In the winter of 1987, Harry Carson should have been celebrating the New York Giants' victory in Super Bowl XXI. Instead, he was worrying that he might be losing his mind.
Carson, the All-Pro middle linebacker and Giants co-captain, was in turmoil. He experienced sharp mood swings and was often depressed. For several years he had suffered periodically from headaches, blurry vision and lethargy. He was forgetful. He had difficulty finding the right word in conversations. His once large vocabulary appeared to be slipping away. Alone in his car, he attempted to plug the drain by listening to vocabulary tapes. The former Black College All-America, known for his academic achievements and eloquence, was secretly trying to teach himself how to speak again.
Carson suspected that all this had something to do with the 13 or more concussions he had suffered on the football field since high school. Yet none of the injuries had been more than a "bell-ringer," as players call them, and he was proud that he had rarely missed the next play.
He told no one about his growing difficulties. He did not want to betray weakness to his teammates, coaches or opponents. He kept even his family in the dark. At home he would forget things his wife had told him. She accused him of not listening. "It was not a fun time for a lot of people in my world," Carson remembers. "But since the eggshell was intact, nobody realized how much the yolk had been scrambled." Though he desperately feared disclosure of his condition, Carson didn't know exactly what he was hiding.
Now, more than a decade later, he has gone public. Sitting in his office at the Manhattan headquarters of Mutual of New York (MONY), Carson talks openly about his medical problems. He has joined MONY's sports marketing division, which started last year and is headed by his former teammate George Martin. It offers insurance, financial planning and postcareer counseling to professional athletes.
This is not where Carson had expected to land. He had planned to work in sports broadcasting after his playing days. Even more surprising is that this intensely private warrior, who waited seven years to see a doctor about his symptoms and did not disclose his condition to the public for another two, has become a leading spokesman, along with Al Toon, Merril Hoge, Pat LaFontaine and others, on postconcussion syndrome, a condition that is increasingly familiar in sports.
Meeting a big challenge, however, is nothing new for Carson, the youngest of six children of a railroad worker and a cleaning woman. He entered the NFL in 1976 as a fourth-round draft choice from South Carolina State. He retired in 1988 seemingly well prepared for life after football. He had invested his money prudently and worked during his last two seasons at New York's WCBS-TV.
In his first year out of football, he cohosted CNN's NFL Preview, served as an in-studio analyst for MSG network and filed reports for ABC's Good Morning America. Carson's television prospects appeared to be excellent, but privately he knew better. "I was terrified to go live on the air," he says. "I never knew whether I was going to remember a player's name, statistics or even the right word. As the countdown went 'Three, two, one,' I didn't know what I was going to say."
In 1990 Carson finally told his doctor about his symptoms. The eventual diagnosis, postconcussion syndrome, meant the end of his broadcasting aspirations.
While Carson struggled to find a new line of work, he was asked by the Brain Injury Association in 1994 to promote awareness of postconcussion syndrome. Taking such a high profile seemed risky to him. "I had always fought against the stereotype that big football players were like Moose in the Archie comics," he says. "Now I was admitting that I was a big football player with a brain injury."