Football, Love, and Remembering Paul Oliver
Football, Love, and Remembering Paul Oliver
by Jeremy Collins
“… for the crowd that hears no screams other than its own.”
— Mark Kram
Start with his eyes. “Paul’s eyes,” Chelsea Oliver says, “instantly drew me in.” Rise from the pinewoods off Hadaway Road in Kennesaw, battle under the fiercest lights of the SEC, land in the NFL — and there’s much to see. Whole worlds. “Laser beams,” Tra Battle, Paul’s teammate with the University of Georgia and the San Diego Chargers remembers. “It’s like his eyes wouldn’t shut,” Chris Burgett, a college teammate says. Coming home late from a road game at Arkansas, Chris once woke to the whole bus snoozing, but there was Paul. Looking out the window. Dreaming in real time.
Maybe the intensity of childhood’s gaze never left him. Growing up with two big brothers, he had to pay attention. “Paul was aware,” Price, the oldest by two years, says. “Had to be,” Patrick adds. “But you could always tell exactly where Paul was at,” Chelsea says “from the look in his eyes.” So see here, now, the wide, bright eyes of Paul Oliver. Remember them. When they close, yours must open.
You end up loving so much, but first you love a voice — We hand it off to Herschel, there’s a hole. 5… 10 … 12 … He’s running over people. Oh you, Herschel Walker! — the gravel-throated, urgency lights you all up.
The voice belongs to Larry Munson from Hennepin County, Minnesota. He served as a medic in the Second World War, played piano for Sinatra. His broadcast voice was cut in Devils Lake, North Dakota.
You’re a child. You know none of this. You don’t know he got his break following Curt Gowdy on KFBC as the play-by-play voice of the Wyoming Cowboys. You’re four years old in 1980. Georgia loses just four games over the next four years. In those seasons and in that voice, you hear in his pronouns (“we,” “us,” “our,” and “them,” “they,” “these people”), you hear a primal claim for home itself.
You’re 10 when your dad takes you to your first Georgia game (Duke, ‘86 season opener). TV simplifies football. From the stands in Sanford Stadium, the action feels distant, disconnected. Your dad, a native Hoosier, watches with Zen detachment. Sensing your confusion, he tells you to watch one player and not just the quarterback. Note the position. Study his movements. See his body language. Mark his adjustments.
So you focus on a single player. Troy Sadowski. You note the position. Tight end. You watch the pattern. And then, you move to the next. Cassius Osborn. Wide Receiver. And you repeat. Gradually, the game unfolds.
Your father claims to root for both Georgia and the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. If pressed for his favorite, he’ll say, “The Atlanta Falcons.” But you remember how he tossed you in the air after Herschel went airborne against Notre Dame. You recall how he and your mother led you in breathing exercises as you wept through the final seconds of the 27-23 loss against Penn State in the ‘83 Sugar Bowl.
In the second quarter of that ho-hum ‘86 season opener, your dad takes off his headphones and places them on your head. The radio runs hot with Munson’s voice. These people are in this thing and don’t think for a moment they’ll stop coming at us.
On Sunday nights you call the Bulldog Hotline on AM750 WSB to speak with Georgia head coach Vince Dooley and Larry Munson. Munson growls and fumbles your name every time. “Let’s go to … Jerome … in Decatur. Jerome, whaddya got?”
“Coach Dooley,” your pre-pre-pubescent voice begins, “can we bring back the red road pants that Herschel wore against Tennessee?” And later: “Coach, what’s your favorite Herschel memory?” Also too: “Coach, how awesome was Herschel?”
On those Sunday nights, after Munson signs off, WSB plays Billy Graham’s Hour of Decision. You need Graham’s somnolent tones and drowsy hymns as your blood runs hot with a voice that pounds with your heart in the dark: Herschel, Georgia, Touchdown.
The Moment: All on Paul
On Nov. 25, 2006, Paul Oliver was tasked with the impossible. Stop No. 21.
The demands of his assignment stretched from the sawdust floor of Holcomb’s Barbeque in White Plains, Georgia, to the high-rise condos of Midtown Atlanta. For more than 20 years, Georgia fans had waited for the next Herschel: a transcendent talent who’d restore national glory. But Walker was gone. So we waited and winced in ‘90 as Tech claimed a national title. Through four presidents, an Olympics in Atlanta, and two wars in Iraq — we waited — weathering the rise of Tennessee and Florida’s reign. And every season, Larry Munson warned believers from Camilla’s pecan groves to Chickamauga’s cloudy peaks: there’d never be another 34.
Twenty-one wasn’t a running back. The greatest talent the Peach State had produced in a generation was a wide receiver and a Georgia Tech Yellow Jacket. The mind boggled, but since his days at Sandy Creek High School in Tyrone, everything Calvin Johnson did boggled the mind. With size like Herschel, skill like Herschel, Johnson was Herschel-like, too, in his humility. After a physics-defying catch against NC State, the All-American, Biletnikoff winner, allowed himself: “I’m amazed myself at that one.” State coach Chuck Amato put it differently. “He’s got a cape and he’s got an ‘S’ on his chest.”
Tech soared into Athens on Johnson’s coattails at 9-2 and already 2006 ACC Coastal Division Champs. While there’s no exact phrase for the fullness of the Indian summer that greeted all of us pouring into Sanford Stadium that Saturday, get the picture: The second day after Thanksgiving. Seventy degrees. Sunshine. Treetops all fire and flame. Tech and Georgia: the 99th year of Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate. Tech and Georgia: the 100-yard field, faded down both hashes, lined and shadowed with harvest, with consequence.
At 7-4, Georgia had already dropped games to Vanderbilt and Kentucky. In a dismal season, Paul Oliver’s emergence at corner was one of Georgia’s few bright spots. Back in October, Bulldogs fans took to AM sports radio and message boards with calls for Oliver to play both ways, like Champ Bailey years before. Oliver, a Parade High School All-American at Harrison, who’d also starred at receiver and returner, deflected the attention. “There is a lot of talent over there [on offense] and those guys are really capable of making plays,” he said. “It is just a matter of doing it.”
