Doug Robinson: Former Utah speedster Cal Beck finds new identity outside of football

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 12 2012 9:16 p.m. MDT

"I was terrified," he recalls. "We all were terrified. It went away, and I thought it was a freak thing."

The pounding of football probably didn't help. Years later, during a visit to a migraine specialist, he tried to tally the number of concussions he had had during his playing career. "We lost count," he says. "I suffered one at least every year of little league and up through high school, and each time I'd have to sit out for a while. I got my bell rung plenty in college, but I never told anyone. I was trying to win a roster spot. But during class I would get headaches and I would go back to the dorm to try to nap them off."

The migraines began in earnest before his junior year, when he was dealing with the hamstring issues, but it wasn't until late that fall that they became debilitating.

In a 1997 Deseret News column, this is what I wrote about Beck's symptoms, as he described them to me at the time: "It begins as a literal pain in the neck, and when it comes Cal Beck knows that his silent enemy has announced its return. The pain rises slowly into the back of his head, begins the long march forward, settles behind his right eye. Pain so severe that light hurts. Sound hurts. The mere act of talking hurts. He's sure his brain is imploding, sure someone is driving a white hot poker into his eye. And then there's the wild, crazy nausea and the blurred vision and the dizziness. His world spinning out of control. If only the pain was caused by a rival on the football field, he would know how to fight back, but all he can do is retreat to his room, to his bed, with the curtains drawn, to darkness and silence, and hope that sleep will come for him. Sleep, blessed sleep, his only refuge. All he can do is wait. The siege is under way. Another migraine headache has begun."

The migraines struck with a vengeance during the holiday season of 1996, immediately after his junior season. Beck, unable to sleep or eat solid foods for days at a time, lost weight and began missing class. There were days he couldn't get out of bed. He visited a long line of doctors — chiropractors, allergists, psychiatrists, psychologists, migraine specialists. They tried medication, meditation, diets, relaxation therapy, acupuncture, massage, vitamins, MRIs, CAT scans, eye tests, neurological tests, a back brace (to correct his posture) and even a change of altitude and climate (he was sent to sea-level San Francisco and Seattle for a week to see if it would help).

"They had me on a narcotic for a while," he says. "I was in class one day and a teammate told me, 'Dude, you're drooling.' I couldn't even feel it. There were times I drove to school and couldn't get out of the car. I pushed myself to the limit."

He missed the '97 spring camp and dropped out of school. "My senior year was coming up, and I can't even get out of bed or go work out or go to class," he says.

The headaches lasted one to 12 hours, and recovery from each episode required four to 48 hours. "It's the most excruciating pain I've felt," Beck told me at the time. "I wouldn't wish it on anyone. I just want to die. I try to fall asleep. Once in a while I can do it, but it's not me falling asleep. It's my body shutting down. It's the only way I can get through it. It taxes the body so much. When it goes away, I'm so exhausted I can't move. I'm dehydrated. I shake when I get them. It's like I'm having a seizure or convulsions. It's common to go three days without eating. If I get a migraine, I wouldn't expect to eat until the next day."

He started to feel better in the summer of 1997, and enrolled in school so he could report to fall camp. But three weeks before camp opened, the headaches returned. He reported to camp anyway. Following the first morning workout, he had a migraine in the afternoon and another in the evening. McBride found Beck asleep in his darkened dorm room. "I could tell the coaches were thinking, what if he doesn't come back, and that really hurt," Beck says. "But they had to be realistic." After missing a team meeting, he managed to complete a conditioning test the next morning and then went to bed the rest of the day, with coaches repeatedly coming and going to check on him. He finally packed his bag and went to McBride's office, where he sat and cried.

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