Former University of Houston quarterback David Piland was knocked out of the game on September 7th against Temple and will never step foot on a football field again. In October of 2013, just a junior at the University of Houston, David announced his retirement after multiple concussions in his football career. David seeks to educate athletes on the dangers of concussions and how taking them serious is extremely important.
May 21, 2014
[Concussion Connection]: What was your overall knowledge of concussions growing up, in high school and at the University of Houston? Was there education when you were growing up?
[David Piland]: When I started playing as a kid, I didn’t know anything about it until I had my first concussion and then, after that, my dad and I really looked into it. Looked into preventative techniques that had been going on at the time, anything I could do to prevent the next one. So, from there, I guess my knowledge kind of grew, but I didn’t necessarily know the long-term effects of it. I didn’t know any of that until I got to college and I started looking into that more. It became more of a bigger deal to the outside world not just to the people around me. Just, kind of, people talking about it, people stopping and not playing football anymore because of concussions. It kind of opened my eyes and I started researching the long-term effects and different things like that.
[Concussion Connection]: With the knowledge you had growing up and you and your father looking into things, did it scare you or put fear in you about getting hit again? Once you had some knowledge, did you play the game with any fear or did you play the way you always did?
[David Piland]: I didn’t play with any fear of it, it might have gotten me into trouble I guess. I didn’t play with any fear or thinking about it really. I would say that I didn’t think it would be a common occurrence. So I kind of thought, I got hit in the head once and the second time I thought “okay, it happened again.” And then, by the time I got into college I thought wow, I’m starting to wrack these things up. That’s when I had to take a step back and go, you know, I have only got so many hits left. The odds are not in my favor. So that’s when I stepped away from the situation and, early on and in high school, and in college I didn’t think anything of it, it didn’t phase me for a second, didn’t think I would have to quit because of it. It was an eye-opening experience.
[Concussion Connection]: What was the perception at the University of Houston regarding concussions? Was there education and did you have to do baseline testing?
[David Piland]: Yea, there was. When you first get there you have to do baseline testing and then you go from there. I guess the education part of it, I don’t know anywhere or anyone that is going to sit you down and say “hey, these are the effects of playing football or getting hit.” All athletes have this kind of understanding that you might get hurt and that’s part of the game. So it’s not so much education more preventing further injury, further problems later on down the road. I think that in college, they did the best job of all. Especially because as years go on there are more and more things that get picked up on and they do a better job of like if someone gets hit whether they have a concussion or not and doing the sideline diagnosis. They do a pretty good job of all of those things. It’s kind of turning into the norm, but at the same time they are pushing and being innovative and trying to be the best they can be in identifying it and preventing future concussions.
[Concussion Connection]: Do regret playing football? If you could go back
and do it again would you? If you could, and you know what you know now, what would you tell yourself back then?
Listen to David talk about playing football with no regrets
I would play again. There is too much that happened in my life and made me who I am through football, through athletics, through all of everything else, all of the fun stuff. I loved it. If I could’ve gone back and done it again, I would’ve done it a little differently in that I wish I could’ve traded the first three or four years of playing to have three or four more now. I wish I could’ve found a way to replace those first couple years of playing when I was a little kid to playing when I was a little bit older. I feel like that would’ve been helpful. As far as preventative measures, my family and the doctors I have been with, they did probably about as much as they could do. It’s just an unfortunate part of the game I guess.
[Concussion Connection]: How was the process of deciding not to play the game anymore? Do you think this is something every athlete could do? What do you think could be helpful in being there for an athlete when they have to make a decision like that?