Doing it against 21 was up to Paul, but he wouldn’t be alone. Safety Tra Battle, a 5′10 former walk-on who’d hit and ball-hawked his way into an All-American senior captain, was one of Paul’s roommates. “Watching film that week, we saw teams doubling Calvin,” Tra remembers. “We weren’t going to do any of that. We trusted our scheme. We trusted Paul.”
Tra had reason to trust. Two weeks earlier, against fifth-ranked Auburn on the road, they had been nearly perfect and saved Georgia’s season. Tra had three interceptions, a touchdown; Paul posted a pick, a sack, and two tackles for losses. Now, they needed an encore.
Standing in section 109, I shielded my eyes as Tech — white tops, gold pants — swarmed the field, sun blazing off their brilliant golden helmets. Georgia countered. Storming out of the tunnel in silver britches, the Bulldogs formed a great wave of red — fire alarm red — and poured onto the field. We rose and roared.
My Bulldog date, Alice, who would later become my wife, squeezed my hand. Eric, my Bulldog buddy, put his arm on my shoulder and howled.
Toe met leather and Tech received the kickoff. On first down, Tech went deep, but Paul and Tra converged on 21. Incomplete. Tra, who yielded half-a-foot to Johnson, shot to his feet barking. Calvin and Paul jogged back silently. Battle kept jawing. “You know,” Tra says, watching the replay this summer, “I should’ve picked it.”
Over the next four hours, Tra did the talking as Paul did it all. Paul shadowed, hand-fought, and hounded Calvin Johnson and beat him on every contested ball. Johnson’s stat line for the day: two receptions, 13 yards.
“We had a wolverine on Calvin Johnson the whole game,” defensive lineman Ray Gant told reporters moments after Georgia’s 15-13 victory. “Paul Oliver played like a champion today.” Georgia’s defensive coordinator Willie Martinez said, “We put it all on Paul. To do what he did, that’s hard. That tells you what kind of player he is.”
Many of us already suspected what kind of player Paul was. The year before — 2005 — I stood in section 109 as Oliver made one of the almost great plays in Georgia history. Against Auburn that night, he was everywhere: Six tackles, two caused fumbles, a pick. With less than two minutes remaining, Georgia protected a two-point lead.
On fourth-and-10, Auburn came to the line with Georgia’s national ranking of No. 4 and Auburn’s of No. 6, in the balance. I watched Paul and Tra on the far side of the field. As Auburn’s quarterback Brandon Cox took the snap and looked downfield, Auburn receiver Devin Aromashodu found a vast expanse of green — wide open — and caught the ball. He soon shook Tra and streaked for the end zone, but a bright red blur had an angle.
As Paul gained on Aromashodu, my own neuronal lightening cast the ghost of Alabama’s George Teague yanking the ball from Miami’s Lamar Thomas in the ‘93 Sugar Bowl. While Teague rode and ripped, Paul leapt and punched and out came the ball.
The Immaculate Fumble. The oblong ball, however, would not obey and rolled out the back of the end zone. The officials huddled, awarded Auburn the ball on the 3-yard line. Milking the clock, Auburn chipped in a field goal, and celebrated. What happened to Tra? Where was Tra?
One true story is that Georgia called Cover-3 and Tra Battle peeled out in cover 2. Another true story ran online the next morning. Concussion Limited Battle. Tra sustained the brain injury in a collision with a teammate before the half. Woozy, unsettled, Tra managed to avoid detection, told trainers he was fine, and played the rest of the game.
Ten years later, at Cream & Shuga Coffee in Jefferson, Georgia, Tra Battle sits across from me at a table by the window with his 4-year-old son, Emmanuel. When I ask about Aromashadu’s catch and Paul’s leap, Tra shakes his head. The entire second half is a blank. The question Where was Tra? is a riddle even for neuroscientists. Tra was on advanced autopilot. Tra was playing zombie-ball. Tra was there, but not there.
Tra and I watch the play on YouTube more than once. “When Paul punched the ball out,” Tra says, “that’s when I woke up.” Tra leans closer and we peer into another slow motion ESPN replay of Paul Oliver catapulting through space. “Right there,” Tra sighs, “that’s when … I reappeared.”
After the game, Tra wandered the sidelines, staring at the lights. Teammates gently explained that the game was over.
But at the end of the ‘06 season, Tra’s “missed assignment” and Paul’s leaping almost-heroics from ‘05, fit neatly into a new narrative. Against Georgia’s two most historic and hated rivals, Tra Battle had earned redemption and Paul Oliver validation.
The final moment with Tech even suggested a perfect ending. With a minute left, Paul picked off the final pass intended for Johnson. Lingering on the ground, he clutched the ball to his chest. Victory, Georgia. I kissed Alice, hugged Eric, and turned to find Paul Oliver. As the stadium — 92,746 — shook, Paul lay motionless near the far sideline.
As teammates and trainers circled Paul, the CBS broadcast crew told viewers at home that freshman Matthew Stafford, with his modest 171 yards passing and one touchdown, was The Ruby Tuesday Player of the Game. In the stands, we knew better.
Tech’s defense slinked back onto the field. Was Paul moving? Sitting up? Officials stopped the clock for the young man still on the hard earth. On the Tech sideline, Calvin Johnson stood with his hands on his hips, staring past the open west end zone to a spot on the horizon where the sun had already set.
A great ring of hands gathered Paul up and he walked off the field, recovering his breath with each step. The clock started again. Stomping, we hollered unintelligible hallelujahs into the night as Paul Oliver’s moment became our moment, his triumph, our own.
After one final knee, with time expiring, Matt Stafford turned and flung the ball up into a future where he and Calvin Johnson would team together as Detroit Lions and Paul and Tra would both be San Diego Chargers.
In California, Paul married his college sweetheart Chelsea, a volleyball standout at UGA, and native of Southern California. They had two dogs — Dooley and Herschel. And then came the little ones, Simeon and Silas. Paul played four seasons with the Chargers, where he was converted to safety. Appearing in 57 games, he totaled four interceptions and 113 tackles, and when he became a free agent, he signed with the Saints. Paul saw the NFL much like his mother would tell him: you are a manual laborer, you work with your hands, this is your job.
