My father’s CTE diagnosis came as a shock. In retrospect, it shouldn’t have, but my understanding of the disease in 2011 was based on news media portrayals of a small number of athletes.
Lew Carpenter had an illustrious NFL career. He was a running back for Green Bay Packers under legendary coach Vince Lombardi before stepping onto the sidelines as a coach later in his career. When he passed away, researchers at Boston University reached out to the Carpenter family requesting to study his brain. To the shock of the whole Carpenter family, Lew was diagnosed postmortem with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE).This revelation is where Requiem For A Running Back kicks off as Lew’s daughter and the film’s director, Rebecca Carpenter, takes us on her journey uncovering the truth of this new disease and its negative impact on families like hers.
Tell us a little about your professional background: Where you went to school and how you got into filmmaking.
I graduated from high school in Green Bay, WI, and by some fluke ended up at Harvard University where I majored in Germanic Studies and discovered the sport of rowing. In college, I worked for a film director part-time as an undergraduate. I did everything from paint shelves, to preparing taxes, to grant applications and babysitting. I wanted to work in film ever since I saw Star Wars in a movie theater in Green Bay in 1977! But I also wanted to be a civil rights attorney, or a diplomat of some kind, or maybe a teacher, so I used my time in college to explore things that were of interest to me. I lucked out and, right out of school, was producing media for corporations and nonprofits. Then, I decided to pursue an MFA in filmmaking at the University of Texas at Austin. For the next two decades, I made a living in various capacities in film, television and corporate communications including directing short films and theater.
Losing a family member is extremely difficult and we imagine sharing the intimate details of how CTE impacted your family was a tough decision. How and when did you find the inspiration to start making this film?
Sara Dee, the film’s producer, was the inspiration. We were friends, and I was obsessing over this bizarre thing that was happening to my family – getting a post-mortem diagnosis of a disease we had never heard of – and how angry and violated and confused I was feeling. She thought it would make an interesting and important documentary film. So, for me, it was the inspiration provided by Sara, but also my complete and utter trust and confidence in her as a producer gave me the courage to do this.
I never would've done it on my own both from a practical standpoint as well as an emotional standpoint.
On a deeply personal level, instinctively, I knew that a lot of my father’s more challenging behaviors did fit the profile, and I was curious to know more, and to find others living with the disease.
So, inspired by Sara’s initial vision, I did some research and found that we were in the middle of a bit of a shit storm, quite frankly, and we hit the road, and just made the decisions to intuitively begin filming.
What were those family discussions like behind-the-scenes when Boston University’s research group wanted to study your father’s brain?
It was a very easy decision. We got a cold call from a major university soliciting his brain for a study on the impact of concussions on former NFL players. They said they were in a very early stage of the study, and we thought that using dad’s brain and spine to contribute to more knowledge about the sport that he loved was an obvious choice. Also – because dad had never been diagnosed with a concussion. We never thought he would test positive for any disease.
Your film focuses on your father’s time in the NFL and how the game can negatively impact a player’s cognitive health. What are other sports or activities that can also lead to CTE?
This is such a good question! Research scientists haven’t been able to pinpoint the exact cause of CTE yet. There are extraordinarily strong correlations between sports that involve repeat blunt force trauma to the head – collision sports like boxing, soccer, hockey, car racing, and rugby – and behavioral problems that are symptoms of CTE. Also, it has been found in military vets, many of who also suffer from Post Traumatic Stress. The symptoms overlap a lot, so it can be very difficult to diagnose what behaviors are the result of psychological trauma as opposed to a physical blunt force trauma.
There are also athletes who’ve had repeat concussions in their sports who show the signs and symptoms of CTE, including BMX racing, baseball, basketball, and wrestling. Because we still can’t diagnose CTE in the living, the vast majority of people living with these symptoms can’t be diagnosed. Instead, they might get an Early Alzheimer’s diagnosis, or be misdiagnosed as having a mental illness of some type. But there have been post-mortem CTE diagnoses in sports outside of football.
Requiem also touches on the sport’s breakthrough into the mainstream of American culture. What were your first thoughts on discovering Dave Meggyesy being one of the first players to publicly call into question the long-term effects of head collisions in football?
Until his CTE diagnosis, I really hadn’t given much thought to anything about football at all. When I realized that I had to rethink everything I knew about my dad. I also began to realize I wanted to rethink everything I thought I knew about football as well. And this curiosity led me to David and Ed Garvey who really opened my eyes to how vulnerable these young players really were during most of my father’s playing and coaching career. I began to see that it was these players who were really struggling because by their 50s they had reached a tipping point cognitively and were obviously impaired. Their low salaries and passion for the game were particularly poignant.