[David Piland]: You know, I guess you really find out who your friends are through the whole thing. There’s everyone who is always patting you on the back and telling you how great you are until you make any quote unquote selfish decision in their eyes. You know, whether that be stepping away for health reasons from a game they may just be a spectator of, you’ll get flack for that or whatever the situation is. You really find out people’s true opinions about what they think about you, whether you’re disposable or not, whether you have more of a value then just being a player. That part of it is really hard to swallow as well. I kind of realized that there a lot of people who really just liked the fact that I played, the fact that I contributed and did stuff, but other than that, they have no use for me. It’s really just onto the next one type of thing. There are others that are truly there for you and care so much. Those people are absolutely great. It was hard, there are always the opinions. And, you know, we had it with the doctors too. One doctor would say, “oh yea, you’ll be good to play in two weeks, a week, whatever” after my last concussion. I was just sitting back thinking, “no way, there is no way I can do that. I’m having problems standing up right now, let alone getting hit again.” Then you go and get the other doctors who say, “you shouldn’t have played in the first place. There is so much
that is wrong with this, you shouldn’t be playing now, and don’t play again” and all of this other stuff. You kind of have to find the medium and just realize there are other things out there. Not only that, another thing that is really hard is that I love to compete in any way. Knowing that I had to cut out a lot of sports, after I’m done playing, because it would be too physical. If I got hit again, you know, or playing too hard in basketball and I catch an elbow to the head and I get another concussion, well I’m most likely going back to the hospital and end up with some major circumstances from playing a pick-up basketball game. So, it’s really hard to continue on with competing in other things. That was really hard for me too, because I always wanted to keep doing things and, you know, go snowboard or wake board and all sorts of fun stuff. Then you have to take a step back and say, I can’t take a shot again like that. If I do, it better be worth it, it has to be something crazy. It is a different outlook on everything, I guess.
Listen to David talk about the difficulty of know he can still play but shouldn’t
I would love to play. I know I can play and I would be darn good, but I just don’t… it’s hard to explain to them that you have made the decision not to, I don’t know. “So you can play, but you don’t?” It’s like, yes, that’s right. That’s what’s really hard. The hardest thing for any player who will go through this is you’re two weeks in, three weeks in, four weeks from making the decision and/or your last concussion, you’re going to feel better. You’re going to think, “okay, I can do this. I can play, I can get things done.” That thought went through my mind every day, “I can still play, I can still go out there and do stuff.” But, you really have to try to take a step back and say, “yes, I can, but what is my opportunity cost?” What is it going to cost you down the road? What is it going to cost you in the next couple of years? What is it going to cost you with your family? There are so many variables that go into it, it’s very hard to swallow, I guess.
[Concussion Connection]: Since our injuries, it is hard for us to watch soccer, are you able to watch football?
[David Piland]: I can’t watch football. I can’t watch any sport. People are like, “you played sports”, but I don’t watch sports, I don’t do anything. I just can’t, because I know I want to compete so bad. Watching it just upsets me. So it’s like, no I’ll go watch Desperate Housewives or anything except sports. Even though I would love to play, you know, and that’s why I can’t, because I want it so bad. Maybe eventually I’ll watch it when I have kids, but not right now. This season, I am not watching the draft or anything. It will go right over my head, I will probably disappear for a couple of days during the draft just because it’s not my deal. It’s just putting negative things in my head and I start thinking things. I always catch myself playing pick-up basketball or whatever the sport is I’m playing and I take it to the next level. I stop myself, like oh my goodness, I need to calm down. Let everyone play and enjoy it. Whenever that extra level of competitive nature sets in, it’s scary.
[Concussion Connection]: We have essentially lost our identities, we were soccer players, you were a football player. Losing that identity can turn your world upside down. You talked about a supportive coach and how you find out who your friends are. What was your support system like when you made the decision and now that you are several months out from your decision? Do they get it?
