has.’ And I remember saying ‘what is it?’ and we kind of talked about it a little bit. But again I don’t remember ever getting on my computer and researching CTE because it just didn’t even ring a bell to me that Grant would have it.”

Grant did have it. He was diagnosed with stage 3 CTE — there are 4 stages, and the third is marked by memory loss, executive dysfunction, difficulty with attention and concentration, explosivity and difficulty managing emotions. Another thing to note about CTE, it is not believed to be necessarily connected to concussions. Yes, concussions damage the brain, but it goes beyond that. It is believed that repetitive blows to the head whether they result in concussions or not, cause CTE. Repetitive blows to the head, such as the kind a center like Grant Feasel — or Mike Webster — receive and deliver on nearly every play.

For Cyndy Feasel — Grant’s worsening condition, the mood swings, the personality changes, the alcoholism, the addiction to pain killers — it all is a result of the brain trauma he suffered from years of football.

Cyndy Feasel: “Every single play, and that’s what just talking about it right now brings tears to my eyes because it just makes me sad to think that all those years. He could have been a doctor. He was accepted into dental school and medical school, and he had options. A lot of these guys that play football don’t have any options and they take the money over the smartness of knowing that it causes brain damage now. I don’t have a lot of sympathy for the guys that are playing at this point because they know. Grant didn’t know. He could have made more money being a doctor, and being a doctor his whole life than he made in football, the years that he played. People didn’t make the kind of money in the NFL the years that he played like they do now.

“So it’s so tragic and sad. It’s hard to believe that it’s been my life, it’s hard to believe it was Grant’s life. That he died for other people’s entertainment, it’s just overwhelming to me.”

Cyndy holds the NFL accountable for so freely handing out painkillers to Grant, playing a role, in her opinion, of turning him into an addict. But mostly she’s just sad that playing the game changed her husband into someone who, in the end, she hardly recognized. And she’s devastated by what happened to her family. Her children have not spoken to her since Grant’s death, she says. Her texts go un-returned. Mother’s Day is ignored. Cyndy says they blame her for the mistakes she made, and for leaving Grant when he was suffering and in need. She doesn’t think they understand the whole story.

Cyndy Feasel: “A lot of other families who have been through what we’ve been through, they’re broken. And I know that that’s not what Grant would want. Listen, I understand now Grant had a brain injury. He wasn’t just an addict, he was a brain-damaged addict. He couldn’t control anything that was happening to him.”

Cyndy wishes she had been more knowledgeable about what Grant was dealing with at the time, saying she would have been better equipped to help him, better able to present evidence to convince her husband to seek help. She also wishes she had a chance to explain everything to her children, and to work on healing those relationships. She says she knows that time heals and she’s hoping and praying that over the weeks, the months, the years that — in her words — their hearts soften and they decide they want to discuss it. Because she believes that the situation will not get better for any of them until they all sit down, and talk about what happened.

OUTRO

Thank you for listening to the Razed Sports podcast. For more on this episode, including an excerpt from Cyndy Feasel’s book, ‘After the Cheering Stops,’ go to RazedSports.com. You can also purchase her book on Amazon and all the other regular places you buy books.

This episode was written and produced by me, Bob Harkins. As far as the music goes there is one beautiful song on here called ‘Waking Stars,’ by Kai Engel. The rest of the music comes from dl-sounds.com.

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Thanks so much for listening, have a great day!