Kissing Chelsea goodbye in the mornings, he’d announce, “I’m going to work.”
That work came with occupational hazards and dangers unacknowledged by his employer. In 2010, Paul sustained a concussion against the Raiders that blacked out the entire second half. He never left the field. Later, with the Saints, in a preseason game in Oxnard, Paul tackled Raider Michael Bush on the sideline, but was slow getting up.
Chelsea didn’t hear from him. Simeon was only a few a months old and Paul had been calling and Skyping multiple times a day. Now she called and texted, frantic. Finally, after two days she got a hold of him on Skype. With bloodshot eyes, Paul told her that he’d been concussed again and that he’d call soon.
His brain needed to rest. The Saints put him on injured reserve. The Chargers needed veteran help in the defensive secondary. Paul put on his pads, cleats, and helmet and went back to work in San Diego.
Paul was never the same.
That last year in San Diego, Chelsea watched Paul transform. Previously, he’d map out their days and meals — looking for places to take Dooley and Herschel, new recipes to cook, new restaurants to try. Paul had told Chelsea he had wanted to play in the NFL for 10 years. Now, he had a constant headache. Now, he came home and sank into the sofa with his iPad. Or he retreated upstairs into silence and darkness.
The 2011 season was Paul’s last in the NFL. The family stayed in San Diego another year. Paul tried to recharge. The Titans brought him in for a workout, but didn’t sign him. Physically, he couldn’t lift weights or run without the headaches, the perpetual jackhammer and icepick. In 2013, Paul packed his family up and moved back home to Kennesaw. He wanted his brothers and his mother to know his family. He knew he was taking Chelsea away from hers, so he began a mission to convince her brother Garrett to move to Georgia, too. Paul surrounded himself and Chelsea with a network of family and best friends so they could begin their next chapter.
That chapter back in Georgia would be brief: While Chelsea coached high school volleyball, Paul stayed home, a dad. He’d taken care of his NFL money and talked to Price about opening a turnkey company (“Prestige”) as owner and general contractor. Using Price’s knowledge in residence management and maintenance and his father-in-law’s experience in general contracting, Paul saw potential. Coaching, too, was an option. Both Price and Patrick coached in the Cobb County youth football league. From the outside, Paul had options, connections, resources, futures to choose. But in his every waking moment, his brain was betraying him.
You know this story, even if you don’t know Paul’s story. From years of football, Paul had sustained repeated blows to the head. Season after season, the avalanche of these hits cascaded into microscopic neurological protein deposits known as tau. These proteins wrapped and tangled around brain vessels and cells as part of the progressive, neurological disease known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) a progressive degenerative disease of the brain caused by repetitive trauma. Robbing reason, stealing the keys to mood, ransacking memory, CTE erases the very essence of what allows for a human being.
Yet, he was still Paul. Sure, he kept asking Price and Patrick for recommendations on garage door openers. Yes, he told his best friend Andy he didn’t feel quite right. But do you repeat yourself? Lose things? Sometimes, inexplicably, feel off? Paul remained the undisputed champ of every backyard barbecue, the cookout king, master of the grill. Smiling as he handed you your plate, Paul asked you about your dog, your job, your day.
Back home, exhausted, Paul unraveled. He blew up at Chelsea: shoving her, kicking her, pulling her hair. Before, he rarely raised his voice and never his hands. The next day, he’d apologize as if it had all been a bad dream. “Something’s wrong with me,” he said, “I can’t control myself.” Paul pleaded — the next time he fell apart Chelsea should repeat the names of their sons. “Just say Simeon and Silas,” Paul said, “until I snap out of it.”
Did it work?
“No,” Chelsea says. “Well, at first. The first few times it did.”
On Sept. 17, 2013 Paul sat across from Chelsea’s father, Jeff Young, at the dining room table in the ranch home where Chelsea grew up in Fountain Valley, California. They drank wine and talked into the night. Paul was in Orange County for a full-body scan from the neck down. The receipt for glory? A double hip replacement by age 40; severely impaired shoulders; two Achilles hanging by threads; two swollen hands buckshot with bone chips. He was 29 years old. Two weeks later doctors planned to conduct neurological tests and a brain scan.
Jeff poured them both another glass and asked Paul how he even managed get around. Paul smiled and shook his head. What he really wanted to know about was his brain. Paul told Jeff his memory was slipping. Sometimes he’d walk into rooms without knowing why. At the grocery store, he’d turn down an aisle and just stare. He rarely left the home.
“Something,” Paul said, “is going on with my brain.”
They discussed the return trip: Paul and Chelsea and the boys would stay with Jeff. Chelsea would see her two brothers and sister. Simeon and Silas would play with their cousins at the beach. And Paul would receive a full-battery of neurological testing.
Before Paul left, per custom, Jeff wrapped him in a bear hug. In Georgia you might shake hands, Jeff warned Paul early on, but in California we hug.
Seven days later, on Sept. 24, 2013, 11 years to the day of Mike Webster’s death, Paul Oliver woke to a world he could no longer recognize or sort. “That morning,” Chelsea says, “his eyes were almost completely glazed over.”
They argued that afternoon. Paul railed about dirty dishes in the sink, but the sink was empty. Into the evening, he raged. Patrick was on his way to the house, but Paul called and told him not to come over. Chelsea said she was leaving the house with the boys. Paul hopped over the baby gate and climbed the stairs to their bedroom. He went to the dresser and grabbed a recently purchased handgun. Standing atop the landing, with Chelsea looking up, Paul pointed the gun to his head.
No one wants to hear what happens next. And I don’t want to tell it. The moment requires both facing and turning away. But even in turning, maybe we can recover a measure of what’s owed Paul Oliver while doing some basic cost accounting with the game we love.
The day after, Jeff and Garrett Young flew a red-eye from California into Atlanta. Jeff and Paul’s Uncle David first entered the quiet and empty home. Their instructions were clear: one high chair, the clean clothesbasket in the laundry room, and two sippy cups.
Love Note: October 1996
When did you realize you loved it in a way you couldn’t love anything else? Maybe you were in Bryant-Denny Stadium on the fourth Saturday of October 1996. Alabama is up 13-0, but Peyton — squinting hard through a driving rain — has Tennessee on the march.
