HAMBURG, N.Y. — Growing up, Matthew Benedict spent most of the year with a helmet on his head.
There was football in the fall, hockey in the winter and lacrosse in the spring. In the summer, he and his brother and their buddies would head to Toronto for weekend hockey tournaments.
There were too many hard hits to count, and even more bumps and bruises. Yet Benedict’s mother, Anne, never feared for the safety of her very active and energetic children.
Until Oct. 26, 2013.
During a game against rival Trinity, Matthew, a junior defensive back for Middlebury College, was kneed in the forehead by the opposing quarterback.
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“It was the first time in any of my kids’ lives when I said, ‘Get up Matt. Get up Matt,’ ” Anne Benedict said.
He did, but a short time later was hit again, this time on the side of the head. Benedict would stay in the game, finishing with 19 tackles, one shy of the school record.
Within weeks, his family noticed a marked change in the 21-year-old’s personality. He was uncharacteristically tense. Instead of being at the center of the close-knit family’s holiday get-togethers, he retreated to his room. At Christmas, he told his younger sister, Lizzy, that he’d been “in a funk” for a month, unable to sleep or focus.
Less than six years later, Matthew Benedict was dead, dying by suicide July 1 after leaving brief notes for his parents and girlfriend. He was six weeks shy of his 27th birthday.
“I just can’t take the pain anymore,” he wrote to his parents. “I don’t know who I am anymore.”
Benedict is not the first athlete who played contact sports who took his own life. He is also not the first 20-something to struggle with mental health problems. But his story illustrates the challenges parents face as they decide whether to let their sons and daughters play contact sports, as well as deciphering conflicting messages from scientists and sports leagues about head trauma.
While Benedict’s symptoms may have become more acute after a couple of hard hits in a game, he also sustained many hits to the head throughout his childhood, and not just from football but other high-risk sports.
The Benedicts suspect their son had the degenerative brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), but they will never know for certain because Benedict’s body was too badly damaged after jumping from the 17th floor. Instead they are speaking out about the importance of parents educating themselves and the need to erase the stigma that persists around mental health issues, which Anne and Bill Benedict believe kept their son from asking for help.
“We don’t blame anybody,” Anne Benedict said. “We blame ourselves more than anything else for not being able to protect our son properly. Or not realizing it.”
Research has shown that the incidence of CTE increases with exposure, meaning someone who begins playing at, say, age 5 is going to be at greater risk than someone who starts at age 15. The same applies to someone who plays for 10 years as opposed to someone who plays for two.
But scientists still can’t say what role genetics play or whether some people are more predisposed than others. They cannot say how many hits are too many. They cannot say if factors like drugs might aggravate the disease or accelerate its progression. They cannot predict when someone who develops CTE will begin showing symptoms.
And then, as in Benedict’s case, there is the possible multiplier effect of a child playing more than one contact sport.
Until recently, concussions were thought to pose the biggest threat to an athlete’s long-term health. But many scientists now say it is sub-concussive blows, the hundreds of jarring hits athletes take.
Many researchers have recommended no tackle football before age 14. U.S. Soccer has banned heading of the ball for players under the age of 11 and set limits for practicing them for players 11 to 13. USA Hockey prohibits body-checking for players 12 and under, as well as for all female players.
But is that enough? Can a parent be assured that that will keep their child safe and spare their families the Benedicts’ anguish?
It doesn’t help that parents looking for information and guidance find conflicting messages.
For example, the latest Consensus Statement on Concussion in Sport, released in 2017, downplays the link between repetitive head trauma and CTE, saying “the notion that repeated concussions or sub-concussive impacts cause CTE remains unknown.” It also casts shade on studies showing a prevalence of the disease in former football players because the brains were donated by people who feared they or their loved ones had CTE.
Except the group issuing the statement, the Concussion in Sport Group, is funded by FIFA, the International Ice Hockey Federation, World Rugby, the International Federation for Equestrian Sports and the International Olympic Committee. The lead author is a longtime skeptic of the dangers of repetitive head trauma.
“These people that write these papers, they drive me nuts,” said Robert Cantu, co-founder of the CTE Center at Boston University’s medical school and co-founder and medical director of the Concussion Legacy Foundation.
Cantu is a participant in the Concussion in Sport Group, which examines issues beyond long-term damage. But he said the group’s dismissal of a link between CTE and repetitive head trauma “bothers me a lot.”
“So often they disregard a lot of information in the guise of, ‘We don’t know yet. We don’t have definitive answers.’ No, we don’t have definitive answers. But boy, we’ve got a ton of data,” Cantu said.
“We didn’t have definitive answers about smoking, either,” he added. “We just had a ton of causative association that reached a tipping point until the Surgeon General said, `Enough’s enough.’ That’s what’s going to happen with head injury, too.”
Fewer kids playing football
Even without definitive research, some parents are already making the decision the Benedicts say they would if they had it to do over again.
