Larry Carr has something to say — if he can remember what it was.
Carr is 63 years old. It’s been 40 years since he last played football. But even today he has that look that says if you catch the ball across the middle he will lay you out.
He did that with regularity as a linebacker for BYU from 1972 through 1974 — LaVell Edwards’ first three seasons, the years that got everything rolling. Quarterbacks grabbed the spotlight, but Carr grabbed the quarterbacks. He averaged 12 tackles a game for his career — 389 of them in three seasons. No Cougar defender before or since has done better. He intercepted eight passes as a linebacker. No one has topped that, either. A couple of years ago, the Bleacher Report named him BYU’s best defensive player. Ever.
He went on to play one season as a pro in Canada before retiring from the game.
And that was that — or so everyone, including Larry Carr, thought.
But as it turned out, all those hits just kept on coming.
Carr didn’t notice it at first or all at once. It was a gradual kind of thing. He’d forget what he was going to say. He’d plunge into fits of anxiety and despair and couldn’t pinpoint why. He’d lose things: his keys, his cellphone, his temper.
Finally he went to a clinic for tests. He’d read about Junior Seau, “Iron” Mike Webster and other former NFL players who took their own lives. Autopsies showed these athletes had CTE — chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative disease of the brain. Their symptoms sounded a lot like his.
He was told you can’t be positively diagnosed with CTE until you’re dead, but a neuropsychological evaluation showed he had all the signs. His intellectual functioning was fine, but his memory and ability to process things were not.
They were telling him what he already suspected: that taking more than his fair share of jolts to the brain carried consequences.
“What is a concussion?” he asked. “Is it being stunned, seeing stars, staggered? That happened to me 15-20 times a game. Back then you were taught to use your head; your head was a weapon.”
CTE is your head talking back.
“Your intellect is battling your emotions constantly,” he said. “Unimportant things become important and important things become life and death. You make mountains out of molehills. You plunge into a darkness, a pervasive darkness that is so black "
He trailed off.
“ I can see why those athletes did what they did. It’s a feeling that they will do anything to make it stop.”
So, does Larry Carr wish he’d never seen a football? Would he erase his playing days if he could turn back the clock?
“No, I wouldn’t,” he said without having to think about it. “I love football, I love BYU, I loved playing for LaVell and Fred (Whittingham). It was an experience that defined me in many ways, that taught me so much about life, that made me a better person.”
Then he added the "but."
“There’s not enough looking at the problem (of concussions and blows to the head). The NFL threw money at it to sweep it under the rug. Right now people seem to be either for or against football. Those are the two camps. What’s missing is the camp that wants to study it, understand it, take action to do something more about it.”
Carr laments the fact that the strongest statements to date have come from Seau, Webster and others from the grave.
“There’s nothing being written or said out there in first person because the only people who are definitively diagnosed with CTE are dead,” he said.
To remedy that, after taking early retirement from his job as a high school teacher in California in May — a decision not unrelated to his mental health issues — he sat down and wrote an 84,000-word manuscript this summer.
“It just kinda poured out of me,” he said. “It sounds trite, but the reason I wrote it is to give hope to others. I wrote the book as a way of saying life is really hard, but it’s supposed to be. Don’t let your challenges overcome you. You might think things always happen to the other guy, but sometimes you’re the other guy.”
Opening up about his problems, facing them head on, sharing them, has been enormously helpful, he said. Telling others where you’ve been and what you’ve experienced in a sincere, honest way is surprisingly cathartic.
He credits a calling in his LDS ward in California, one he tried his darndest to turn down, for opening that door. As a member of the bishopric, he found himself in a position where he had to stand at the pulpit and talk about something. He started telling stories about his life.
“It wasn’t up there emptying all your sins,” he said, “the stories were about questions, about challenges, about life. I’d finish and think, ‘That was stupid, why did you do that?’ and then people would come up and say: ‘Thank you. Thank you for sharing. That helped me.’
“It was a saving grace for me and my family. I was closed off for so many years.”
“Find your spiritual center,” advised the ex-linebacker. “Not in a casual way, but go after it like you would prepare for a football game.”
He’s hoping to find a publisher for what he wrote. That’s his latest pursuit. He wants to spread the word. To bring CTE out of the closet. To move the chains. To help somebody else. The best defensive player in BYU history is looking to go on the offense.
Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Mondays.
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