As sheets of rain fall on Manning and the 100,000 souls in every possible shade of orange poncho in Knoxville, you sit bone-dry and alone in Tuscaloosa.
You’re a college sophomore and member of the Speech and Debate team. You’ve been eliminated from each event after round one at the University of Alabama Invitational. The judges let you know the score. Style: too conversational, too casual. Argumentation: grandiose, hyperbolic. Eliminate the personal pronoun. Hands out of pockets. Tighten your tie. No suit? You’re 20; you write bad poetry. You like to think yourself as a seer of secret truths, a lyrical stylist. You don’t own a suit.
Exiled, you wander the deserted quad, under the shade of magnolias. Strolling past Denny Chimes, the campanile tower, you stand at the entrance of Foster Auditorium where George Wallace shrieked against the “unwelcomed, unwanted, and unwarranted.”
In the lobby of a student center, you find the game on a TV. A semi-circle of old folks in wheelchairs, all white, huddle in front of the muted large-screen. Each senior citizen holds matching gray stuffed elephants in Crimson Tide sweaters. Two black nurses, in starched white, keep an eye on the drips and oxygen tanks. Are they alumni? Did they watch Namath and Stabler? Does superstition anchor them here?
You could ask, but that would break the spell with words.
One nurse bites her nails on third downs as the other leafs through a magazine. The old folks, clutching their stuffed dolls, shake their heads as Peyton busies himself with being Peyton: the dutiful honor student, ruthlessly efficient, somehow joyless.
You decide for some fresh air.
The sign on the chain-linked gate clearly defines trespassing as a criminal offense, but if the city fathers truly mean it, would the 15-foot fence be so climbable?
Crows line the stadium’s upper deck. Pigeons hunt between the bleachers. Stray crimson streamers stick to the concrete, plastered by bourbon and Coke. In Knoxville, along the banks of the Tennessee River, the fourth quarter begins, but in Tuscaloosa, inside the enormous silence, you dream of kickoffs.
“It’s all in the balance,” Faulkner writes in Intruder in the Dust, “it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun.” While Faulkner was imagining Pickett’s charge, for future generations those fields were 100 yards long. Before playing Yale in 1910, Vanderbilt coach Dan McGugin told his team, “It is the South versus the North, Confederate against Yankee. Remember the campfires of your fathers and forefathers.” On the road, teams like Virginia wore gray. When Ohio State went south to play Auburn in 1917, The Birmingham News noted: “(The) game will be fought in the proud shadow of the Confederacy, and the grandfathers of these southern boys … were the men that hurled back those Yankee invaders.” After VMI defeated Penn in Philadelphia in 1922, the VMI band struck up “Dixie” and soon the tradition spread throughout the South.
If college players were mock soldiers, the original soldiers had fans too. Before the First Battle of Bull Run, Union Captain John Tidball noted the gathering crowd:
They came in all manner of ways, some in stylish carriages, others in city hacks … everybody seemed to have taken a general holiday … All manner of people were represented in this crowd, from the most grave and noble senators to hotel waiters.
While the D.C. crowd cheered for the North, they were rooting for the grandeur of the contest, something ancient. William Howard Russell, London Times, notes:
The spectators were all excited, and a lady with an opera glass who was near me was quite beside herself when an unusually heavy discharge roused the current of her blood — ”That is splendid, Oh my! Is not that first rate?”
Those Civil War tailgates couldn’t last through the slaughter that followed. Demure eyes turned from the terror and prayed. There would be no picnics at the Hornet’s Nest in Shiloh, the wall at Fredericksburg, or Fort Pillow and Donaldson. Home fronts vanished into front lines. Farms and fields flipped overnight into amputation tents and mass graves. Southerners sought safety from the horror, and if all we’d known was pillage, plunder and the perpetual whip, we lit out for a point behind the blue lines toward freedom.
Afterward, we held no Truth and Reconciliation Commissions, no public forums in schools and churches to air our grievances and sort responsibility. We burned the churches and schools and reaped the coals and ashes. And in time, we erected high school altars and college coliseums as staging grounds for some irrecoverable violence.
Oh, but what grounds! Start in the Carolina Lowcountry and Summerville High, where rice once ruled. Ride west along the Black Belt, where flesh was flayed for short crop cotton on the plains of Valdosta, home of the Wildcats, 23-time Georgia State champs. Dip south into the everglades, into Pahokee, into the Muck Bowl. Scoop the deep dark loam that yielded so much torture and sugar. Go west, past Birmingham’s furnaces, over Red Mountain, through the bluffs of Natchez, and across that big brown river. Tap the brakes as you enter the villages and hamlets of Louisiana, Arkansas and Texas.
Under those autumn lights, roars go up for young men who take the field in the singular and furious name of something we can’t fully fathom.
This frenzy crests in stadiums throughout the SEC. Take measure on a Saturday night in Tiger Stadium, late in quarter four, in the Valley marked Death. Mark the trembling the earth. Stand in Jordan-Hare as the golden war eagle circles the field with sunlight clipping its wings. Note the crack at your chest. Hear — at Georgia — the lone trumpeter in the upper deck of the south stands split the silence before kickoff with the first seven notes of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Keep one eye dry. At least try.
The thunderclap of the SEC isn’t rooted in dusty echoes of New York press box scribes. Our pageantry isn’t a tournament of roses. Antique jugs, axes, and wooden buckets are not our prizes. Instead, crackling through the sonic southern nights is the leftover voltage from our American Civil War — agony, fury, and jubilee.
Before you leave, you know you must. As the sun sets, you walk onto the field and pace the sideline. The moment requires words, but they have to be earned. Unsure of which acreage he stalked, you march across the 50, and patrol the western sideline too. Under an almost crimson sky, with your hands in your pockets, you say: Bear. Sugar. Sugar Bowl. Sugar Bear. Paul Bear.
Behind The Wheel
Price Oliver accelerated through traffic and missed his turn. Damn, he thought. He’d driven the route countless times. On the night his youngest brother died, Price got a call from Patrick giving him the news. Price thought Patrick and Paul were pulling a prank. Not funny, Price said. Patrick said he wasn’t joking and to get to Paul’s house now. Price hung up and hit the gas. Not funny fellas.