Listen to David talk about losing his football identity
It’s one of those things where you have to find out who you are. I struggle with that still. I know who I am, because I have a strong faith and that really defines me more than anything. Just from the playing aspect, it was such a huge part of my life that so many people would know you for that and “this is what he is” and “this is what he’s always done” and now it’s like this “what have you done for me lately” type of thing. It’s very different when you talk to somebody and they realize who you are. Then they ask you questions like, “so you had some concussions, why did you stop playing?” And it’s like, because of the concussions. They say, “Oh yea, you know, I just couldn’t walk away from the game like that. It’s too prestigious” or whatever else. And most of the people who say stuff like that have actually never been in the venue that we play in as college athletes. Most of the time those people don’t understand what it takes to play at that level. Not only that, but to start. Not only that, but to walk away from a starting position. It’s not like we were given that and it didn’t take any hard work at all. And we are just super lucky and we kind of just rolled the dice right and were like “oh my goodness, we are playing at a college level.” It’s something that not many people understand, but the people who do, you can pretty quickly tell that they were a college athlete or a professional athlete because they will say, “okay, I get that.” Some will say, “my knee was messed up, I wish I would’ve quit sooner, because now I can’t do anything.” So, there’s a lot of people who can hate on it and everything else, but I just let that slide off. I give them the benefit of the doubt that they just don’t understand, they don’t know the reality of it all. It’s always like everything is just so great and we love the sport. There are a lot of hardships that go into playing, there are a lot of emotions and it’s not all ups. That’s what everyone in the world thinks about sports, especially college sports, that it’s just one happy roller coaster ride and that’s not always the case. There is a lot of emotion and a lot that goes into it. The guys I play with, they are my family. We have been through thick and we have been through thin and there are fights, there’s this, that, and the other thing. At the end of the day you love those guys and everything else is fun and an extra benefit, but you pretty much just get a family out of it. That’s what I think most people miss. They think it’s all about the games and everything else. You know, for football, you get 12 guaranteed games, 48 if you make it through all four years playing. And if you don’t, the rest of it is just memories of practice, waking up at 4 in the morning and going to have to run with strength coaches. All of the fun and awful stuff, that’s the stuff that I will remember and really take away from it.
[Concussion Connection]: Yeah, it’s probably especially hard for college football because the media surrounding it. What people think they see on game day is what it really is.
[David Piland]: It’s unbelievable. It’s amazing that people kind of think that’s your only job and, no, you still go to school and there are tests when you come back. Not only that, there is a bigger test and that’s game day and you’re actually going to be on the news and critiqued about that test more than you are the ones at school. Even though you might get an A on the one at school, if you get a B or a C at the one on game day then you won’t stop hearing about it for the next week, you know.
[Concussion Connection]: Would you mind sharing your experience with us about the emotional symptoms and experiences you have had with your concussions?
Listen to David talk about the emotional aspect of concussions
Absolutely. You know, it’s something that is almost uncontrollable which is really hard. If someone is like, it’s going to be okay, be happy and everything else. If I could’ve been happy, I would’ve loved to have been. It’s one of those things where after hits I would be on the sidelines with tears running down my face and everything else. Just because, one, I didn’t know what happened, but, two, I’m not in the game, apparently I’m watching the game. This is pretty much just being told to me because I didn’t necessarily remember, but it’s just so upsetting to not know what happened. The next thing you know, you are on the sideline or in the locker room and you aren’t out there with your guys? That’s the initial reaction, so it’s very emotional right off the bat. You kind of get away from it and realize okay, I had another concussion, this is the situation. You really start to get down and the more I had, the more I would get depressed about them just because I knew my time was running out for each one, I knew I was pushing the limits. The last one was really emotional, really depressing, you know, that was it. I wasn’t necessarily… at first, I was upset that I was done playing. I was upset because you think you let the world down, you’re so emotional. You’re irritable and you don’t want anyone to tell you anything, because you don’t want to listen to it. They’re just like, “it’ll be okay” this, that, and the other. And you’re just like, “you don’t understand, this just ruined my whole world. Everything that I’ve trained for, everything I’ve put in. All eighteen years, or whatever, that have been playing, what’s it for? Now I’m here and I feel like I have nothing.” You feel very emotional, very empty. It’s very hard. It took me a long time and a lot of therapy, working with sport psychologists before I could kind of get over all of it and really let it go. Umm, I would probably say the hardest part of it all was telling my team that I was done. That was the hardest part of all. You know, fans, I love them, they were great. Family, always be supportive and everything else. There was something about the fact that you went through all of the hard stuff with those guys and you had their back and they had your back no matter what. You know, I don’t know how many times we would get chewed out and I would be like, “that’s on me.” Or they would come up to me after I would get chewed out, they would be like, “don’t worry about that, let’s go!” You know, it’s something about your teammates, and the bond you build with them. After being there for four years and everything else, just being able to go up to them and be like, “hey, you know, I’m not going to be on the field with you anymore” and that was probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. Very emotional and that part was, you know, interviews and everything else people will be like, “oh well, that must have been hard.” It’s like, “no, not really.” I can tell a reporter about the fact that I can’t play a sport where he’s a spectator and all of the people who are going to watch this are spectators. But, in all honesty, I don’t know if any of the guys are the team will ever watch this and so, it just won’t bug me. If you would’ve been like, “hey, this is the message that’s going to your team”, if they would’ve said that before the interview, I would have not have been able to do the interview. Because I would’ve just been too choked up and everything else. So that is what, at the end of the day, the game is one thing, but the bond you have with your friends and the fact that those are your guys and everything else… You think back through the years about all of the people who you’ve competed with and played with in high school and all of the people who want you to be successful and really have your best interest. You really feel like you almost let them down. It’s like, “man, you have so much, and you’re so close, and you’re in your senior year.” You’re one year away from going to have an opportunity to do something and/or you’re just that much closer to your goals in college. You just don’t get to see it through and that is what’s really hard about it.
