By Mike Fay
This is dedicated to Owen Daniel Brearley Thomas. Owen’s name has become world-famous because of his struggle with CTE, a degenerative brain disease that is the result of head trauma, which resulted in his taking his life. To most, he is one of the youngest people to be diagnosed with CTE; but for the 21 years prior to his death, Owen Thomas was so much more than a name associated with CTE. This is a piece of his story.
On April 26th, 2010, a shockwave ripped through the social fabric of Parkland School District: one of our greatest sons, Owen Thomas, killed himself. The shocking news spread like wildfire across text-message lines, Facebook inboxes, and phone calls, and within an hour, hearts all across the United States were devastated over the loss of a brother, a friend, a student, a son. He was 21 years old.
Owen Thomas was more than your average man, far more. He was an A-type personality, a vibrant smile, and a bull of a body with a thick neck and flowing orange hair. To the girls who passed him in the high-school hallway or had class with him, Owen was a gentle giant, a gentleman. He was also the brightest mind in all of his classes, humbly keeping a GPA above 4.0; his friends only knew if they asked. To his opponents on the football field, Owen was a mythological creature. The fiery tips of his sweat-glossed hair, which flared out of the bottom of his helmet, were his calling card; running backs did not run towards that hair, nor did quarterbacks throw. To his coaches and teachers, he was one in a million, an inspiration to those whose job it was to inspire. Owen’s teammates, who unanimously voted for him as captain, thought of him as a fearless leader, similar to the way Scotsmen felt about the brave William Wallace as he proudly galloped out in front of the modest Scottish army. No matter what their odds were in the fight, Owen’s teammates were ready and willing, confident of victory with O.T. leading the charge. Those who were closest to Owen knew that he was all of these things and more.
There was, however, a heavy price that Owen paid to be such a fierce and dynamic person. He was a dedicated student who would often lock himself in his room, working for hours with the Beatles playing in the background until every assignment was completed flawlessly and to the satisfaction of his teachers. His work ethic when it came to academics was baffling to his friends. Even greater was his dedication to competitive athletics - especially football.
Whether it was running sprints, powerlifting, or practicing on the field, Owen’s tenacity was unmatched. He seemed to enjoy the pain and struggle that everyone else dreaded. Owen never complained, and he was never hurt. In fact, he challenged his own teammates to question whether they were truly injured, or just “banged up a bit.” It was a coach’s dream to have Owen around because he would raise the entire team’s effort simply with his stoic presence on the field.
Owen Thomas was the embodiment of old-school American football - hard-hitting, nose-for-the-ball, hit ‘em in the numbers football. On Fall Friday nights under the lights of Orefield Stadium, when the tests and papers had all been turned in and a hard week of practice had ended, Owen shined. Thousands of fans watched in awe as #31 went to work, pouncing on the ball-carrier like a hungry lion. After high school Owen moved on to the University of Pennsylvania where he was admitted into the illustrious Wharton School of Business; he continued to be a dominating force on football field for the Penn Quakers. It was not surprising for his friends and family back home to learn that he was quickly endeared by everyone he met at Penn, where he was voted team captain and helped lead the team to an Ivy League Championship.
He played the brand of football that people wanted to see – the brand of football that made it America’s favorite pastime. Owen’s style was similar to Chuck Bednarick, Jack Lambert, and Dick Butkus: he was not blazing fast, but he would always find his way to the ball, and when he got there, he was mean. All the good that came from Owen’s abilities, the 17 straight wins at Parkland High School, the Ivy League Champion ring, the trophies, the entertained fans, the community pride, it all came with a price – a sacrifice.
Owen was a pitbull without a leash on the field, and it was silently killing him. CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, developed in his brain as a result of head trauma from football. Scientists believe this disease causes symptoms of depression and affects rational decision-making. In 2010, in his apartment, Owen took his life. He is the youngest and one of the first football players to be diagnosed with CTE. Since that day, awareness of the disease has skyrocketed. Campaigns to make athletics safer have resulted in rule changes from youth sports all the way to the NFL, and new equipment has been designed to prevent head trauma.
In six short years since his death, the whole persona of football has changed. The helmet-to-helmet hit is no longer glorified, and that is a good thing. Concussions are treated as life-threatening injuries, because they are. CTE is being studied and cures are being researched. In general, our society is having a revolution in sports safety that is keeping the passion of the game intact while caring for the health of athletes.
We should revere and respect the way Owen and others like him played their sports with passion and unmatched tenacity. We should also learn from their stories. We should join the fight to make sure that athletics do not die out, but grow stronger and better – safer. It is for this reason that Owen’s friends have decided to join the Concussion Legacy Foundation’s My Legacy campaign. Every dollar donated to this campaign goes towards research and education of sports safety, helping to ensure a safe future for generations of athletes.