Help On The Way For Former North Carolina Football Player With Apparent Brain Damage

Last week, I told you about Ryan Hoffman, a former offensive lineman at the University of North Carolina whose life has been on a downward spiral since helping lead the Tar Heels to an 11-1 season in 1997–my sophomore year at Carolina. Hoffman suffers from severe cognitive problems that have prevented him from holding down a job in the last 18 years. He and his family believe that these problems were caused due to brain damage from concussions he suffered during his high school and college playing days. His life seemingly bottomed out in August, when he left his home in frustration after another attempt to get a job fizzled. He’s been homeless since then. Well, it looks like help may be on the way. In the last week, many people–including several of Hoffman’s former teammates–have reached out to help him.

Ryan Hoffman in an abandoned restaurant where he sleeps at times (courtesy The New York Times)
Ryan Hoffman in an abandoned restaurant where he sleeps at times (courtesy The New York Times)

In the days after The New York Times first reported Hoffman’s situation, one of his former colleagues on the offensive line spread the word to other players on the 1997 team–most of whom hadn’t even heard from Hoffman since he left Chapel Hill. Another teammate set up a crowdfunding drive at GreatestFan, a sports version of GoFundMe to get Hoffman some money to help get back on his feet. Click here to donate. A rehabilitation facility in Tampa has offered to take him in for a 30-day session. The Gridiron Greats Assistance Fund, a foundation that helps retired NFL players, has offered to help Hoffman go to California for a rehab program as well.

When Carolina athletic director Bubba Cunningham got wind of Hoffman’s situation, he asked the NCAA if Carolina was allowed to provide Hoffman with “those human necessities” such as transportation and clothing. As if it had a choice, the NCAA gave the green light, though the logistical details of this aid are still very much in the works. Kevin Guskiewicz, a professor at Carolina and a concussion expert, offered to fly Hoffman to Chapel Hill for three to four days of free testing at the Center for the Study of Retired Athletes, which Guskiewicz runs. Hoffman’s family is convinced that he has chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a brain disorder caused by repeated hits to the head. The discovery that late Cincinnati Bengals player Chris Henry had CTE after playing only five years in the NFL ultimately led to heightened awareness about concussions at nearly all levels of the game. While there is presently no way to definitively diagnose CTE in living people, Guskiewicz says that he and his team “don’t miss much” in helping players like Hoffman get to the bottom of their ordeals.

Hoffman’s sister, Kira Soto, says that her brother has had a hard time processing this outpouring of support. He was somewhat reluctant to get tested, out of fear of what doctors may find. In the week since this story broke, Soto helped get her brother a roofing job in Jacksonville. Hoffman made his way there from Lakeland, where he had spent most of the last eight months. However, he only lasted two days. After several days of trying to reach him, Soto finally got in touch with Hoffman on March 10. Hoffman said that he was “overwhelmed” by everything that has happened in the last few days. Soto hasn’t heard from him since.

To understand how this could have possibly happened, you have to remember that Hoffman played during a time when we didn’t understand head injuries as well as we do now. He believes that he suffered at least one concussion at Carolina, though he may have suffered others. However, he didn’t let on about it out of fear of losing his starting job. It’s apparent that something was starting to go wrong at least as early as his senior year at Carolina, when he found himself having to put his important items in plastic bags to keep up with them. In all likelihood, it would have never even gotten to that point today. If a Tar Heel in most sports is even suspected of having a concussion, he or she is ruled out for the remainder of the game, and can’t even practice until cleared by Carolina’s sports medicine department. Similar regimens are in place at most other major schools as well.

Speaking as a Carolina alumnus, this really hits me at a personal level. I racked my brain to find something–anything–that even suggested something was wrong with Hoffman, and I can’t recall anything. That should speak volumes to how little we knew about head injuries back then. While much has been done to protect players from concussions since then, it won’t mean a thing if we don’t do something to help Hoffman and others like him. Hoffman openly admits that “something is wrong with me”–and believes football had something to do with it. Hopefully we can find out for certain if that is indeed the case.

Darrell is a 30-something graduate of the University of North Carolina who considers himself a journalist of the old school. An attempt to turn him into a member of the religious right in college only succeeded in turning him into the religious right's worst nightmare--a charismatic Christian who is an unapologetic liberal. His desire to stand up for those who have been scared into silence only increased when he survived an abusive three-year marriage. You may know him on Daily Kos as Christian Dem in NC. Follow him on Twitter @DarrellLucus or connect with him on Facebook. Click here to buy Darrell a Mello Yello.