BILLINGS – Football meant so much to Ryan Burke. Putting on the Montana Grizzly uniform and playing in front of 26,000 roaring fans on Saturdays was, in his best characterization, a dream come true.
But it wasn’t everything.
Burke has bigger goals, bigger dreams. He’s a bright, engaging, well-spoken 21-year-old with visions of going to law school and, maybe, a future in politics.
Those who know him best think he’s destined for it.
“I’m saying this right now, Ryan Burke will probably be the governor of Montana someday,” said new Montana State defensive coordinator Ty Gregorak, who spent more than a decade as an assistant coach at Montana. “I’m telling you, the kid’s just got a way about him.”
But Burke, a junior wide receiver and a former star at Billings Central High School, lost a piece of himself when he made the final, painful decision to step away from the Grizzlies and retire from football altogether not long after suffering the fifth diagnosed concussion of his career.
Burke is doing much better now than he was in the fall when, after a win over Northern Arizona on Sept. 26, he endured memory loss, dizziness, retention difficulty and sensitivity to light and sound as a result of enduring his most recent trauma.
Even a simple task like walking up the stairs gave him a headache and made him nauseous.
In the end, risking further injury to his brimming brain simply wasn’t worth it.
“I think everybody who has played football knows that there’s probably concussions that you’ve had that kind of go unnoticed in terms of a big hit or hitting your head to the turf or grass or whatever it may be,” Burke said during an interview last week. “It’s a sport where you kind of take the risks of that.
“I would never take anything away from the sport, but in terms of the position I was in it just kind of came to the point where I was putting a lot more than just my football career at risk by going back out on the field.”
Burke says he was officially concussed five times during his athletic career, though he has no doubt the actual number is higher. His first concussion occurred when he was an eighth grader on the basketball court at an open gym when he crashed heads with another player and was knocked unconscious.
The last one came in that game against NAU at Washington-Grizzly Stadium, though he doesn’t remember exactly how it happened. Looking back, it can’t be traced to one specific hit.
All Burke knows is that he suddenly began forgetting plays. He missed a couple signals, missed a couple blocks, and didn’t have a real concept of the score or his surroundings.
He says he still can’t remember a pass he caught earlier that day.
“The game seemed like it was going way faster than it should have been,” Burke recalled. “I was forgetting the most basic things, and having to think so hard over things that would be second-nature on a normal day.
“When it’s really uncomfortable for a football player is when you don’t know what you’re doing out there. That’s when you can really get injured. Watching the film of the game, there’s not a specific time where I got blasted, but there are a couple plays where I’m just standing around, specifically one punt return where I’m just kind of standing there. When you’re not feeling 100 percent, you lose that instinct to play football.”
Out of his wits, Burke walked off the field – for the final time, it turned out – near the end of the third quarter. The next couple months were agonizing.
A concussion, by definition, occurs upon impact when the brain strikes the inner skull, which can cause bruising, damage to nerve cells, and can lead to a chemical imbalance.
In the immediate aftermath of his latest episode, Burke said he was in a fog on the sideline, that the cheers of the 26,136 fans in attendance at the NAU game became unbearable. He complained of a headache at halftime and was told to hydrate and take ibuprofen. That didn’t help.
In the fourth quarter he was escorted to the training room.
“The first day I honestly didn’t feel too bad after maybe three or four hours up in the training room,” Burke said. “They told me it was a diagnosed concussion, they told me to keep hydrating. I went home and went to my brother’s house – my family was all in town for the game. I just kind of relaxed. I didn’t feel great, but I didn’t feel nearly as bad as I would in the coming weeks.
“I slept fine, and I woke up the next day and that’s when it all started to spiral downhill in terms of the headaches and the body aches. Sunday morning after that game is when it all kind of started.”
The migraines, the soreness, the dizziness, the forgetfulness, the sensitivity to light and sound – it was all so difficult for Burke to bear.
Burke remembers riding in the car with his mom when he was forced to turn the radio off just so he could concentrate on what she was saying.
He was increasingly agitated, and his harrowing symptoms didn’t subside.
“It kind of got worse in the sense of things that I knew, not necessarily even as a collegiate athlete, but as a somewhat in-shape, 21-year-old kid, that I should be able to go up the stairs without getting a migraine, that I should be able to go outside without the light being incredibly loud,” Burke said. “Focusing was terrible. It really was a struggle.
“I consider myself to be a person who can get through some pain or whatever’s going on – a headache – but it got to the point where I didn’t go to class for about five weeks.”
That’s when he began seeing Missoula physical therapist Jill Olson, the owner of Peak Performance Physical Therapy and the director of the Dylan Steigers Concussion Project.
Steigers, a graduate of Missoula Sentinel High School and a football player at Eastern Oregon University in La Grande, Oregon, died on May 9, 2010, not long after sustaining a blow to the head during a scrimmage.
Steigers walked off the field, began vomiting and collapsed. He left in an ambulance but was later flown to a Boise, Idaho, hospital where he was placed on life support.
Like Burke, Steigers incurred previous brain trauma before suffering the concussion that proved fatal, Olson said. He reportedly experienced an acute hemorrhage as a result of taking a knee to his helmet.
To Olson’s knowledge, Steigers had zero brain function.
“His family had to make the horrific decision of pulling the plug,” Olson said.