The Oliver brothers had recently lost both their grandfather, Simeon Scandrett, the family patriarch, and their Uncle Peter. The boys’ own father was out of the picture, but they had father figures, in their uncles and grandfather, next door in Kennesaw off Hadaway Road. The land sat a few miles from Kennesaw Mountain, where Sherman clashed with Confederate forces. Simeon had cut trails through the pine-studded acreage with a Bobcat bulldozer, connecting the three family homes. The Oliver brothers fished, chased dogs, played extra-extra inning baseball with cousins, ran from dogs, scrambled up trees, built intricate forts, fought pinecone wars, and for a long time didn’t know that they were poor.
Price called Paul’s cell. No answer. He missed a turn, cursed, tried Paul again and again, voicemail. Seriously guys? C’mon.
When the water was shut off, they hiked in shifts to Simeon’s house with buckets. When the electricity was cut, Simeon supplied flashlights and candles. When the random pickup stopped in the cover of night on Hadaway — with its passengers spilling out squealing nigger this nigger that while wielding baseball bats to the family mailbox — Simeon Scandrett, a Korean War vet, made sure the box was back up by morning. He instructed his grandsons that when they got the mail to bring the mailbox up, too. And in the mornings, before the school bus arrived, Price, Patrick or Paul would carry the mailbox from the porch back down the drive and plant it into the red soil under a hard rising sun.
A joke like this constituted a genuine brotherly tiff. Price would have to punch both kid brothers square in the chest, without word or warning.
He first spotted the parked police cars, the crime investigation van, the quiet, and then Price knew what he already knew: you don’t joke around about something like this.
“Bald Head is gone,” the late night text read. “I think he took his own life.” The message, from former Georgia teammate Mario Raley, sent Chris Burgett outside and under the stars. His first thoughts went to Chelsea and the boys. And then he thought of his old roommate. As one of the best high school running backs in Georgia in 1999, Chris had lead Chattahoochee over Paul’s Harrison team in the playoffs. At Georgia, Chris switched to the defensive secondary and formed a bond with Paul. They’d spent late nights in their dorm solving the problems of the world, bumping music, and casting their own futures. Chris had a million questions, but one took hold and would not let go: why?
The night after Paul Oliver died, Georgia coach Mark Richt received a late call. The voice was indistinct. The caller choked back tears. It took Richt a few minutes to hear the words of his former captain. Tra Battle had been driving all day up and down the back roads between Athens and Jefferson in northeast Georgia. He’d parked his car on the bridge of the Bear Creek Reservoir, a few feet from the water. Occasionally, he’d thought of suicide during his depression once his playing days were over. Now, Tra told his former coach he was scared. He told Richt he wasn’t sure all of what Paul was going through, but he felt he was going to do the same.
“I kept trying to rationalize why. Initially, I assumed he was going through the same thing as me. Maybe he felt as I felt emotionally,” Tra tells me. “By the point I got to Bear Creek I felt, maybe this is the way, maybe this is what should happened, maybe this is how I end the problems.”
Richt told Tra to come to his house right away.
That same evening, Hall of Fame linebacker Harry Carson gave a talk in Boston for an advance screening of the PBS Frontline documentary, League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis. After the showing, Carson fielded questions. One of the very first questions was about Paul Oliver.
Carson connected Oliver’s death to blows to the head sustained in football. Here Carson spoke from experience. Drafted in 1976, Carson found that by 1981 he would become unexpectedly depressed and suicidal. He had to resist the urge to drive his car off the Tappan Zee Bridge and into the Hudson River. Carson noted other changes too: a slower memory, delayed speech. He filed these feelings away and played seven more seasons. After retiring, he was diagnosed with post-concussion syndrome.
I asked Harry Carson over the phone in the summer of 2015, why he spoke out that night about Paul Oliver. “I’ve been speaking out for some time because I know that there are players out there who are suffering. I want them to know that they are not alone.”
Football players, by nature, feel the need for stoicism. But there is a tipping point, according to Carson, where strength becomes weakness. “Most of us are not aware of what we experience neurologically. We are trained, sometimes overtly, to not be vulnerable or admit to pain. Suck it up. Don’t cry.”
League of Denial, which debuted on PBS two weeks after Paul died, depicts the discovery of CTE by Dr. Bennet Omalu and Mike Webster’s horrific demise caused by the disease. During his decline, a consulting doctor asked Webster if he’d ever been in a car accident? “Oh,” Webster said in a humor that betrayed his condition, “probably about 25,000 times or so.”
According to Stefan Duma, a professor at Virginia Tech, who has been studying the G-forces in football collisions since 2004, this number of 25,000 is actually “highly probable.” Duma also notes that not all car crashes are created equal. Some are mere fender benders and most football hits register somewhere on the car crash rank of 20-30 G-forces. Concussions are believed to occur at 90 G and above. However, recent studies by Professor Eric Nauman and his team at Purdue University have revealed that it is precisely these repetitive lower end collisions, where concussions aren’t even registered, that can most dramatically impact and alter the integrity of a brain. The impact is cumulative. The damage is done in doses.
An automobile is designed to absorb impact — the “crumple zones” absorb energy, protecting the driver and passengers. A football helmet, a hard plastic encasing, prevents skull fractures and rarely cracks, but it does not absorb the energy to protect the brain. In the course of any game, where up to 22 individual car wrecks can occur on a single play, no helmet can’t stop the human brain for sloshing and slamming into the skull. And one major symptom from this brain trauma — that almost took Harry Carson over the Tappan Zee Bridge and perhaps drove Tra to the edge of Bear Creek — are ideations of suicide.
While Carson managed to steady the wheel, for others it turns. Former Pittsburgh Steelers offensive lineman Justin Strzelczyk weaved through on-coming traffic at 100 mph, heading the wrong way on I-90 in central New York, before colliding with a diesel tanker. The plume of smoke was spotted a mile away. In Charlotte, Chris Henry, a wide receiver for the Cincinnati Bengals, stood in the bed of a speeding bright yellow F-150, arguing with the driver, his fiancé, before falling to his death on Oakdale Road. Two years before his death from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, Hall of Fame linebacker Junior Seau, headed south on Carlsbad Boulevard in southern California and hurled his silver Escalade over a guardrail, down a rocky cliff, and toward the morning surf.