The number of high school boys playing 11-man football has dropped for five consecutive years in the National Federation of State High School Associations’ annual participation survey. It is still the most popular sport among boys, but the 1,006,013 who played in 2018-19 is the fewest since 1999-2000, when 1,002,734 played.
There are also smaller decreases in the number of boys playing ice hockey and wrestling, while participation in soccer and field hockey increased for both boys and girls. There is a risk of head trauma in all of those sports, though football has been the focus of attention throughout American culture.
Several states have considered banning tackle football for children under the ages of either 12 or 14. In New York, where the Benedicts live, lawmakers will consider legislation next year that would prohibit tackle football for kids under 12.
“It’s hard to believe that people really think that tackle football is OK for their kids now. I just don’t get it,” Anne Benedict said. “The studies, the research – all you have to do is look at some of these kids that this has happened to.”
Including, they believe, their son.
‘I know he has it’
Benedict’s parents said their son did not have a history of mental illness before that Trinity game. Though his symptoms mimicked those associated with bipolar disorder, the Benedicts said Matt’s clinical psychologist told him he was not bipolar.
He was, however, diagnosed with post-concussion syndrome after the Trinity game. He told one neurologist that while he could only recall having one concussion, after being hit in the eye by a baseball when he was 5, he’d had his “bell rung I don’t know how many times.”
“We don’t think he developed something all the sudden,” Bill Benedict said. “We think it really goes back to the concussion. Or concussions.”
Anne Benedict did exhaustive research to try to figure out what might be wrong with their son and how they could help him. At one point, she came across a story about Owen Thomas, one of the youngest people to be found with CTE. A football player at Penn, he hanged himself when he was 21.
She was alarmed at how strikingly similar Thomas’ spiral was to that of her son’s.
CTE can only be diagnosed through an autopsy. The Benedicts hoped to have Matt’s brain tested, but his brain could not be salvaged after jumping off the building where he was working as a summer associate at a law firm.
“I know he has it,” Anne Benedict said. “(But) yeah, it probably would have been easier” to have confirmation.
Instead, they live with questions. And regrets.
“A guy asked me, ‘Knowing what you know now, would you let your kid play football?’ ” said Bill Benedict, who played football himself through college.
“I said no. … We wouldn’t have our boys playing (any) helmeted sport.”
‘I was ashamed of myself’
The day after Benedict died, his parents established a foundation in his honor, One Last Goal. While they are still working out the details, its focus will be on removing the stigma around mental health issues.
A few days after he graduated from Middlebury in May 2015, Benedict wrote a long essay in which he detailed his struggles. Though his family had nicknamed him “The Golden Child” because he seemed to have everything in life, Benedict wrote that he often felt like a fraud. In the past two years, he described, he’d suffered “two severe episodes of depression.”
“I wanted to hide from everyone and everything,” he wrote of the first episode, which occurred at the end of his junior season, after he’d earned second-team all-conference honors and been voted a captain by his teammates.
“I could not carry on a conversation of any depth and most conversations were people congratulating me. Congratulating me on what?” he wrote. “Not being able to get out of bed? For taking hours and hours to work in a library only writing a paragraph? I had no reason to be congratulated. I wasn’t working out and I was setting a terrible example for my team. I stopped calling home, going out with friends, or having any joy in life.”
After his death, Benedict’s parents found writings on his computer that revealed an even greater despair. He wrote about going for a drive one night to try to clear his head, and having to resist the urge to drive off a bridge or hit a tree.
When he returned to his dorm, he took six Advils and mixed them with beer. He was pretty sure it was a suicide attempt, he wrote in his online diary.
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“I refused to tell my friends and family the extent I was feeling because I was embarrassed,” he wrote in his public essay. “I was ashamed of myself.”
Though Benedict’s essay was praised by some, his parents said others were not as kind. Some thought he’d made Middlebury look bad because he mentioned a student who had died by suicide and another who had attempted it, suggesting the school and its community needed to be more proactive and supportive of mental health issues. Others said he’d been foolish to be so public, his deepest struggles now out there for prospective employers and everyone else to see.
From then on, his parents said, he withdrew.
He had to take the spring semester off in each of his first two years of law school. Once, while they were at a lecture series at the University of Buffalo, Anne Benedict said she looked over and saw her son’s knee jiggling like a live wire.
But there were signs of hope, too. He’d started dating his girlfriend over the winter, and the relationship was serious. He was close to finishing law school, juggling two last classes while working as a summer associate. There was a family vacation planned for the Fourth of July, and he and Anne Benedict exchanged texts about it the morning he died.
When he got to work, co-workers said nothing seemed amiss. He and a fellow intern chatted about their weekends, and Benedict was laughing and talking normally.
Not long afterward, he killed himself.
“I really thought Matt was doing well, I really did,” Bill Benedict said. “I honestly couldn’t believe it.
“But Lizzy said, ‘Dad, if it wasn’t today, it would have been another day,’ ” he said. “For her to say that, it kind of hit me right between the eyes.”
Suicide Lifeline: If you or someone you know may be struggling with suicidal thoughts, you can call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) any time of day or night or chat online.