By Ian Hebeisen
Currently working for the Star Tribune newspaper in Minnesota, Reid Forgrave’s writing career has covered sporting events including college tournaments, NFL games, and the Summer Olympics. He writes in a long-form narrative style, making his articles engaging and engrossing. Out of all the writing he’s published, Forgrave’s book Love, Zac: Small-Town Football and the Life and Death of an American Boy might be his most important piece.
The book recounts the life of Zac Easter, a high school student suffering from CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a condition occurring in people suffering from multiple blows to the head), as well as depression and alcohol abuse. Zac played high school football and sustained multiple hard hits, leading to severe head trauma.
As his mental health declined, Zac began recording his symptoms and experiences in journals. He died from suicide at the age of 24, leaving behind his journals for others to study in an attempt to help people struggling through similar situations.
Forgrave first heard of Zac from his obituary, and was struck by the final paragraph saying, “His last wish was to make sure that no one else has to struggle from head trauma like he did. It is important to Zac to tell his story about CTE, a disease he attempted to manage for years… He’s unselfishly donating his brain along with a detailed diary, the document of his life so that no one suffers the way that he did.”
“Any obituary of a 24-year-old man is obviously heartbreaking, but Zac’s was just even more so,” said Forgrave. “This obituary just absolutely hit me in the gut.”
Moved by the touching words of Zac’s family, Forgrave decided to reach out to Zac’s parents. Two weeks later, Forgrave found himself sitting in the Easter living room with Zac’s parents and girlfriend.
The family passed along the journals, and Forgrave read them. Evidently, Zac suffered from severe migraines, slurred speech, blurred vision, brain tremors, dementia, and other physical ailments in addition to his CTE.
During Zac’s senior year, he sustained three concussions in the span of two months. After the first two concussions, doctors cleared him and gave him the “go-ahead” to continue playing.
“It’s like, these things are supposed to happen – those big hits,” said Forgrave. “So much of this comes down to the culture and the bigger discussion on how we look at violence in sports, especially with our kids.”
Following Zac’s third concussion, Sue Wilson, a trainer at Zac’s high school, pulled Zac from the game. Wilson was one of the first to take concussions seriously, and now serves on the governor’s task force for traumatic brain injuries in the state of Iowa. Had Wilson not acted proactively, Zac’s mental health might have deteriorated much faster.
The Easter family was no stranger to sports-induced brain injuries. Zac’s older brother sustained numerous concussions during his athletic career as well. “His older brother had some concussions but didn’t react to them in the way Zac did,” said Forgrave. “His brother was bigger, more athletic.”
As Forgrave’s exploration of the journals continued, his view on the story behind them shifted. “You can look at it as a cautionary tale about football and concussions, but it’s not evil,” said Forgrave. “Let’s recognize how important concussions are – I think it’s way better to call them TBIs. If you call it a traumatic brain injury, then you’re not going to say someone just got dinged up.”
Zac’s journals and Forgrave’s investigation into them has helped shed light on the nature of TBIs and sports-induced concussions. “The scariest part isn’t these big hits, because you can more or less legislate those out of the game,” said Forgrave. “It’s those repetitive hits – linemen are hitting heads virtually every play, and that stuff builds up.”
The book Love, Zac was published in 2020, but the first article Forgrave wrote on Zac was included in the Best American Sports Writings of 2018. To honor Zac’s memory, his family formed the organization CTE Hope, a foundation designed to carry out Zac’s final wishes.
“I think we should recognize that we should have hope. CTE isn’t a death sentence,” said Forgrave. “Science moves slowly, but we can do what we can as a culture to take this seriously.”
Ian Hebeisen graduated from Saint Mary’s University in May 2020, earning a degree in Literature with a Writing Emphasis. Now living in the Twin Cities, Ian writes comics, graphic novels, and poetry. In his spare time, he enjoys playing board games with his family.