My son Eric had a passion for sports at an early age. He started playing in-line hockey at 6 years old. Eventually he moved on to football, rugby, soccer, basketball, volleyball, and anything and everything in between.
I never once thought that his passion and zest for sports would ultimately lead him to an early death, at 18 years old.
As a mom, I always feared that he would get hurt playing sports. The same hits that made others say, “Aah, did you see that hit?” (thinking it was great), made me cringe.
Eric played football for two years (from ages 11 - 12), but he had to quit because of an injury. For years, he begged me to let him play again. Eventually, a doctor cleared him and he started playing again his sophomore year of high school. At the end of the season, Eric sustained his first concussion.
After that, he started playing rugby in the spring of his junior year, and when he turned 18, he was quickly moved to the adult semi-pro team due to his passion for the game, intensity, and speed. The intensity with which Eric played sports resulted in three documented concussions, one each year for three consecutive years.
The first one (in his sophomore year) playing football for his high school team, the second one (in his junior year) from a pick-up football game with friends, and the third one (in his senior year) while playing rugby for the Pittsburgh Harlequins.
That concussion received on September 30, 2006, during a rugby match, was different from the others. Eric collapsed on the sidelines holding his head and groaning in pain. He was rushed to the hospital and remained there for two days. On the third day he was released and the only restriction he was given was “no contact sports for three months.”
At that point, Eric asked if he could run and lift weights so he didn’t get out of shape. He was told that would be okay. He was released from the hospital on a Monday; one week later he went to the school’s workout facility with a friend to lift weights.
Ten days after Eric’s rugby concussion and seven days after his release from the hospital, the day after he lifted weights, as we sat down to our family dinner and said our prayers, the unthinkable happened.
Eric’s body stiffened with clenched fists, his eyes rolled back in his head, and Eric collapsed with horrible sounds coming from his airway. We immediately called 911 and performed CPR until help arrived.
He was taken to the hospital and pronounced dead. Eric’s brain had swollen and herniated, cutting off his breathing and heart rate.
We have since learned that Eric had sustained a head injury on September 16, 2006, that we had not been aware of, just two weeks prior to the severe concussion on September 30, 2006.
We didn't know that Eric had been removed from a rugby match after a hard hit and was given ice to apply to his head on the sidelines. It was only after his death that teammates told us about that head injury; they said, “Eric was out of it and slept the whole way home.”
Eric loved life, and I’m sure he never thought he could die from complications of a concussion; nor did we.
Knowing what we know now, he most certainly had other undiagnosed concussions and too many sub-concussive blows to the head to count: slamming into the boards in hockey, running full tilt into a block wall in basketball so that he could backhand the ball to a teammate keeping it in play, you get the idea. Eric was very competitive; he was intense and aggressive in every sport or activity he participated in.
When Eric passed away, his autopsy was performed by Dr. Bennet Omalu (the doctor the movie Concussion is about) and further studies were performed on Eric’s brain tissues by Dr. Ann McKee at The VA-BU-CLF Brain Bank. We were shocked to learn that Eric’s brain showed signs of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE, deposits of abnormal, toxic protein, called tau).
Although I was always concerned about injuries, I didn’t know that damage could have been accumulating in Eric’s brain. All of the times that Eric accelerated and stopped quickly, his brain was hitting against the skull of his head.
I urge parents, coaches, and players to become educated about concussions and sub-concussive head injuries. Never, never, never, let an athlete return to play with a brain injury that has not completely healed. No game is worth it. Emphasize this with your sons and daughters.
It’s not “just a concussion.” They must understand that every head injury is serious and requires both physical and mental rest. The brain needs time to heal.
I am not trying to dissuade children from participating in sports. Playing sports has many advantages: physical fitness, confidence, learning to work hard, sportsmanship, trust, and working together with teammates. I am promoting safer play, receiving proper care in the event of a concussion, and gradual return to play when completely symptom-free.
Information about concussions is much more readily available today than prior to Eric’s death. It is important to our family to do everything we can to prevent a tragedy such as Eric’s from happening to anyone else. Together, we've created The Eric Pelly Sports Education Fund, which works to educate athletes, parents, and coaches on how to recognize the symptoms of concussions. I couldn't do all of this without the support and help of my wonderful family, friends, and organizations like the Concussion Legacy Foundation and Stop Concussions.