Legacy Stories

A Letter To My Former Self - John Gaal Sr.

Dear John Sr.,

            I write this letter to your young self in hopes that one day you can share it with others. I think it is best summed up as bent but not broken! To be sure, your road ahead is filled with more than its share of twists and turns. As the saying goes, “There are no guarantees in life.” Nevertheless, you will always manage to seek solutions to deal with those bumps in the road. You will find, time after time, there truly is something to having a loving and caring support system. Not just while you are young but equally important as you age.

            Who would have thought that at age 15 your Dad (48) would die the weekend before your sophomore year of school will begin in 1974? The same weekend you will be away at a Boy Scout camping and canoe float trip. Brace yourself, as you will be told at his funeral services—more than once—you are now the man in the family! Take my advice, never ask for or seek anyone’s pity. Hold your head up even when you are so weak inside that you just want to collapse. Why? Because your Dad led an honorable life. Graduating early from high school in order to serve his country. A WWII Vet who was injured so badly in France fighting the Nazis that he had to forgo a career in professional baseball. Many years later, a popular news anchorman will write a book and bestow the title of “The Greatest Generation” on your Dad’s demographic. When you are in your late 30s, a co-worker of your father will tell you that the US Army still to that day uses computer programs for payroll that your Dad wrote decades ago.

            Watch out for your Mom. She was dealt a few bad hands herself. Your grandmother, her Mom, died when your Mom was just 16 and her Father in her mid-30s. Shockingly, the love of her life will depart unexpected and much too soon in 1974. In spite of this adversity, your Mom held things together. Making sure that your brother, sisters, and you stay connected via holiday gatherings year-round. At 15, you are much too young to grasp the importance of her drive to instill how much close family and friends are key to supporting you from here on so go easy on her. (Not to mention, trying to raise four teenagers as a single mom is not a simple task!) Take note of her faith and loyalty to God and family. This will serve as a model for you to emulate. Visit her as often as you can…even after you start your own family. Remember how she cared for the less fortunate in society. Her kindness will be recognized by others! At age 74, she too will leave a lot earlier than anticipated as a result of 9/11’s collateral damage. So, make the best of it!

            Have fun in high school but not too much fun. Enjoy college even if at first it is not for you. Never, ever forget the lessons learned during these years. They will help pave your way to be successful. In fact, playing soccer in college will leave its mark in more ways than one! The sport you loved as a kid will provide your oldest son recognition as an All-State player before departing high school while providing a university scholarship to your youngest son. Most importantly, whatever you chose to do, do YOUR best. While you grow up your parents will instill in you that one day in the not too distant feature you will need to make a life choice: college, trade, or military. At age 20, you will get an opportunity to enter an apprenticeship program in carpentry. This is where you finally learn how to learn. You will serve as a model of lifelong learning to your four children as they will see you attend school for the first decades of their lives.

            As Mary, your wife, and you raise your four children (Dana, John Jr, Jake, and Leah), make learning fun…whether it is in school or on the field. Read them bedtime stories often and they, in turn, will cherish the gift of literature and the power behind those words. All four of your kids will play a variety of sports but love the game of soccer far and away. Teach them early on to use BOTH feet and their coaches will always seek their services. Embrace diversity as you will find out early on that the really tough lessons in life will require you to adapt as the best laid plans no longer apply. Encourage your children to focus on school during the school year and allow them to work small jobs over the summers, if necessary. Before they know it…there will be plenty of time for them to work the rest of their lives. And, make sure EACH of them has at least ONE international experience before departing college…this is sure to serve them well when it comes to being open-minded and having empathy for those less fortunate!

