March 1, 2017
Have you ever wondered what it’s like to live a fairy tale dream come true? And then see it unravel thread by thread? This is Cyndy Feasel’s reality. Cyndy was married to Grant Feasel who was center and long snapper in the NFL from 1984 – 1993, and was a starter for most of his career. I caught up with her recently and we discussed her experiences.
Cyndy met Grant in college; they were both students at Abilene Christian University, a small college in West Texas. “I was a Texas girl and he was from Southern California. He was a California kid in the way that he looked and dressed, and it was unusual because my people didn’t. . .he had that California look. He mesmerized me all around,” Cyndy said, adding, “And he was the tallest, most handsome man I’ve ever laid eyes on.”
While Cyndy was obviously enamored of Grant’s looks, it was his intelligence and demeanor that drew her ever closer to him. “I had no idea that he was this smart,” she told me. “He was academic and athletic. So it was a great combination. He was 4.0. He was an academic all-American since he was in college. He won every award that there was to win. He loved music; I love music. He loved poetry; I loved poetry. I just thought, wow, I had found somebody that there was nobody else like him.”
Cyndy and Grant married while they were still in college and her admiration and love for him continued to increase. “He mesmerized me all around. He was a great, great guy and organized, well put together, soft spoken. I mean, really, if you looked at all the characteristics of somebody that you would want to spend the rest of your life with, he had all of those characteristics.”
I figured that it had to be an exciting time for Cyndy and Grant when they learned he would be participating in the NFL Draft. I wondered if it was something they expected or came as a surprise. Cyndy responded, “Well, it was interesting because Grant was going to be a dentist. He had been on a pre-med plan all through college, and I was going to be a teacher. And so, that was the life plan that we thought we were going on until the senior year and scouts started coming around and looking at him and talking about being drafted more than we had ever thought about. So when he was drafted by the then Baltimore Colts, not the Ravens but the Baltimore Colts back in 1983, it was, wow! We were twenty. So who wouldn’t be mesmerized by that and think it was the most awesome thing that could happen. Even though he was accepted to dental school in the State of Texas and that was definitely a priority for him, we both decided one percent of the people in the world get to play professional football. Why wouldn’t we want to be that? This was a no-brainer. Every boy’s dream, one of those things.”
Cyndy put her teaching plans on hold and the couple moved to Baltimore. “And that’s where we started with the NFL,” she said, “We traveled around, met a lot of great people. He also went to the Minnesota Vikings and ultimately ended his career with the Seattle Seahawks. I would say those were the good years. We made a lot of friends, traveled, made money. It was good.”
“And what brought about his decision to retire? Injuries?” I asked.
“Yes,” Cyndy responded, “Injuries, and he played 117 games continuous. And so, he had some major injuries along the way that I would have thought would have been career ending but a lot of times people just keep pushing past the point. I don’t understand that. When I’m in pain, I stop. I remember, in terms of serious injuries and a serious staph infection that the doctor said if we don’t get this under control, he could lose a leg. And so, he continued to play. And then at the end of the ten years he said, ‘you know, it’s time,’ because he was really doing — he just realized that he was at the end of it anyway. So rather than be cut, he decided he just wanted to retire.”
“So at the end of the career, after he had this really serious staph infection, he started complaining more and more about just everything hurt, using ice packs. I know that you get this,” she said to me, “but the normal person out there, they lose something in their brain that makes them forget that this is a human being. This isn’t a robot in this job; it’s a person. There is not another profession that you use your body as a vehicle, as a means to make your money. It wears and tears on your physical being.”
Like the majority of NFL players, Grant was caught up in the NFL’s tough-guy, return to play culture, aided by a host of NFL supplied painkillers to numb the injuries so they could be dealt with another time. That day didn’t com for Grant didn’t until he left the NFL. Players are heavily motivated to play through pain, often at the prodding of their coaches, NFL doctors and trainers. Players are acutely aware that someone’s waiting to take their jobs if they’re out for very long, and they’re also aware that they have a short time to make the most of the NFL’s opportunities. While it would seem that each player has his own reasons for staying in the game, some old notes found in Grant’s desk after his passing, and published in a Seattle Times article, appear to reveal his motivations:
Training Camp Goals for Vikings 1985
Don’t Be Hurt
Don’t Get Tired or Dizzy
Do it for Cyndy & The Baby
Seahawks Training Camp Goals 1988
Cyndy and Sean are all that Matter
Finance your Education
Sean will be Proud of my Effort
Cyndy and Sean Will Always Love Me
Seahawks Training Camp Goals 1990
Tough & Quiet
Thankful (Realize Opportunity)
He did it. He accomplished his goals. He was an exemplary player, husband and father. But his long (for the NFL) career took its toll.