Strzelcyk died in 2004; Henry in 2009; Seau in 2012. All had CTE.
Paul Oliver had been dead one week when I passed out copies of James Wright’s poem “Autumn Begins in Martin’s Ferry, Ohio” to my first period high school writing students in Arvada, Colorado on October 1, 2013.
For 15 years, I’ve handed out copies of Wright’s poem during the first week of October. The poem depicts fathers in eastern Ohio working unforgiving jobs while their wives sink under the weight of loneliness. Together, though, they share football, the love of their sons.
That October morning, I stood in front of a room of teenagers, gazing at the words I knew by heart, unable to read. My job is to read — the students write — together we discuss. I stared at the lines, stumbled, and stopped. A hard pause. Sorry guys. A hand in the back. Yes? A volunteer. Thank you. A student finished the last stanza I could not start:
Their sons grow suicidally beautiful
At the beginning of October
And gallop terribly against each other’s bodies.
Tragedy would not follow tragedy that night at Bear Creek Reservoir. Tra Battle put his car in reverse and drove to Richt’s home. When Georgia took the field against No. 6 ranked LSU days later in Athens, the team wore black stickers on the back of the helmet. “PO.”
Chris Burgett stared at the ceiling and remembered how he and Tra had to joke around in practice to get Paul to smile. When the pads were on, Paul was all business. Off the field, even years later, Paul remained the humble guy who Chris counted as a brother. Even in the NFL, Paul’s close friends were teammates like Mike Tolbert, who could count on one hand how many stoplights were in their hometown. Chris remembered something else too: he and Paul had promised each other when they were roommates at Georgia that they would start a foundation one day to educate and empower children. Both had been raised in affluent north metro Atlanta suburbs — Kennesaw and Alpharetta — as black kids in a white sea. They wanted to give back. They also figured they had time to chart that course.
Hours after Paul Oliver died, Price Oliver parked his pickup as his brother Patrick rounded the corner from the driveway. Price was a sprinter in high school. He held the Harrison High School record in 100 meters for more than a decade and still holds the record for 200 meters. Patrick, a state finalist his senior year for powerlifting — bench pressing 315, squatting 415, deadlifting 450 — opened his large arms and embraced his brother. Without a word, they wept. Paul, their “little big brother” had Price’s speed and Patrick’s strength and a style that was his own. The three had always moved as one, but as Price and Patrick gathered themselves and walked to Chelsea and the boys, they took their first steps into a world unknown.
Georgia played the 2013 season with the PO stickers on the back of the helmet, but in 2014 the stickers were gone. My questions remained and ran through October, into the holy wars of November, and beyond bowl season. So in the summer of ‘15, I packed my car and headed to Georgia. The highlights and victories — were they the sum of my bargain with Paul Oliver? What are the limits and terms between player and fan? Was I not entertained?
Camp: June 12, 2015
The first whistle blows at 9 a.m. — 50 high school kids from Metro Atlanta stretch and warm-up. Their cadence, clapping, and calisthenics echo through the fog and mist hugging the pines that surround Cobleigh Field at Harrison High School.
Legions of American high school football players this morning are doing the same. But these players at the Paul Oliver Football and Life Skills Camp might be the first to attend a camp whose goal is to not only improve their skills, but to raise awareness of CTE.
The white and black kids self-segregate into straight lines. Each wears a camp T-shirt with Paul’s No. 27 on the back. Counselors and coaches — former University of Georgia, and Harrison teammates and opponents — stroll down the lines, including Patrick and Price Oliver.
During his senior year, Patrick teamed with Paul in his transcendent junior season. Too amped to sit still, Price had to watch alone as his little brothers perfected moves they first mastered on Hadaway against each other. Price, who now works as a maintenance supervisor at Camden Properties, and Patrick, who works for Coca-Cola, haven’t stepped on this field in ages. Both smile as the sun bears down on the kids clapping and chanting.
Strolling through the lines of campers, twirling a whistle, walks Chris Burgett. The more Chris read after Paul died, the less he slept. The less he slept, the more he read. Could playing football result in brain damage? When the link between Paul and CTE was confirmed, Chris reached out to Chelsea. Together, they formed The Oliver Tree Foundation: a non-profit organization to empower young athletes and promote awareness about CTE. Chris knew Paul would spear a foundation; he didn’t expect the work of that foundation to be done without Paul.
High up in the stands is a solitary figure, a woman in a white blouse and blue pants. She sips from a Dasani water bottle. It’s unclear if she’s smiling or squinting from the sun. As a whistle blows and the camp divides into stations, Price walks closer and says:
“That’s mom. That’s where she always sat. And she never missed a game.”
Dorsey Levens, the longtime Green Bay Packer and former Georgia Tech Yellow Jacket, stands by the track, watching football without the pop, thud, or crack from helmets or pads. Levens, who has made a documentary Bell Rung on concussions and CTE, is the camp’s keynote speaker.
As Levens watches, I ask if he feels the paradox.
“Totally,” he says, without me having to unpack the particular paradox.
“Every time I step onto a football field I feel it.”
Later, as we talk on the phone, Levens explains. He watches the sport, follows it closely, even plays fantasy football, but it’s not the same.
“I watch the game differently now,” he says.
“I cringe a lot more.”
As the campers take a knee and gather around, Dorsey Levens tells a basketball story. During his junior year, in the New York High School State Championship, he missed a critical late free throw. He decided the next summer he’d do whatever it took to be in the best shape possible. So he woke up early and lifted. In the afternoons, he ran. He shot free throws and jumped rope into the night.
“I made a choice to be different. How many of you have made the choice to be different?”
Levens’ message is boilerplate sports camp, but his presence commands attention. As he speaks, I realize I’m nodding along and then notice other coaches doing the same. Levens has a second message for the campers. “The sport you’re playing is violent, OK? You must be aware of all sorts of things. But first and foremost be aware of your own health. Especially your brain. Pay attention to your head.”