[Concussion Connection]: Do you think you still deal with any emotional side effects? You said you don’t watch football, or sports in general, does that provoke emotion from you? What is that like?
[David Piland]: Yea, I don’t watch it because it upsets me. I don’t necessarily like it and it’s really hard to watch it. It’s actually caused a lot of problems for me because a lot of people that I am around, they want to watch football with a football player. It’s really hard because it’s like I don’t actually want to watch this and it’s nothing against them or sports. They will ask me questions about what I think about or that has to do with football and I don’t have an opinion. You know, it’s like… I don’t know, ask me about politics, ask me about something else, but I don’t want to be more connected then I already am because it was such a heartbreak and it still hurts. It’s one of those things where you don’t want to be around that ex-girlfriend, it still hurts, you know, so you just stay away from her. So that’s, uh, that’s something that is so hard to explain to people. Like yea, this sport has been great to me, but I could still be playing right now. I could be working out with them which I think about every day. And, not only that, but I will wake up every morning at like 5 and go workout because I just miss it so much and I would love to go out there and just go through workouts, go through the miserable stuff because I almost miss that stuff just as much. That is when you really start to build relationships and have a lot of fun. It’s a very hard thing to let go of.
In my family life, my dad really the only thing we really have conversations about, or had conversations about, was football. And we would talk just about every day and it would have to do with football and what was going on and everything else. We really don’t talk anymore because we don’t have anything to talk about because I am not going to talk about football and he knows that. And so it’s like, “oh, did you see…” and my thing is, I’m always like, “yea, I don’t follow it [football], I don’t keep up with it, I have no…” and so he’s kind of going through his own part of it too, because my family was invested in it, I was invested in it and that was a big part of how our relationship was built through the years that’s what we did together. You know, let’s go throw a football and everything else. We kind of have to take a step back and kind of look at what else there is, you know… it’s different.
[Concussion Connection]: Are there any long-term effects that you are starting to see now that are coming up even after a few months removed from your last concussion? What do you deal with today?
[David Piland]: I still have headaches from time to time, the emotional stuff is still pretty fresh, but it’s a lot better than it was, obviously. I would say there is a little bit of a focus problem at this point. I think that will actually calm down a little bit just because I think my mind is a little scatter brained and it just needs to calm down a little more. But, you know, it’s one of those things where I work with therapists and Sport Psychologists and people who will help my symptoms calm down and go away. That’s what sucks about it is there are things you can do to help with those and I go back through those things and it really does help, a whole bunch.
[Concussion Connection]: Do you have advice for other people who are going through the same or similar situation? Career-ending or just thinking back on your concussions that you did come back from through now.
Listen to David talk about the importance of a sport psychologist
Yea, I actually, you know, working with the Sport Psychologist I’ve been working with I think that if I would’ve done that earlier, if I would’ve worked with him after the first concussion, after the second, and all the way through, I think I would still be playing because I don’t think I would have as many concussions as I have now. I think that I had so many lingering effects and so much of the emotional side of it and the psychological side of thinking about the fact that I got this and my head is stressed and there are so many things so then my brain will have to substitute focusing on one thing and it will just throw me all out of whack that then the next one became that much easier to get. I really think that if I would’ve done that at a lot earlier of an age I think I would still be playing because I wouldn’t be having the problems I am having today. I am not saying that that is the answer, but I think that that’s a big part that is kind of being shuffled under the table is the fact that there is a lot of psychological effects with it and kids thinking about it and then stressing themselves out and then getting depressed and super emotional and not being able to go out and be the same player or person that they are.