“He started having a lot of aches and pains and taking pills,” Cyndy said. A former player once told me that while you’re playing, “you don’t feel your body,” it’s after you retire that everything starts catching up with you. This seems to have happened with Grant at a rapid pace. “The knees were hurting, the neck was hurting, the back was hurting. He was having trouble getting comfortable to sleep because everything hurt and throbbed.” Cyndy didn’t know what to do.
“Again, that was in, let’s see, the eighties still,” she explained, “I mean, there wasn’t such a thing as going to pillfinder.com on the Internet. So I didn’t really know what all those were. He said ‘don’t worry about it, just something to help with the pain. . . As long as you realize . . .” I interrupted Cyndy because from other stories I’ve done and conversations I’ve had, I was all to familiar with the rabbit hole she was describing. We discussed the NFL’s painkiller culture and the effect it has on those who play the game. “I know that. I lived this life, and I know he didn’t feel any pain during the game, and he couldn’t stand up afterwards,” she affirmed. “Those are the things, in my opinion, that drove him to become an addict. I think he got hooked on these things in the NFL, and those are the things that ended up destroying him ultimately, along with the brain damage that we knew nothing about because in the eighties who was talking about CTE.? Nobody.”
What Cyndy said reminded me of research that I read about recently, linking concussions to increased vulnerability to addiction because head trauma affects the brain’s ability to regulate impulse control. “With so much damage to that region [frontal cortex] of his brain,” Boston University researcher Dr. Ann McKee said of another player who like Grant had substance abuse problems and also CTE, “[he] may have been more inclined to abuse prescription pain medication and other harmful drugs.” Cyndy and I discussed at length how this “toxic combination” of concussions and drugs and/or alcohol often turns deadly. Compound this with the lack of knowledge in this regard, even less than a decade back. “It was so astounding to me when Grant died, again, we didn’t know anything about CTE,” she repeated, seeming incredulous to the lack of information available. “I followed the free fall. We were navigating in the darkness our entire lives.”
In retrospect, in view of what she’s learned it all makes sense to Cyndy now. She thinks of changes that occurred as Grant’s career progressed. “He was doing weird things already before he even quit playing in the NFL. He was bringing bags of alcohol in a bag, or he stopped by the liquor store, and he’d drink them all and put them back in the bag and throw them out in the dumpster.” I asked Cyndy to elaborate.
“Yeah, I would love to go back and talk about that, she responded. “These were the things that started happening at the end of his career in Seattle and, the bottles of Jack Daniels. That was not normal behavior, either. We’ve never even had a bottle of Jack Daniels in our house.” Cyndy had told me previously that Grant never drank in college; it was a habit that he acquired while playing in the NFL. She continued, “So he also one night brought me a small package. He retired from the NFL. We were giving each other gifts. He gave me a small package, and I knew it was a ring. When I opened it up, and it literally took my breath away. I said, ‘This is the same one you gave me last year on our anniversary.’ He was sitting in this overstuffed chair, and I’ll never forget what he looked like, and he said, ‘Really?’ I said, ‘Yes.’” At first she thought he’d “gone and gotten the ring and rewrapped it,” and then by his reaction realized otherwise. “I mean, that’s how odd it was. It was the same identical ring. And I’m telling you . . . in the very beginning of our conversation about how organized and smart he was, does that sound like the same person?”
“No,” I agreed. “No. So this was already happening at the end of his career,” she, reiterated, her mind seeming caught for a moment in a distant time and place. Cyndy collected her thoughts and told me about an incident that happened a few years later.
“Then we moved back to Texas, and I’m putting in folded clothes in the closet, and I feel something in the tee shirt. Of course, I’m looking to see what it is. I pull out a giant bottle, and I mean one of the biggest bottles of Crown Royal that you can get, and I was stunned. I remember having a rapid heartbeat and asking, ‘what is this and why?’ and all the questions that go through your mind. She continued her recollection. “I set it out on the cabinet, and I said ‘What is this?’ And he said, ‘Well, don’t worry about it; it’s not a big deal. I keep it back here in the bedroom so at night when I go back to bed, I pour some of it, and it helps me through.’”