He tells the group that when they see stars, experience fogginess, or get their ‘bell rung’ that means, “You’ve had a concussion. Get off the field. Tell a coach.”
The scenario he describes feels at odds with the basic DNA of football. A high school pulling guard, perfectly and violent executes a block, but feels woozy, dinged, and instead of going back to the huddle, jogs to the sideline? A coach greets him with a series of questions that do not belittle his toughness, patriotism, or the legitimacy of his birth, but gauge his baseline neurological functioning?
Yes. If football is to have a future, such conversations might be required.
When I ask Levens, a veteran of 11 NFL seasons, if he thinks he might have CTE, he doesn’t hesitate: “I think we all do. All of us who played at a high level. We have some form of it.” He knows a former teammate who has just recently been diagnosed with dementia and a prominent former player who spends days inside with the lights out, ‘Going Dark.’ When I ask Levens if his son will play someday, he says, “No way. My child will not step onto a football field.” He walks that back a bit and measures his words: “Let’s put it this way. Should it come up, it would be a very, very careful conversation.”
As he wraps up with the campers under a scorching sun, the kids close out and head for lunch. Coaches get in line with their phones to pose for pictures. Levens smiles, accommodates, and makes sure he speaks with Patrick, Price, Chris and Mrs. Oliver.
Lunch is the staple of every Metro Atlanta sports camp for decades: soggy Chick-fil-A Chicken sandwiches (two pickles) with bottled water. The groups of black and white now blur: some sit together and complain about the pickles or Algebra II; others gossip about girls; some rag each other about their shoes; others quote Drake lyrics back and forth.
The whistle blows and the collective groan goes up. “Seven-on-seven,” a coach calls out.
A bank of clouds block the sun and a drizzle starts. Perfect weather for a camper, not so for an English teacher or a mom in the bleachers. I move to the sideline where Janice Oliver now stands. When the rain picks up, we both head for cover.
As a single mom, who managed a day care, raised three boys, and took night classes for ten years at Kennesaw State University to complete her degree, Janice Oliver does not suffer foolishness. These days, she works for the state in helping implement and ensure delivery of the HOPE Scholarship at universities and college throughout Georgia.
We talk education policy, the pleasures and perils of teaching, and before long our talk turns to Paul. She shares what many will tell me on this day: they didn’t see it coming.
Days before he died, Janice watched Paul put Simeon, age 2, in a timeout. Simeon protested. Paul gently put him back. Simeon tried to escape. Paul, even more patiently, redirected. Simeon asked for his truck, but Paul explained timeout was for thinking about his actions.
“Paul was a good father,” Janice says. “And he loved those boys.”
Laughter from the field is punctuated with shouts. The sun is shining and rain is pouring: a Georgia monsoon. One seven-on-seven game is quarterbacked by Derrick Tinsley, a former star running back at Marietta High School and later with Tennessee. Mario Raley, from Independence High School in Charlotte and a former Georgia receiver, leads the other.
I ask Janice if she saw any other signs in Paul when they moved to Georgia.
“You replay events. You wish you’d known. You wish you could go back and help.”
The rain echoes against the bleachers hard and loud.
“But Mrs. Oliver,” I say, “Paul had an aggressive neurological disease. His brain was damaged. What could anyone have done?”
“Can I ask you a question, Mr. Collins?” Janice says.
I tell her she can.
“Are you a parent?”
I tell her I am. Two little girls. Rose and Grace: ages 3 and 8 months.
“Then you know what goes into loving a child,” she says.
Another celebratory whistle blows — three short blasts — touchdown Team Tinsley.
“So you can imagine,” she says.
My imagination reaches for the unimaginable.
Janice Oliver then turns, faces me, and lowers her sunglasses to the bridge of her nose.
“The pain is always and the responsibility is forever,” she says.
When Georgia kicks off months later against Louisiana-Monroe, I’ll hear those words. Later that night when Alabama battles Wisconsin, I’ll hear Janice Oliver’s voice when Badgers safety Michael Caputo takes a routine knee to the helmet. Dazed, Caputo lines up in the Alabama huddle until a Crimson Tide lineman calls to the bench. Wisconsin trainers guide Caputo off the field and away from the fury.
I will hear those words.
The rain lifts and the waves of humidity rise higher. The field radiates its own heat and seems to shiver like an oasis, a mirage.
Paul’s Uncle David Scandrett, who played linebacker at Tennessee, pays a visit. So do former Bulldogs Sean Jones, a safety with the Cleveland Browns, and Fernando Velasco, an offensive lineman with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Tennessee Titans. Other former UGA players BJ Albert and Patrick Croffie shout encouragement. Each player at the camp serves as a reminder — just as every smoker won’t develop cancer and not every boxer will get punch drunk, not every football players will not wage an invisible battle with CTE.
But enough will. And the more one plays, as the hits pile up, so do the odds. According to a recent Frontline report, 96 percent of NFL players examined and 79 percent of all football players who played at the high school level and above have CTE. And as national authors and prominent bloggers announce they’re against football and wash their hands of the gladiatorial blood sport, America’s children continue to play. “We are not advocating the end of American Football, but we are advocating the beginning of open communication about brain injury,” Chris Burgett will tell me in an email later. “We have become advocates to communicate how contact sports can potentially affect an athlete’s health and mental well being from a long-term perspective. There are too many ties between high profile football players and depression, brain injury, and suicide to turn a blind eye.”
When the final whistle blows, Mrs. Oliver comes to the field. The campers — black, white, linemen, skill positions, soaked, stinking and smiling — pass Janice Oliver as she leans against the fence. She’s smiling, too.
The coaches banter and trade barbs from their own glory days at midfield. When Janice approaches, the group goes quiet. Some remove their hats. In the front, they take a knee and everyone forms a semi-circle around Janice Oliver.
“Today was a good day,” she says, “and I want to thank you all for making this special.”
The coaches line up to hug Janice and thank her. Everyone poses for pictures. They all promise to do it next year. Word will spread. The camp will grow. And then the coaches, former teammates and opponents, say goodbye. Life is rarely simple. That’s one reason we need sports. Sports simplify. And the scene at the end of this camp is unmistakable: a grieving mother and her two sons walk off a football field, alone together, missing one.