It appears the league is more open to addressing the existence of CTE now than at first due to new concussion-reporting guidelines. Are you satisfied with the NFL’s efforts during and after this film’s production to address scientific conclusions related to CTE?
It is my perception, based on the outcome of the lawsuit, that there is still a morally and ethically troubling institutional denial and unwillingness to confront the long-term damage that football players are experiencing. The institutions that sponsor football appear to be waiting for the science to be very specific in the exact causality before acknowledging the very real damage that is taking place in the meantime. So, I am not satisfied until there is a complete and total acknowledgment that there is a serious problem going on that is destroying families.
What are a few resources you recommend for anyone reading this who might be looking for a way to cope with or spot potential signs of CTE in their family?
I would reach out to any of the doctors in the film who diagnose and treat brain injury, all of whom are affiliated with world-class medical institutions. If they are too far away geographically, look up the Brain Injury Association in your area and find local resources that acknowledge the existence of CTE and degenerative brain disease. Don’t take no for an answer! Call the Mayo Clinic. Call the Cleveland Clinic. Call the Semel Institute at UCLA. Concussion Legacy Foundation and After the Impact Fund are creating databases of doctors who specialize in degenerative brain diseases. Do not suffer in silence! There are things that can be done to slow the onset of symptoms and extend quality of life for you and your family if you catch it early. Do it! Do not let fear or shame keep you in the dark about what can be done.
Do you think the advancement of football helmet technology and new tackling rules have made the game safer than it once was?
No. Fewer full-contact practices at the professional level are making it marginally safer. But these guys aren’t fooling around on Game Day. I don’t think it can be made safer. The words “safe” and “football” don’t belong in the same sentence. Racing cars isn’t safe. It’s by definition dangerous. That’s why we like it. We like watching people do dangerous difficult things. It’s thrilling. That’s the point.
Who were the most influential or inspiring people you encountered making the film and why?
I met people who blew me away almost every day during the making of this film, from former players, to academics, to family members and medical professionals. The two people who influenced me the most – probably Keith Johnson, the SoCal Falcons coach, and James Lofton, who had shared a decade of his career with my father.
Keith Johnson approaches football as a spiritual practice. He recognizes that his community is suffering, and that football is a uniquely effective way of creating community in an area of Los Angeles that has been devastated by crime and high incarceration rate; providing an outlet for (understandable) rage for the children in his community. It’s ironic that he stands as a beacon for me, spiritually and personally, because he does coach Pop Warner football, with kids as young as 5 years old playing full-tackle football. There is something instinctive that he is doing, and I understand why.
The other person who really inspired me was James Lofton. The day that Dad died, we emailed him to let him know. James wrote us an email saying, “The phrase that comes to mind when I think of your dad is, ‘You gotta love.’” I had never heard dad say it, and suddenly, I felt like I hadn’t known my dad at all. When we got the CTE diagnosis, I had another one of those moments of feeling like maybe I hadn’t known my dad at all. So, when I sat down with James to learn more about my dad, I was awed by James’ spiritual approach to football and to life, and how important love is to him. And that despite my father’s gruffness, James saw that underneath it was a drive to connect and to love.
What findings or conversations surprised you the most when researching concussions and CTE when making this film?
What surprised me the most was how long information has been available about football’s potential for long-term brain damage resulting from repeated blunt force trauma to the head. Pugilistic dementia is essentially CTE in boxers. So we’ve known about that since the early 20th century. But in 1906, Harvard’s head football coach, Bill Reid, was already warning about multiple concussions and removal from play. 1933 NCAA guidelines suggested concussions were not being treated seriously enough in college athletics. A 1952 article in the New England Journal of Medicine recommended that colleges bar athletes from participation after 3 concussions. The other thing that struck me was the similarities in behavioral challenges faced in retirement for both retired military vets and retired NFL players. There is a combination of identity loss, brain damage, and traumatic stress that can be a really toxic cocktail for these guys. They deserve better.
What is one way an average person can join the fight to spread awareness of CTE?
The most important way an average person can join the fight to spread awareness of CTE is to be open to its existence. Denial is a powerful thing and it prevents us from taking action. Defend the research that says it’s real, acknowledge the complexity of the brain and human behavior, and then again defend the research that validates the very real damage done by repeated blunt force trauma to the head. Brain injuries are serious, in many cases, the initial blow to the head starts a sequence of degenerative events that eventually become catastrophic. If you suspect you’ve had a concussion, get it looked at right away. Get your child’s concussion looked at by a medical professional right away. Take it seriously. Be pushy. This is not an injury that is well-served by stoicism or minimization. Your brain contains the seeds of who you are. Take care of it.
