Interview by J. Michael Lennon
About the Book: Long before the dangers of concussions among NFL players made headlines, a 9-year-old redheaded Owen Thomas ran onto the field. Like many other football boys in America, he fell in love with the competition, the drive it inspired, and the unforgettable brotherhood that lead many men to say that playing the game was one of the most meaningful and formative experiences of their lives.
In the Pennsylvania suburbs where Owen and his teammates grew up on the gridiron together, the shared experience of football created bonds as strong as those built among soldiers during war. The tribe coalesced around a charismatic Owen, whose leadership and talent carried him to Penn, where the 6-foot-2 240-pound beloved defensive end was voted one of the Quakers’ captains. But Owen’s story took a devastating turn when he suddenly took his own life. He was 21-years-old.
Despite never having a diagnosed concussion, it was soon discovered that Owen’s death was likely the result of the pain and anguish caused by chronic traumatic encephalopathy, known as CTE. Owen’s landmark case would demonstrate that a player didn’t need years of head bashing in the NFL, or multiple sustained brain concussions, to cause the mind-altering, life-threatening, degenerative disease.
In Growing Up on the Gridiron, Vicki Mayk tells the story of Owen Thomas, his family, teammates, friends, and coaches and explores the health concern he helped to illuminate. It’s also the story of Dr. Ann McKee, the Boston University-based neuropathologist who bucked conventional wisdom and the football establishment, as she studied Owen’s brain and its larger significance.
About the Author: Vicki Mayk has enjoyed a 35-year career in journalism and public relations. She has reported for newspapers in New Jersey and Pennsylvania and her freelance journalism also has appeared in national and regional publications, including Ms. magazine and The New York Times. Her creative nonfiction has been published in Hippocampus Magazine, Literary Mama, The Manifest-Station and in the anthology Air, published by Books by Hippocampus. She’s been the editor of three university magazines, most recently at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. Her nonfiction book, Growing Up On the Gridiron: Football, Friendship, and the Tragic Life of Owen Thomas (Beacon Press) released Sept. 1, 2020. Her love affair with football began at the age of nine, when her father first took her to a Pittsburgh Steelers game. Connect with her at vickimayk.com.
J. Michael Lennon: How did you first learn of the tragic death of Owen Thomas, and when did the idea of writing a book about him occur to you?
Vicki Mayk: In late 2009, I began to occasionally attend services at a church near my home near Allentown, Pa. Just months later, in April 2010, the son of the church’s pastor, Owen Thomas, died by suicide at the end of his junior year at the University of Pennsylvania. Although I’d never met Owen, I was invited to join his memorial page on Facebook – R.I.P. Owen Thomas.
Membership on the page grew to 3,000. Posts about Owen came from teammates who loved him, from casual acquaintances who recalled his kindness during chance encounters at the gym, from high school teachers and Penn professors who remembered his sharp, questioning mind and from members of his father’s congregation who knew him as an impish kid who crawled commando-style under church pews. The comments and stories people wrote haunted me. I wanted to tell his story.
Just a few months after his death, he was found to have chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE, the traumatic brain injury that was being linked to playing football, and that added another dimension to his story.
JML: You began your career as a reporter and went on to write and edit for university magazines. How did that affect your writing for good or ill when it came to writing this book?
VM: The interviewing and research skills I developed as a reporter were integral to writing this book. You can’t write this kind of book without being a good interviewer and you’ve also got to be intrepid in following up on information that may give you insights. However, it made a significant difference that I earned a Master of Fine Arts from the Maslow Family Graduate Creative Writing Program at Wilkes University shortly before I started this book.
The techniques that I learned studying creative nonfiction contributed significantly to writing it. The ability to recreate scenes and dialogue based on research were skills that I honed in my graduate program.
JML: For a book like this, the cooperation of family is important. Can you describe your relationship to the Thomas family and their role in your research?
VM: I had met the Rev. Tom Thomas, Owen’s father, because I occasionally attended his church. Before I began working on the book, I visited Rev. Thomas and asked for his permission to work on the book. From that first meeting, I had the full cooperation of Rev. Thomas and the Rev. Kathy Brearley, Owen’s mother.
I met with and interviewed them several times. I also interviewed Morgan, Owen’s biological brother. They were candid and open about sharing Owen’s story. Rev. Thomas even obtained Owen’s autopsy report on my behalf, since only a family member can access it. Having the permission and support of the family was key to the project and I’m indebted to them. When the book went out to publishers, I learned how important this was because one of the first questions they asked was whether I had the family’s permission.
JML: What about his friends? They were all deeply affected by his death, I believe.
VM: It was clear that his loss affected them deeply. Most of his friends were eager to speak with me about Owen. As I spoke with them, it was clear that they were entrusting me with precious memories about their friend. I think they viewed their participation in the book as preserving his memory.
