“Touchdown Tommy Edwards” was, for several weeks back in the 1990s, one of the most famous college football players in America.
Life’s been a struggle since, as I learned as we chatted on a crystalline morning sitting on metal chairs outside his modest home “across the railroad tracks” in Radford, diesel locomotives plying nearby. His home and yard were reflections of the man himself; brilliant, wounded, disheveled, and mercurial.
“I was born and raised in Radford,” he told me. He came from an athletic family where his father Ken starred at Virginia Tech from 1966 until 1970 and then for the Buffalo Bills of the NFL, and his uncle, for whom he is named, played at Ferrum until cancer cut his life short. “From the time of my earliest memories, football was a big part of my life. I was (Ken’s) only son. I was always playing baseball, basketball or football. It was an expectation that I’d be involved in sports.
“I was fast, but not a natural athlete. I didn’t have good hand/eye coordination. I couldn’t shoot a basketball. But I was good at football.” He excelled in both track and football, and was a consensus All American playing linebacker and running back, earning a football scholarship to Virginia Tech. He was a 235-pound sprinter! “When I was a senior at Radford, I won the regional (track meet) myself. I ran 100-, 200-, and 400-meters, the triple jump, long jump, and high jump. I won five of them and placed third in another. I could do back-flips. I was a skateboarder.”
He attended Tech in 1992 and was red-shirted his first year, meaning he was held off the team to build strength and maturity, as is often done. He wanted to major in art, but his coaches said it was too time consuming, so he switched to wildlife biology. He’s always been artistically inclined.
He began playing in 1993, where he had an immediate impact. For six or seven weeks, he led the nation in scoring. “I had more touchdowns than any other player. I scored four touchdowns in one game. Tech went from being a sub-par football school to a big-time program. Tech saw a noticeable increase in season ticket sales the minute I signed on. I was known for being the guy who ran over the other guy, and often the other guy didn’t get back up.”
But already, there were signs of trouble, personally. “Even in high school, I was starting to have depression by each season’s end. I was already brain damaged. I never loved the game at all. I loved the attention it brought me.”
At Tech, his brain injuries worsened and he had a nervous breakdown and became clinically depressed. Now, he is certain he was suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative disease of the brain found mostly in people who receive repetitive brain trauma. It results from the brain being repeatedly slammed against the inside of the skull, and it kills blood flow to various sections of the brain.
Playing big-time football, he said, “is like being in multiple car accidents every day. It’s not just the games, but practice as well. Our coaches told us each year that football is not a contact sport; it’s a collision sport. Your helmet is the hardest piece of equipment you have. Use it! They told us not to hit with the crown of the helmet, as you can paralyze yourself. Hit with the top of the face-mask. I went through seven face-masks my senior year.
“The coaches at Tech told me they didn’t have time for me to be depressed. I routinely contemplated suicide. I stopped my world; I stopped participating. I stopped going to practice or class. I watched the movie Apocalypse Now on a loop for a week, not contemplating the metaphoric significance of that.”
He left Tech and transferred to Boise State in Idaho where he played one more season. A concussion and other physical injuries including a broken hand hampered his play there, and he finally dropped out.
“The NCAA protects the institutions but not the players.
“I’ve had up and down times since then. I do things and make things. I do music things as a singer-songwriter. I’ve been in my family businesses. But I still struggle every day. I’m scared of life, the future. Depression. Anxiety. Hypomania. Impulsivity. Rage and aggression. The more I learn about my CTE, the more scared I become. You’ve caught me on a good day. I was blessed with a high IQ; I can convince anyone I’m functional.”
I asked about his reaction to football. He said, “It represents a really important anthropological aspect of who we are as humans. We come together to support something. Watching is like a tribal sense of clandom. But there’s a dark side. Football is a violent sport that destroys the brains of people who play.”
Michael Abraham is a businessman and author. He was raised in Christiansburg and lives in Blacksburg.