As Cyndy was telling her story, it caused me to think how many times I’ve heard it. Former players, both in conversation and deposition testimony that I’ve read, as well as other NFL widows have confirmed that for many retired players, searching for pain relief is a full-time and completely consuming job. “It’s so sad,” was the only response I could muster.
“Yes, it’s terrible because he was so smart. And you’re a smart woman. You know that he could have stopped playing earlier on and gone to medical school. He even ended up taking the MCATs, seeing how well he did on that, and he did so well that every medical school in the State of Texas accepted him as well. So he was accepted in every dental school and every medical school in the State of Texas.”
Cyndy, paused for a moment to think about what could have been, “Yet, he kept playing football after all these terrible injuries. And he could have made the same amount of money or twice the amount of money being a doctor or a dentist.” Sadly Cyndy is right. While there’s no doubt players are paid well, the mega contracts are the ones the public tends to focus on; most don’t see nearly the amount the “stars” receive, and as Cyndy pointed out, could earn equivalent money in other professions without the risks.
But most love the game.
And often “after the cheering stops” that love turns bittersweet or even destructive.
Cyndy says it destroyed her family. “I mean, it destroyed everything!” she exclaimed. “And so, these were the things that were starting to happen. I knew that he was drinking more and more. I couldn’t put my finger on it. I was trying to be a detective the way we do. I would see all the prescriptions. He always had prescriptions for painkillers. You know, you go to the dentist, it’s controlled substances now and not given as freely, but I still blame the drug companies and the doctors for giving a lot of medication that is unnecessary and never asking if they’re addicts or if they had a history of injuries or anything because Grant had an ongoing prescription of some sort of painkiller.”
Cyndy went on to tell me that after he retired from football he found employment with a medical supply company. This gave him access to the drugs that the NFL no longer provided as he tried to mask his pain as he’d done throughout his football career. “And he sees the doctors, he relied on doctors that knew friends. He needed to have knee replacements; he probably needed a hip replacement. He needed surgery on his back. He needed surgery on his neck. He never did any of those things.” He tried to cope as he’d done before; deflecting, masking and eventually trying to drown his injuries.
As Cyndy watched helplessly as Grant spiraled downward, she didn’t understand. She said she didn’t know the gravity of what was taking place before her eyes. “We didn’t have the Internet back then,” she noted.
Grant did elect to have one surgery after his retirement; Cyndy looks back, understanding now what she didn’t at the time. “He went and had one surgery . . . his nose had been broken so much in football but he decided a couple of years after he retired that he wanted to have it fixed. . . and he got five prescriptions. And I remember him saying, ‘Fill them all.’ I don’t even take an aspirin. I remember saying ‘Do we really need all of these?’ ‘Yes, fill them all. If I need them, I’ve got them.’ So that was the only surgery he ever had done his entire life.”
I found it remarkable that Grant only had the single surgery after the many injuries he sustained.
“He suffered through them,” Cyndy said. “He drank.” Then her thoughts shifted toward the NFL. “I say they don’t care. I firmly believe they do not care. It’s all about greed. It’s all about money. I don’t care if you’re a first-round draft pick or a fifth-round draft pick like Grant was. They’re going to use you, and Grant Feasel said this: ‘They use you. They flush you down the toilet like a dead goldfish when you’re done with your career, and you’re as good as your last game, and that’s it. It doesn’t matter who you are.”
I asked Cyndy if Grant ever tried for disability under the NFL plan.
“No. . . never even dreamed of it. We never even talked about it. Grant was fortunate, and I talk to so many other of these women. At this point, he was able to work. Grant had a job until he died, and he made good money. But he couldn’t keep anything else together. He couldn’t keep that together in the end. He ended up getting fired.”
“So I’m saying, he was constantly doing things that weren’t consistent to the brilliance that I believe he had. He didn’t understand what was going on, either,” she explained. “And at the very end of his life, it was before I left, was getting a divorce, seven months prior to him dying because I was trying to get his attention. He didn’t care what anybody did. He didn’t care what I did. He was drinking around the clock. He became unmanageable. Again, there’s more stories in the book about the things he did, physical things he did, mentally abusive things that he did. He was so far from who he had been in the beginning. . . It was like something happened in his mind where he just wanted – I think he just wanted to die. I mean, he was on a path to die, a path of destruction. He was drinking a fifth of vodka, sometimes two, a day by the time he died.”
“It’s heartbreaking,” I told her, “when I read about players that can’t take it anymore, and they shoot themselves in the chest so that their brain can be examined and somebody can figure out why did this happen to me, maybe stop it from happening to somebody else.”