The Dylan Steigers Concussion Project was founded in an effort to push the boundaries of concussion therapy. It was later named in Steigers’ honor.
In Olson’s care, Burke began to turn a corner.
According to Olson, a concussion is more than just the sloshing of the brain against the inner skull.
“A bigger part of it is a twisting axonal injury, and shearing of the axons (nerve cells),” she said. “Part of that twisting and torsion of the brain is a major contributing factor to a lot of the damage that occurs.
“It’s like a major chemical storm.”
Olson’s concussion therapy can be described as groundbreaking on several levels. Her team establishes baseline testing for concussion sufferers to determine what’s driving their symptoms, and then builds a specific treatment regimen around that framework.
Eyes, ears, motor function and balance are tested. A tolerance to exertion is built. Physical exercise is integrated with dual tasking. Once the brain can identify where the areas of dysfunction are, Olson said, it can channel the energy in the right areas and heal properly.
It’s a break from the old "caveman treatment" where a concussion patient is holed up in a dark room, inhibited from stimulation and kept away from light and sound.
“A lot of physicians and athletic trainers are still promoting rest until (concussion victims) are symptom-free,” Olson said. “We really promote a very specific, guided, active recovery. We want the athlete very much a part of their recovery. A classic quote from Ryan was that he’d much rather work on his recovery versus wait to recover.”
Eventually, Burke responded to the treatment.
“The worst (symptoms) at the time were the headaches and the tension in my neck and my back,” he said. “They say your central nervous system gets really messed up with certain concussion things. My muscles were tight, my neck joints were hurting, and as I’ve moved forward the symptoms that are still on the table are kind of the memory or the retention, the focus has gotten better. But certain aspects of my memory, or kind of formulating a complex thought, that kind of stuff hasn’t fully recovered.”
“The physical stuff I couldn’t do to start out,” Burke added. “I went from lifting however many times a week in football to barely walking on the treadmill for two minutes. I remember the first time I got on the stationary bike I rode for two minutes before I got nauseous and (had) a headache. But with Jill we started inching forward, and about a month later I felt like I could get back on the bike.
“It was comforting to be in good hands. That’s not a knock on athletic training, that’s not a knock on protocols, but quite simply, you can’t treat what you don’t know much about. There’s so much unknown about concussions, someone who specializes in concussions really was the person I needed to be in with, and that’s when it finally started to turn around.”
Burke, a business finance major at UM, missed five weeks' worth of school. He decided to withdraw from four finance classes, drop to part-time student status and push his graduation back a semester to focus on his therapy.
“It got so stressful to really even just think about getting back into class,” he said. “Every week that passed I missed more and more.
“Some days I really felt (awful). Migraines all day. I’d get nauseous. The concentration really provoked the symptoms. Even reading light material would provoke the symptoms at the start.”
The decision to retire, Burke said, was not taken lightly.
Conversations with Griz coaches like Gregorak, quarterbacks coach Andrew Selle and receivers coaches Mike Ferriter and Nolan Swett – and the grind he endured with Olson – steered him toward the call he knew he ultimately had to make.
“It was a tender journey walking along side of him as he was coming to terms with that decision,” Olson said, “because he’s a very gifted athlete.”
Burke’s situation is not uncommon. Football players sustain concussions. It’s a scary and unfortunate truth of the game.
Awareness of the effects of head trauma and football has grown in recent years, and has become a part of the national dialogue over the course of the past decade since renowned neuropathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu discovered a brain disease now known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) during the autopsy of deceased NFL hall of famer Mike Webster.
Since then, CTE – a disease characterized by dementia, aggression and depression – has been detected in several other NFL players who perished too soon, including Junior Seau, Jovan Belcher, Justin Strzelczyk, Dave Duerson, Andre Waters and Terry Long. All six committed suicide.
It’s led to books, documentaries and a blockbuster Hollywood movie titled “Concussion,” which stars Will Smith and tells the story of Omalu’s battle with the NFL to raise greater awareness with respect to football and head trauma.
As a result, the game and its connection to concussions and CTE has come under fire. In “Concussion,” one scene depicts Steelers team neurosurgeon Dr. Joseph Maroon in an intense conversation with Omalu. Maroon says something to the effect of: If only 10 percent of mothers in America begin to believe football is too dangerous, the game cannot survive.
But Burke, who also lost consciousness after absorbing a hit during fall camp of his true freshman season at UM, is less dramatic – and more results-oriented in his thinking.
“People always ask me if I’ve seen the movie. I will never see that movie. To me, I don’t want to hear how bad it can be, I want to hear what can be done to prevent how bad it can be,” Burke said.
“I went through a two- or three-month period where I had a bad experience. I would like the focus to be on … we have this great game, there’s no way it will be taken away completely, so what can we do to prevent the most damage? And a starting point is the return to play, which is always such a focus.
“When I made the decision not to return to play, that’s when I had the most progress toward recovery because there wasn’t that, ‘We’ve got to get you back on the field.’ And I think all too often that’s the focus – what can you do to pass the protocol (in) whatever way just to get back on the field when you’re not fully recovered?
“And I think we’re at a point where that’s happening too much. Those are the people where you’re seeing the long-lasting effects because they’re not fully recovered when they get back on the field.”
Burke will never be back on the field. And he’s come to terms with that. But bigger goals and bigger dreams lay ahead.