Jarrod Cooper has every right to despise football.
Playing the game for almost half his life has left the former Carolina Panthers safety dealing with severe migraines, depression, seizures and cognitive dysfunctions associated with multiple concussions from the sport he still loves.
His downward spiral at age 37 illustrates the personal devastation former players are facing at a time when the NFL’s top health and safety executive has finally acknowledged a connection between football and degenerative brain disease.
“Sometimes I’ll be in the garage and all of a sudden my body will start tingling and my eyes get splotchy and I feel like I’m going to turn into the Incredible Hulk,” Cooper said of his symptoms.
Instead of turning into a powerful green monster, debilitating migraine headaches leave him bedridden up to 18 days per month.
Cooper planned to be in attendance and speak Saturday at the San Francisco Playhouse after the West Coast premiere of “Colossal,” a play addressing the injuries and violence of professional football. “
Cooper, who has suffered for a decade, doesn’t have the name recognition of fallen NFL giants Frank Gifford, Junior Seau, Ken Stabler and Mike Webster. Autopsies of those Hall of Fame players revealed they suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a brain disease linked to repeated blows to the head with symptoms including depression, memory loss and progressive dementia.
But he wants to contribute to the national discourse so fellow former players seek help.
“I don’t think players should retire at 30 and then be in bed half of the rest of their life - no matter how much money you make,” Cooper said.
Of the nagging pains that come from playing football, he said: “Of course we all hurt; that’s what we signed up for.”
But, he now acknowledges, “I didn’t read the fine print.”
The end of football came during summer training camp before the 2008 season for a man who says he hadn’t suffered through so much as a bout with the flu since age 5.
The realization was tough for an eight-year NFL veteran who made his reputation as a force on special teams for the Carolina Panthers and the Oakland Raiders, who was a Texas all-state high school player and All-Big-12 defensive back for Kansas State.
Cooper felt groggy from the previous year and told then-coach Lane Kiffin he couldn’t handle the rigors of training camp. The player decided to retire out of pride rather than risk his “hardass” reputation by sitting out with what was then a far more nebulous injury. The impact of concussions was just coming to light in 2008.
Cooper said he was taught to never complain in football. “I played it to hurt people - not on purpose - but you go as hard as you can all of the time and whatever comes from the collision comes from it,” he said.
He also said he doesn’t blame NFL officials for his misfortune even though the league’s executives initially downplayed the seriousness of the effects of head injuries. It wasn’t until this week during a congressional meeting, when Jeff Miller, the NFL’s senior vice president for health and safety policy, acknowledged that football and CTE were correlated.
But Cooper, who took responsibility for testing positive for anabolic steroids in 2007, is not a finger-pointer.
“You know you are going to get a concussion; you know you are going to get hurt,” he said. “That is what the game is. Then don’t play football if you don’t want to get hurt.”
When the symptoms increased after retirement, Cooper called Bennet Omalu, the pathologist credited with first identifying CTE and the protagonist played by Will Smith in the movie “Concussion.”
Omalu said what Cooper described sounded like older patients in the latter stages of the disease. The pathologist recommended a course of action that would lead Cooper to UC San Francisco Medical Center.
Physicians told Cooper that he suffered either from frontal lobe dementia or CTE. He reminded a neurologist that CTE could not be determined until after death.
“Yeah, but you don’t have to be a dummy to see it,” came the reply.
Cooper is part of the growing legion of athletes who plan to donate their brains to medical researchers to help advance the study of the link between sports and head trauma.
He has accepted that his brain won’t heal.
“Sometimes his face goes blank and his head is killing him,” said Jonathan DeMarti, a close friend from Oak Tree Animal Hospital in Danville, where the former player volunteers as a technician.
Cooper works with four UCSF physicians to help manage symptoms. Treatments sometimes include a weekly hospital stay to get migraine medication intravenously. Cooper said expenses paid for by the league can run $100,000 per treatment.
He was prohibited from driving for four years while doctors tried to figure out what was going on with the seizures. Cooper, who once was bedridden for 33 consecutive days, likes to read when the pain subsides.
“I try to work on my brain instead of letting it go,” he said.
Cooper doesn’t spend time recounting past glories. Sure, the former Raiders captain would do it again given the chance. He wants to be buried with his Super Bowl ring earned when playing for the Carolina Panthers in 2004.
But the lean, 6-foot-1 Walnut Creek resident now embraces each day he feels good enough to spend time with his fiancee and two young kids. He tries to jam in as many outdoor activities as possible - snowboarding, paddleboarding, taking the kids and dogs for walks or to the beach.
Cooper also has found a home at the Oak Tree Animal Hospital located in downtown Danville.
His interest in animals began in 2007 while volunteering at the Oakland Animal Shelter. Working at the hospital gives Cooper a reason to get out of bed and feel like he’s contributing to the community.
“He’s not taking opiates and staring at the walls,” DeMarti said.
One recent day, Cooper scooped up a personable feline named George and collected the creature in his brawny arms decorated in ink. His eyes twinkled as Cooper talked to Oak Tree’s resident wild cat.
Later, while walking into the hospital operating room, he pronounced: “These animals are all I need.”
Cooper met his fiancee, Shelly Bright, at the hospital when she worked there as a receptionist. He initially didn’t want to have a family because of aggravating symptoms. But once treatments helped decrease the pain, the couple had Raine, now 2 1/2, and Kyra, 5 months.
The father thinks he would permit his son to play football. But not the way he played: all out, collisions be damned. Cooper is part of an NFL-supported school of thought that the game is safe for kids as long as they are taught to tackle from the waist down, keeping the head out of the equation.
However, he applauds players such as former 49ers linebacker Chris Borland who have left the NFL because of concerns over head injuries. Had he known the consequences, Cooper would have walked away in 2006.
“If I was 7 now and my mom was watching this, I would not have played football,” he said.
Cooper is trying to break through the macho shell that often leads football players to reject help even though the NFL estimates a third of its former participants could develop degenerative brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
“Jarrod gets it,” said Tony Stewart, a Raiders teammate who played in the NFL for a decade. “His heart is to serve.”
Cooper stays in regular contact with 15 or more former players, often urging them to seek help that is available through the league and players union. Cooper supports the NFL’s $1 billion plan to settle concussion claims because, he says, it provides lifetime medical care.
“There is not a price you can put on that, especially with knee replacements and the head,” he added.
Cooper doesn’t know a former player who isn’t suffering to some degree from headaches, cognitive dysfunction or uncontrolled shaking. Most, he says, have given up on living a normal life.
“They’ve just given themselves a death sentence of what this is and what it’s going to be,” he said.
Stewart, an NFL transition coach living in San Ramon, added that “in the NFL, you have to be a gladiator. In a player’s mind, we have to go out there and show no pain, show no weakness to do our job.”
Cooper, though, empathizes with someone, like Seau, who would be in such despair that he’d take his own life.
“If you’re sitting in bed and every pain receptor in your brain is overloaded, how long can you do that?” asked Cooper, who said he has seen a counselor for depression.
It won’t go away with pain relievers.
“There is nothing a doctor can prescribe you that is going to help you,” he said.
It takes getting family and friends involved. It takes seeking help from specialists. It takes staying positive.
“It takes mind, body and soul to heal yourself,” Cooper said.