A week after the camp, I sit in the living room of Andy Elliot’s home in Marietta. Andy was an offensive lineman, a counselor at the camp, and Paul’s best friend. When Paul and Chelsea moved back to Georgia, Andy and his wife Ashley’s back porch was their favorite spot. Paul and Chelsea were looking to buy a house down the street.
Often both wives stared as their husbands spoke a language that was all their own, one they perfected in long silences of high school and college, when they’d disappear for days to fish. They grilled whatever they caught along with Po’ Boy Sausages while listening to, Outkast and Pastor Troy.
After Paul died, Chelsea and the boys stayed with Andy and Ashley before they left for California. Getting Simeon ready in the mornings was a challenge. Those duties had been Paul’s. Paul loved spoiling Simeon with candy. To try and maintain a sense of normalcy, everyone made sure Simeon got Kit-Kat candy bars.
“Just a few weeks ago,” Andy says, smiling, “we found a wrapper under the sofa. And then another by the blinds.”
On that October morning in 2013 when Chelsea and the boys drove off with Janice for the Atlanta airport, Andy buckled Simeon into his car seat. “Simeon looked at me with those big eyes … and there was Paul,” Andy says, before his words break off.
Later, I confess that I struggle with the paradox of watching football after knowing what happened to Paul. Andy nods.
“Look, Paul was more than football,” he says. “We didn’t even talk football. We talked about our lives. We talked fishing and music. That day of camp was great, it meant a lot to see everyone, but it’s hard. It’s hard to be around the game.”
Leaving Andy’s house, I drive toward Kennesaw Memorial Park, getting turned around more than once, before pulling into the open gates. Patrick and Price told me where Paul was buried, but Price warned: “You can go there, but Paul isn’t there. Paul is wherever there’s a kid chasing a ball or running from a dog. Paul is with us in the woods as we swap stories. Paul is with those boys right now in California.”
I read the names of strangers. I don’t know a soul buried here. I used to root for one, but as I’m learning, I barely knew him at all. Andy’s statement There was more to Paul bounces against truisms told around tailgates and televisions: It’s only a game, but it’s the only game. And: Football is not a matter of life and death: it’s more important than that.
Up and down the rows of graves in the sweltering midday sun, I keep an unofficial scoreboard. I count: two plastic Mother Marys, one star of David, two ceramic angels, one model car, several deflated balloons, dozens of faded plastic flowers, and three Georgia Bulldog flags. Go Dawgs.
The red and black banners sway in an afternoon breeze that brings neither comfort nor relief.
Grace Note: January 2001
Georgia head coach Mark Richt walks into the Ramsey Student Center in a black leather BCS coat, followed by his newly minted coaching staff. It’s his first Monday on the job.
You do what any self-respecting Georgia fan would. It might be the first day of classes, but there’s plenty of time for introductions. You walk up and offer your hand. He takes it. And then you place your other hand on top of his. It’s probably not the first time he’s been stopped that morning. Probably too not the first time he finds himself praying with a stranger about the program he’d inherited.
“Prayer” might not best capture the tone and content of your exchange. You don’t bow your head or close your eyes. Neither does he. It’s unclear, exactly, what mutual deity you’re petitioning. In Richt’s eyes, you don’t detect motions of the Holy Spirit, but you do catch possible hints and hues of Tom Landry’s cobalt blues.
You don’t say: Sweet God, Coach, this state produces more SEC players than any other. Close the borders. Recruit Rome, Tifton, Austell, Villa Rica, Warner Robins; seal off Stone Mountain, Tucker and all of Metro Atlanta. Shut the state down.
Coach, you don’t whisper, if you can stomach it, watch last season’s Tech film. We had 11 NFL players on defense as Tech quarterback George Godsey — who runs a sub-6 40 — donkey-trotted 33 yards down the sideline untouched.
Coach, you don’t explain, on a dark night in ‘99, we spotted Auburn 38 points and allowed the very pedestrian Leard to Daniels combo look like Montana to Rice Reincarnated. No adjustments, no attitude, nothing. Losing happens, you don’t say. Some things you can’t control, but Coach Richt, for the love of God, compete.
Instead, you recite, word for word, The Serenity Prayer. “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Then, instead of Amen, you offer, “Coach, welcome to Georgia. There’s work to be done.”
“Well, thank you,” Richt says, your hands still clasped, “We’ll do our best. No one will be working harder.”
Coachspeak, of course. Cliché, sure. Every coach gets hamstrung by the lexicon.
The difference? On that gray morning, as you walk away from Coach Richt, whose record stands at 0-0, you believe every word.
The Good Coach
Entering his 15th season, Mark Richt (136-48 .739) stands as Dean of SEC coaches. His Georgia teams have played for six SEC titles, claiming two. During Richt’s tenure, Spurrier has left a Gator, returned a Gamecock; Saban has pulled a wide U-Turn too; rivals Florida, Auburn and Tennessee have turned over eight different coaching regimes.
And now, Richt is kind enough to not confess forgetting our first meeting.
“Wow,” he says, “that sure was a long time ago.”
The main wall of Richt’s office is covered with Governor cups, given for each of his 12 victories over Tech. He runs a clean program and a clean office. After our talk at an adjacent table, he applies Windex and terry cloth to the prints left by yours truly.
“I’m kind of clean freak,” he says, almost apologetically.
Richt gets brandished in some circles with “not winning the big one” label. Such critiques forget that Georgia’s own Vince Dooley needed 17 years before he won a National Championship. Or that Bobby Bowden took 18 years and Tom Osborne 19.
Richt is also known for his outspoken Christian faith and his family’s adoption in 1999 of two toddlers — Anya and Zach — from Ukraine.
The night after Paul died, when Tra pulled up into Richt’s driveway, a collection of former teammates who played with both Paul and Tra greeted their former captain. Richt called them, along with the team chaplain, in advance. Richt and Tra, who grew up the son of a pastor prayed late into the night.
That Saturday, Georgia defeated LSU in a raucous 44-41 battle of Top 10 Teams.
Four days later, Richt took his seat at Burnt Hickory Baptist Church in Kennesa