It is probably my most vivid childhood memory. It begins with the smell of my father’s hair cream, a slightly chemical odor mixed with an unidentified manly scent intended, no doubt, to mask the smell of the petroleum. I watch him comb it through his hair, with a very small black comb that he carries in his back pocket. He is very exacting, making sure that the part is perfect, and that each hair falls exactly right on either side of the part. If there is one thing I know about my father, it is that he will not relent until things are exactly the way he wants them to be. It is true of how he coaches, it is true of how he played, it is true even of how we mow the lawn. It is true of his hair as well.
Next comes watching him put on his freshly pressed shirt and buttoning it, over a bright white undershirt. He sends me to his tie rack and tells me to choose one for him. It’s a glorious feeling to have such an important job. I remember the feeling of his hands over mine as he shows me how to loop the end of the tie through the carefully positioned overlap, then tug the long wide end of the tie down until it landed, just so, on top of the shorter, narrower piece. I can still see us both reflected in the bathroom mirror, my small hands, my white blond hair, my porcelain skin contrasted with his huge hands, his jet black hair, his red, sun-battered skin and dazzling blue eyes. We are both very focused. I am in awe of him, he is enjoying my delight. It is important to do it just right on Game Day, or the consequences might be irreversible.
There is no other sound except for his voice and the few words we exchange during this ritual. It is absolutely quiet everywhere else in the house, a large two story perched high on a walled corner lot in suburban Virginia. I sit on the edge of the huge bed watching him buff his shoes to perfection before pulling them on and tying. Then he puts on his jacket. It will be our last moments alone before he runs the gauntlet of the rest of the family, my three sisters and my mother. I will have to say goodbye to him at the front door, along with everybody else. I can feel his freshly shaved cheek against my lips, I can taste the alcohol aftertaste of his cologne. In a moment, he will walk out the house and forget about me. This is our moment, this is all we have, seven Sundays a year when his football team plays at home. On the weekends that the game is out of town, the ritual takes place on Saturday morning before he boards a plane to places I have never heard of. And on those days, the ritual is more fun, maybe feeling a bit more distracted, less intense.
Mostly I can remember a sense of excitement: Today is the day. Today he is going to win again. It’s Game Day.
It’s a big deal in a football family like mine.
And there was one other thing I remember. I remember how handsome he was, his hair slicked back, his eyes so light, I can remember how big he was, well over six feet tall and a compact two hundred pounds. He is at his most handsome when he is anticipating Game Day. His sport coat, his white shirt, and his tie. His wingtips. Do everything just right, I think, and he will come home excited to see us.
At the time, my father was an assistant coach for the Washington Redskins under Vince Lombardi. I didn’t know anything else about him because I rarely saw him except on game days and Saturdays. I didn’t know that he was an assistant coach for the Redskins, I didn’t know that the big rings on his fingers came from Championship games. I didn’t even know what the NFL was. I did know that his boss, Vince Lombardi was a great man, maybe the greatest man who ever lived, maybe as great as God and certainly as powerful and that Dad worshiped him and that somehow he and football would keep a roof over my head. I didn’t need to know anything else. I was five.
By the time I’m in high school, Game Day has lost its allure. We’ve returned to Green Bay, and he’s still a position coach, but now the stakes are too high. It feels like watching your dad, but now he’s a stock on the stock market, one day surging, one day crashing, there is no sense of control, and I’m fighting like hell for an identity separate from football. In the dozen years since we left Washington, football has exploded into an entertainment universe, eclipsing all other professional sports. I still watch him prepare himself for Game Day, just as I did when I was five. But now, it feels like a last moment of privacy we are going to have for days, as the outcome of Game Day will be on the news, in the paper, and discussed everywhere I go, including math class, which I have first period with the football coach and the football team, until the fans become bored and begin to discuss next week’s game. I find it exhausting. I can’t seem to get ahead of the wave of obsession. Game Day has become tiresome, a signal that it is time for the dreads to set in until football season is over.
Fast forward another dozen years or so, and now I’m a coach, for a women’s rowing team in Texas. My father admires me, and admires the girls I coach. I’m surprised, because I realize I have misunderstood something about him all these years. Why he did it. Why he played, why he became a coach. It had nothing to do with Game Day. Game Day is a necessary evil. Game Day, or Race Day, is for everybody else. It’s the thing that we have to do to justify what we get to do during the rest of week, the camaraderie we share privately, in practice, over meals, and at meetings. The joy, the ferocity, the exhaustion, the thrill of being of part of something so much bigger than you. The women I am coaching have no resources compared to what my dad had getting ready for Game Day: No equipment, no money, a novice coach, crappy practice times, no attention, no press, and no expectations. And yet, here we are again. Game Day.
It was never about Game Day. It was always about connection. Game Day was for the fans. The preparation – that’s what we were all about.