“I know,” she replied. “And I believe Grant knew at the end of his life, I think I have what Junior Seau had. I didn’t know, of course, anything about it. And in the throes of all of life’s ways, you don’t sit down and say, hmm, I think I’ll check this out. I really didn’t. I heard of CTE. One of his good friends that played with him in Seattle and ended up having a really weird, something happened with his heart, and he had a heart attack and died suddenly. And Grant was already way, way into the addiction and already completely blacked out. And I remember him saying that he had CTE. And Grant was like, CTE? That’s what I have.”
At the very end, things were starting to make more sense, but tragically it was too late for Grant, Cyndy, and their family. “So all of a sudden, I was saying to him that’s what he had and also realized it is too late for him. He couldn’t have gotten a liver transplant if he wanted to. He was having liver failure, kidney failure. He couldn’t stop drinking. He had been to rehab time and time again. And he would say every time he went to rehab all he would think about was coming home and drinking.”
I asked Cyndy about the impact on their children, and she declined to say much in that regard. In fact, her voice broke when I asked her. Suddenly she became very guarded, as if she was trying to suppress the worst pain of the entire ordeal.
“It doesn’t take a real brilliant person to understand that when you have addiction, it does not do well with the family. And you know what addiction causes. And it rips and tears the families. It’s a family disease.”
She seemed to summon her thoughts and determination, and through tears she told me, “I want to say this, that there was the possibility of being a huge co-dependent because I didn’t have any resources, didn’t have any coping skills, until I got into therapy probably, oh, ten years before he died. And I didn’t have any clue until then what — I didn’t understand why my kids were acting the way they were.” She told me that the kids didn’t understand and that she purposely omitted the family stories from her book. “I’ll just say that those are their stories and their memories.” She told me he was a good father. “Grant did the best he could being a brain-damaged addict. He was a good dad. He loved the kids. He tried to be the best dad he could be. I was — we tried to give the kids the best lives possible under the circumstances.”
Cyndy and her children haven’t spoken since Grant’s death. He passed away on July 15, 2012. I found an article dated March 14, 2014, that was written shortly after the autopsy that revealed Grant had been suffering from CTE.
The article was painful to read. It was evident that hurt flowed in every direction in the Feasel family – Grant’s brother, his children, and a wife who loved him but no longer knew how to cope. The article contained emotional recollections from the entire family, including Cyndy.
That was then. Fast forward to 2017, and not a great deal has changed, except that Cyndy has become more resolute and has found her voice.
“This is what I want you to understand,” she said. “This disease that the NFL brought onto my husband – it ruined our family. . . It’s horrible. It’s a terrible disease, and it ruins everybody. It killed Grant. It killed the love of my life. It killed my husband, and it took away my family. I not only lost my husband, I lost my three children. And it’s just terrible to say because they’re so wounded. I mean, it’s just, it’s terrible. These years have been so terrible without Grant. We had family years, where we had Christmases. It breaks my heart. I have zero communication with my three kids. None. It’s like they all died when Grant died.”
Though it was a difficult decision, and her children were opposed, Cyndy wrote her book. She did so because she doesn’t want others to have to experience what she and her family did. “I am passionate about telling this story so people hear it.” She wants the public to “at least look at the evidence of what in the world can happen when you put your head in a head-banging sport. It caused our family to have so much pain. I don’t want any other families to go through what we lived through.”
We talked about the evidence, those who deny it, and those who simply choose to ignore it. We discussed what it will take to bring about meaningful and lasting change and concluded that it’s going to take talking about it until everyone gets it.
And that is Cyndy’s mission – educating and talking about the shadowy dangers of concussions, addiction, and the NFL’s refusal to put people over profit. “I plan on doing it the rest of my life, she said. “I mean, what do I have to lose? I lost my house . . . Grant didn’t pay bills . . . I’ve been teaching for seventeen years now. I want to teach – I was an art major, and I got a job to teach art when my baby went to kindergarten. And I taught so I could pay the bills that we had. . .It’s just hard to believe that you could be left, after making money, left with nothing. And these other women that I’ve talked to that this has happened to their family, there’s nothing left. Nothing.”
Sadly I’ve heard far too many of the same stories.
Cyndy realized that Grant had become an addict, but “It wasn’t until after Grant died that I started researching what CTE was,” she said. She found the symptoms, and at last she knew:
short-term memory loss
difficulty planning and carrying out paths
trouble with smell