WAUSAU, Wis. – Drew Bouché loves to play catch with his son, Abram.
The two often can be seen on The 400 Block public square in downtown Wausau, tossing a football, smiles on their faces.
Football is deeply rooted in both of their lives. Abram, who is 11 years old, can’t wait to play just like his father did before him. At Wausau East High School, Bouché was a running back, a fixture in local sports coverage and someone recognized throughout the community. Bouché’s dad, Abram’s grandfather, was the East football coach.
Bouché went to South Dakota State University to further his career, but he never got the chance to shine. He left the sport in his freshman year after a blow to the head left him unable to walk off the field.
He lives the consequences of those brain injuries every day. He struggles with extreme and sometimes violent mood swings, migraines, days when depression makes it hard to get out of bed and forgetfulness can cause him to lose track of conversations or what task he’s supposed to accomplish. He thinks his struggles with alcohol stem from the injuries, too.
Bouché is experiencing what doctors say is typical of chronic traumatic encephalopathy. CTE is a degenerative brain disease, believed to be caused by repetitive hits to the head. And it’s a disease that has been traced by researchers to the hard hits that athletes take on the field, including collisions that never result in a concussion diagnosis.
Most of the national media attention around CTE has focused on former NFL players, who’ve won a $1 billion settlement against the league. But Bouché is among countless football players who believe they suffered brain damage without ever playing beyond high school or college.
Doctors say the disease has long-term effects on health and quality of life. But CTE is mysterious because most research can occur only after the person has died and the brain can be examined.
Football leagues at all levels have made changes in response to heated discussion around CTE. The Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association now mandates that high school players sit out if they appear to have suffered a concussion, with rigid rules for returning to play. There are new rules on how players should tackle, with their heads off to the side instead of into another player’s chest. Equipment manufacturers have created helmets intended to limit head trauma.
But there’s no way to take hits out of football, and top researchers say large and small collisions alike will inevitably cause damage in at least some of those who play. More than two decades after Bouché’s football playing came to an end, it’s not clear that any of the new policies, new guidelines or new equipment would have prevented the damage to his brain.
Bouche’s own feelings about football are complicated — he worries about Abram playing, but also says that the game teaches so many lessons that can’t be learned another way.