Out of Bounds: Learning about love after loss and the heartbreak of football

How one woman's journey influenced me
Posted at 8:00 AM, Feb 08, 2017
and last updated 2017-02-10 03:31:33-05
When I came across an article about Zac Easter, a young man who took his own life in December of 2015 because he was tortured by the effects of Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), I knew it was an important story to tell. 
CTE is a disease plaguing athletes like Zac, who have brain damage from concussions.  Zac was a former high school football player. But it wasn’t until I met and interviewed his girlfriend, Alison Epperson, that I realized how I wanted to tell Zac’s story.
Alison, who Zac affectionately called by her middle name - Winslow - is a law student at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. I picked a coffee shop to interview Alison. As a reporter, I wanted a spot to have an honest and open discussion. However, from one broken-hearted woman to another, I just wanted a place to have a real conversation, so I could learn how she finds the strength to keep motivated each and every day. I wanted to know for more than just the story, but also for myself.
In August of 2016 I, too,  lost someone I loved, my ex-boyfriend Brian. While at the time of his death it had been years since we titled ourselves "girlfriend and boyfriend," we remained close friends. Like Zac, Brian also had a complicated post-breakup relationship with the game of football.
As far as I know Brian did not struggle from CTE and he did not take his own life. But, like Zac, football was a source of happiness and struggle in his life. Losing the game was harder for him than actually playing it.  
He was an All-American in high school and a division-one four-time Academic All-American in college. He played through pain, using any means necessary to get through a game. He told me the reason he stopped playing was because doctors warned him if he continued,  he wouldn’t be able to pick up the children he planned to have one day. When he lost football, he felt like he lost a large part of his identity.
Last year he explained to me, “Any football player will tell you the number one thing they miss is the guys in the locker room and that camaraderie. I think what football does more than another sport because the game is both so mentally challenging and at the same time physically and emotionally demanding and draining, is it forces you to live it more than any other sport.”

He continued, “It becomes your whole life and to even have a shot to be good, you have to be consumed and obsessed. If it isn’t who you are, it’s hard to have the edge you need. And then all of the sudden it is gone and you better figure out really quick who you are without it.”

Alison’s situation has some parallels to mine. 

Both Brian and Zac had an unmatched intelligence and coincidentally an interest for careers in finance.  They had big hearts and believed in our dreams, leaving us documentation to prove it. 

Alison showed me Zac’s last text to her which read, “You have helped me through so much and never ever blame yourself for anything. I love you and will always be over your shoulder looking after you no matter what. Always keep having fun. Always remember me. Always keep striving for greatness, or should I say, first female president. Never quit fighting for what you believe for. I love you Winslow."

Similarly, I found a Facebook message from Brian that read, “You’re a great girl with a great heart, super talented, beautiful and really hard working. I don’t know how but I know you’re going to change the world. Big or small, you will make a difference. Keep growing and improving and learning, but never lose sight of the fact that you are destined to do some great things some day. ”

He added,  “I love you and I hope I can always say that.” 

Even so, in many ways our stories are different.  Zac left behind many answers, as his death was very much premeditated. I, on the other hand, am left with nothing but questions, as Brian’s death was unexpected and not caused by suicide.  

As I put together Alison’s story for our newscast, I realized Alison can’t write in the blanks to Brian’s passing but she is helping me to fill in some of the holes in my heart. 

When you watch her story, you learn the dangers of CTE, the message she wants to get across about CTE and athletics and what Zac wanted people to know about his condition. 

But that’s not all. 

As I listen to Alison’s interview over and over, I recognize that Alison provided me, and maybe will provide you, too, with another crucial and possibly even unintended lesson. She showed me that in the midst of grieving an unfathomable loss, the way to continue to express your love is by using their influence to find the strength to continue to pursue your purpose.