[Concussion Connection]: So getting an earlier intervention for the emotional piece?
[David Piland]: Absolutely!
[Concussion Connection]: Do you have any thoughts on what can be done to
protect athletes from concussions and/or from themselves? A lot of athletes can’t walk away from the game, any thoughts on what can be done to help them?
[David Piland]: I guess, going into playing sports knowing that it’s an avenue to open doors, it’s not the end game. That mindset alone and really expressing that to young people, because so many people go into it thinking, “this is my ticket, this is the end all, be all, this is it.” And then they have these concussions and they have to keep playing because this is their ticket, this is their plan and everything else. Knowing that there are so many more things that they can do and using sports will mold you and shape you as the person you are and will be and then taking that and using that in the next thing you do. Everyone is going to have to stop playing, eventually everyone’s to be done. Then it’s what you do after that is the biggest thing that you can do. I know it is the hardest in the world to stop, but going in with that mindset and not always, you know… I’ve always had great people around me that have said, “it [football] is going to open a lot of doors for you and you are going to have a lot of opportunities” and I have. That’s what, I guess, at the end of the day. Realizing that there are other things and there are a lot of other things that you can find happiness in and really just getting the most you can out of life. You can put all of your eggs in one basket, you know, do well in school and after your playing career is over, whether it’s by your own choice, whether it’s by injury, whether it’s by retiring after 15 years in the professional leagues, all of those things will eventually come to an end and you will have to do something else. At that point, that is when they will realize that they have a lot more time of not playing then playing.
[Concussion Connection]: So, changing that mindset.
[David Piland]: Exactly, because so many people, especially at such as young age, they hype the fact that “this is it! This is the only thing that matters, this is the only thing and if this doesn’t work out then it’s over, everything is over.” There are a lot of people that have that mindset.
[Concussion Connection]: In the process of changing that mindset that is a huge culture shift that will obviously take time, in the meantime, if they were brought up on the mindset that this is the end-all be-all and they should walk away from the game or they get hit and try to hide it, things like that. Are you someone who would think that teammates could help with that? Should coaches have a bigger role? Doctors should step in? What are your thoughts on how to intervene with people who do have that mindset?
[David Piland]: I hate to… everyone has a choice, there is always an opportunity cost for everything and it’s hard to keep someone from doing something they want to do. They, again, just making them as knowledgeable as they can be to the fact that there is something else, is the only way you can intervene in anything. If you go in and say, “you’ve been hit a lot of times” and they still want to play, they will hear what you say but they aren’t going to listen, they won’t take it into consideration. They will say, “yea, you know, I get that, I have been hit a lot of times maybe I should think about hanging it up, but just after a couple of more seasons and then I’ll be done.” It’s always under their time, it’s up for debate and that was my thing is some people were saying, “you can come back, let’s go right now, you’re good.” Then others were saying “I don’t think you should play.” It’s one of those things that at the end of the day, they have to make the decision because there will always be people saying you can play and then there will always be people saying you shouldn’t play.
[Concussion Connection]: Do you think that players really understand the ramifications of continuing to play with multiple concussions?
Listen to David talk about understanding the ramifications of multiple concussions
I don’t think they understand the long-term, or most people do not understand the long-term. Having that understanding is a big reason why I had the ability to walk away, but for a bunch of kids they don’t understand truly what it’s like. You know, maybe Alzheimer’s runs in their family and they have early onset Alzheimer’s. They don’t understand how live-altering that is, you will never remember playing at the end of the day if that is how things work. All you are doing right now you will forget about in 20-30 years if that’s the situation. There are a lot of different variables that go into it. Not only that but there are a lot of depression problems going on, you know, that people are dealing with, players and former players. There is a lot that goes into it and it’s just trying to improve as much knowledge of what’s really going on as we can.