JML: When did you become aware of Dr. McKee’s deep involvement in CTE research and treatment, and how did she respond to your request for information and interviews?
VM: I knew about Dr. McKee from the time that Owen was found to have CTE. She performed the analysis of his brain after he died. What I soon understood is that she is one of the premiere researchers of CTE. In many ways, she became the public face of the emerging issue of head injuries in football. I began following her and her research developments closely. I was able to interview her twice during my research. Even before I had a publishing contract, she generously gave of her time because she is committed to bringing attention to her research.
JML: What kind of obstacles did you encounter in doing your research? Was the scientific-technical nature of CTE research the biggest impediment, or was it gaining the confidence of his family and friends?
VM: The scientific and technical nature of CTE was certainly a challenge: as a writer, I needed to do my homework. Fortunately, the information published by Boston University’s Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center, headed by Dr. McKee, is excellent. The Concussion Legacy Foundation, which is committed to educating the public about the danger of head injuries for young athletes, also has outstanding resources.
Gaining the confidence of Owen’s family and friends required sensitivity. These were people who had suffered a loss and their feelings needed to be respected.
JML: What traits did Owen possess that have kept so many people honoring him after all these years?
VM: Owen was a larger-than-life person on the football field. In my interviews, I heard the word charismatic over and over again to describe him. Above all, his ability to relate to all kinds of people that endeared him to many. I think it was summed up best by one of his Penn Quakers teammates, Daniel Lipschutz, who said Owen related to each individual as if they were the most important person to him. Daniel said that he gave everyone a genuine impression that they were a special person to him. It’s a rare quality.
JML: How much has all the reportage of CTE-related deaths and the research surrounding the disease affected the way the game is played today and in the future?
VM: The attention that CTE has received already has had a lasting impact on the game. The medical protocols for athletes who have had a concussion have changed significantly on all levels of play – high school, college and pro. There is no immediate return to play after a player sustains that kind of blow to his or her head. Protocols have changed in sports other than football, such as soccer and ice hockey.
Among younger athletes, coaches are teaching safer ways to take down opponents by leading with the shoulder and not the head. Research continues into ways equipment might be improved to lower the risk of head injury and there undoubtedly will be more changes. The other truly significant change is in the number of youngsters playing tackle football. The number of young players playing flag football instead of tackle has grown by 16 percent from 2014-2018.
And fewer are playing the sport on all levels. The National Federation of High School Association does an annual sports participation survey: In 2018-19, year-over-year 11-player football participation by boys dropped 3% over the previous year to the lowest level since 1999.
JML: Will the COVID pandemic change the equation?
VM: It’s hard to speculate how the pandemic will impact the head injury issue, but I think the reactions we are seeing about the cancelation of sports seasons, in general, reflect how invested Americans are in sports on all levels. Despite the risks–remember that football is a contact sport–the NFL, a number of college conferences and high schools are attempting to play, even without fans in the stands. The Big Ten reversed its earlier decision to postpone the football season and is now going to play. People can’t imagine life without football (and other sports) and our societal emphasis on these sports is clear.
JML: Is the NFL supporting CTE research and protecting its players sufficiently?
VM: The NFL has supported some CTE research after initially resisting the findings that the disease was related to playing football. They have instituted some new protocols that remove players from a game if they sustain a concussion. Are they protecting players sufficiently? That is a difficult question to answer, since the only true protection may be to not play football. It’s a game with risk. It’s interesting to note that the initial settlement that the NFL reached with players who have symptoms of CTE and other neurological disorders has been sharply criticized and the league has not made it easy for players to collect.
JML: What was the most difficult moment you had on writing this book?
VM: It was especially difficult researching Owen’s time at the University of Pennsylvania. There was a great deal of sensitivity about his suicide and his former coaches there did not respond to requests to be interviewed. I also found that some of his housemates and other friends at Penn did not wish to be interviewed – and I believe that is because the survivors of suicide often struggle with feelings of guilt that they were not able to prevent the death. Although I had more than enough interviews, it was difficult not to be able to speak to some of those key people.
JML: What do you hope your book will accomplish?
VM: I hope it increases awareness about two issues: head injuries and also about suicide. If you are a fan, be aware of the risks that this game poses for the players you idolize. If you are a player, be aware of the risks you are taking. Be smart about the way you play. And most of all, if you are a parent, be aware of the fact that research has found that the earlier boys start playing and the longer they play, the greater the risk. Make informed choices. And I’d like to add that I hope it will help to increase awareness about suicide which is a leading cause of death among young people. If you see a friend is struggling, reach out.
Growing Up on the Gridiron is out now with Beacon Press.
J. Michael Lennon’s most recent publication is a two-volume set, Norman Mailer: The Sixties, which he edited for the Library of America in 2018. He teaches in the Maslow Family Graduate Creative Writing Program at Wilkes University.