            Let John Jr experiment with going to different high schools. Soon enough you will find that his wisdom is well beyond his years. He will make a personal transformation within the first six weeks of his junior year after switching from SLUH to JFK high school in Fall of 2009. Both his football and soccer coaches early on will notice his leadership skills only after recognizing his athleticism. John Jr will play a key role in helping his football team earn its first victory in years and first in seven years against the team they play that evening: your alma mater. Watch out as the students will storm the field as if their Celts just won the NFL’s Super Bowl! Later that season, your son will help put his soccer team in the state’s prestigious final four. His following year (as a senior), John Jr will serve as Co-Captain on both teams. He will play both ways in football (running back on offense and safety on defense) and center mid-fielder on the soccer pitch. John’s only goal in high school will be the one that sends his team back to the state’s final four. This late-game 1-0 win, in the coldest of weather, will empty the stands. Take pride in the fact your son’s intense form of play will empty those same stands on two occasions: his first football game and his last soccer game of his JFK high school career. In spite of all the practices and games, wins and losses, he will always wear a smile! However, for better or worse, I wish to forewarn you that John Jr will truly leave everything on both of those fields of play. As such, his courageous/assertive style of play will result in several concussions and a couple of knockouts. So be prepared to act in John’s best interests. Do not allow pride to get in the way of his health and safety. Take note of the signs he will be showing and take action…sooner rather than later. Reach out for help beyond your comfort zone. Be open to new ideas and approaches. Make it a point to ensure that John’s mental health is addressed…not just his physical health whenever he goes to the family doctor for scheduled check-ups. Most of all, be a change agent for the greater good. Talk to the coaches, administrators, parents, and players about the importance of brain health. Move the conversation from “getting your bell rung” as a badge of honor to one where, as adults, we have a duty to protect our children because what happens on the field today may have negative consequences on your son/daughter later on.

            Do not be surprised if John Jr calls you two months into his freshman year of college and asks to switch schools the very next semester. That change will open a new world to him. John will forgo joining a fraternity to room with three foreign students from Africa. Be prepared as the lessons he learns from his “new brothers” will far outweigh what is taught in the classroom the next three years. Encourage him to study abroad. His 2013 Christmas semester in Florence will increase his love for health and fitness via Mediterranean cooking. Not to mention how his weekend escapades to London and Paris will serve to build confidence for leading a group of (grade, high school, and college) friends two years later on a 30-day free-wheeling (graduation) tour of Europe. This time might well be summed up as his best month on Earth!

            Know that your John Jr will be a symbol of love to so many people. This will be made evident when more than 1000 people show up to his funeral on April 1, 2017. Parents and children will be crying in unison. Take solace in the fact that your boy deeply touched so many people in his short 24 years on Earth. His closest friends will share stories of his willingness to play hard and work hard. While friends of his who you barely know will tell tales of his uncanny ability to truly “fight” for the underdog.

            Finally, know that in spite of doing your best…sometimes your best is just not good enough! In his last 18 months on Earth, John Jr will morph into a person who is sometimes unrecognizable. His severe/intense pain will cloud his better judgment at times. He will depend on his Mom to act as his sounding board, his oldest sister (Dana) for medical advice, his little brother (Jake) to help keep him grounded, and baby sister (Leah) to confide in. YOU just need to be there for him when and how he needs you. YOU, his Papa, will be the first in your family to hold him on July 10, 1992 and the last in your family to hold him on March 24, 2017. The grief from this unimaginable loss will move YOU to action. Your family and friends will start a foundation to help inform others of the dangers related to playing contact (collision) sports in high school. And, you will begin a second career—upon retiring from your first—as an advocate/trainer/researcher for Mental Health, Addiction Awareness, and Suicide Prevention. You will use John Jr’s CTE story to assist others in “saving” their injured children and attempt to influence those in power to make reasonable changes to K-12 soccer and football that protect our children’s futures. You will constantly remind yourself that saving just ONE boy or girl from CTE and/or suicide will send a signal that your son did not die in vain! And, this will provide the energy to put one foot in front of other…day after day. In closing, later in life, you and yours may find some comfort in Matthew 11:28: Come to me, all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Remember, real strength comes from knowing when to give help as well as knowing when to ask for it…May God bless you and your family!



John Sr.

A Letter To My Former Self Project

This personal letter was written as part of a research project conducted with colleagues at University of Winchester in the UK. The intent of a “letter to my former self” is to use hindsight to reflect on the personal experience of what family members of those who have CTE have experienced, and with this hindsight, what advice they would give to their former self, and in turn, what advice would they give others who might also go through similar situations.

If you would like to comment in any way on the letter, or share your similar experiences, please visit the Legacy Family Community Facebook Group.

If you would like to write a letter yourself, and contribute further to this project, contact Dr Matt Smith (Matt.Smith@Winchester.ac.uk) for further details.

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