For many, the dawn of a football season brings adrenaline, anticipation and dreams of championships.
For Cam Cleeland, the emotions are more complex.
Now a Vancouver resident, Cleeland played tight end for three NFL teams over an eight-year career that ended after the 2005 season.
Talk with Cleeland and you get an uncensored view into the health problems and the not-so-glamorous life that many former football players face.
But Cleeland still loves the game. A recent weekend saw him cheering on the football team at Seton Catholic, where his wife, Mindy, works as assistant development director.
“I’d be lying to say it’s not the greatest sport on the planet,” Cleeland said. “It’s the ultimate team sport. I miss the locker room and I miss guys going out together to compete. I wish there was an opportunity to continue play a sport. Every player will tell you that.”
Concussions are a hot topic in the NFL. Recently, the league settled a class-action lawsuit brought by former players who claimed the NFL hid risks involved with playing football. The league agreed to pay $765 million plus legal costs, but admitted no wrongdoing.
Cleeland suffered at least eight concussions while playing in the NFL and for the University of Washington. The immediate years after his playing career were clouded by the effects of those injuries.
Cleeland had at least three concussions while playing for UW. The most severe caused an 18-hour blackout, when he remembered nothing between playing in the second half and waking up in his parents’ house.
Cleeland suffered at least five concussions in the NFL, but had dozens of incidents in which he “got his bell rung” and played the rest of the game with blurry vision.
After retiring, Cleeland felt mired in a mental fog and had bouts of dizziness. He gained weight and had trouble sleeping.
He was diagnosed with depression, for which he attended counseling and took anti-anxiety medication. Even recreational sports didn’t provide a therapeutic competitive outlet.
Cleeland got into confrontations on the softball field, golf course and basketball court, where he was almost arrested after breaking a fellow player’s eye socket during a pickup game.
“I wasn’t punching,” Cleeland said in a 2010 interview with foxsports.com “I just spun the elbow and he was right there, but I play very physical. I felt awful, but he called the police on me … The violence I used to get away with, you can’t in the real world.”
His irritability strained his family, which includes three children, to the point where he and Mindy almost divorced.
The turning point came when Cleeland sought out the unconventional treatment of Dr. Daniel Amen. Imaging scans of his brain showed craters and impairment in the frontal lobe, the area vital to impulse control and judgment.
After a regimen of multivitamin supplements, Cleeland says scans of his brain have shown some recovery from damage sustained during his football career. He is back at a healthy weight and doesn’t have the mood swings he used to experience.
Cleeland works for All 4 Quarters Sports, which helps high school teams with fundraising. He says, however, that he’s still trying to “find a niche” in the private sector.
“I wouldn’t say I’ve recovered, because nobody really knows what damage has been done long-term” Cleeland said. “We don’t know if we’re more predisposed to conditions like ALS. A lot of people are having those symptoms early.”
Change in attitude needed
A turning point in the NFL concussion debate occurred when NFL superstar Junior Seau committed suicide in May 2012 at age 43. Studies of the former linebacker’s brain showed damage consistent with other deceased NFL players.
“It couldn’t have been worse feeling for me knowing I’ve been in lows like that too,” Cleeland said.
Cleeland, along with friend and former teammate Kyle Turley, has been outspoken about the need for former players to seek help when dealing with physical and emotional difficulties after their playing careers end.
“As players we’re told to be tough,” Cleeland said. “You don’t admit pain or show anything that might be seen as a weakness. But in the real world you have to deal with your decisions.”
Sports fans sometimes complain that somehow players owe them. Without fans, we hear, there would be no gaudy salaries paid to superstars.
But fans also owe something to the players who put their bodies on the line every Sunday for our entertainment. We owe them compassion, understanding and encouragement when the superhero facade cracks and reveals a person who might be struggling.
“We need to let people know they’re not alone,” Cleeland said. “Don’t hide or feel somehow you’re not tough enough.”