A guy walks into a bar…
He is grey at the temples, walks with a cane, and limps severely to the right. His balance is so poor that when he tries to negotiate the one step up to the bar area, he almost loses it. The bartender rushes to his side and offers his arm. He guides the older gentleman to the rail where he is able to pull himself up the step. The bartender slides the stool out and helps him to sit.
“Thank you”, he says. “I’m Alex. Sorry to trouble you. This damn knee is always giving out.”
“No problem, Alex,” the bartender replies. “What can I get you?” The bartender pays no attention to Alex’s stained shirt and stubbly chin. It’s obvious by the look of his knobby knuckles and stiff shoulders that he has trouble with stuff like that.
“Something strong! My leg is killing me. And my back. Everything hurts. Arthritis from head to toe. I need something to warm up my joints and help me sleep tonight.”
As Alex and bartender chat, another man walks into the bar. He is also older with wisps of white hair wafting from the top of his head. He has no trouble bouncing up the step and hopping onto the barstool despite his large frame and even larger belly.
He interrupts Alex and snaps at the bartender, “Hey, can I get a beer?”
“Sure,” the bartender replies. “What kind of beer do you want?”
“What kind do you think, dumbass? A cold one? In a glass? Ever heard of it?” the man chuckles to himself.
The bartender ignores the sarcasm and pours him a glass of beer. As he slides it toward him, he asks, “You gonna start a tab? I’ll need a credit card and a name.”
The man stares back at the bartender, blankly at first, then narrows his eyes, “My name is none of your goddamn business. And there is no way in hell I’m giving you my credit card. You think I don’t know what you’ll do with my information?”
The bartender sighs deeply, “Ok buddy, that’ll be $2.50.”
The man shoves his hands into his pockets, grumbling angrily to himself. He pulls out old receipts, a pen top, a key. He checks another pocket and pulls out a money clip that is empty, except for several carefully folded sticky notes. He slams his fist on the counter and growls, “Where is my money? Who stole my goddamn money?”
The bartender pulls the glass back away from the man.
Calmly, Alex offers to pay for the man’s beer. “Hey Marcus, I got this round.”
Marcus looks at Alex quizzically. Then a broad smile crosses his face. “Hey you! Wow! How you been, man?”
Marcus’s entire demeanor changes. He is affable, sweet. He throws an arm around Alex’s shoulder and asks about Margie and the kids. He apologizes for not bringing his money. He doesn’t know where he left it. He says he must have left his wallet at home.
The bartender watches Marcus warily. His shirt is food-stained and wrinkled. His pants and shoes are dirty. He thinks to himself that this guy is a hot-headed loser.
Alex introduces Marcus to the bartender, “Here in this fine establishment is a true legend, the greatest linebacker ever to roam the halls of Central High. Marcus Peterson led the state with 43 tackles in a single season. He earned a full ride to an Ivy League school too, but that was more for his smarts. This guy’s a brainiac.”
Marcus gives the bartender a wistful grin as he thrusts his hand toward him, not a trace of anger in his eyes. “Was a brainiac I should say. Noggin’s nothing but sawdust now.”
The bartender shakes his hand, “So you guys know each other from high school?”
“Yep, and even before that,” Alex replies. “We played football from the time we were little kids up through college. We both went pro for a while. My body is a total wreck now.”
“And my brain’s total mush now,” Marcus adds a little too loudly. “A few concussions in college, a few more in the pros. A little bell-ringing never hurt no one. At least that’s what they told us.”
“And broken fingers, torn ligaments… all part of the game. Of course, now I’m wishing I could have my young knee again. And my right shoulder. I would be a lot better off,” Alex lamented.
“Docs call it CTE- haven’t been able to hold down a job or a wife since I left the game. Not that I would hold down a wife, you know, unless she was trying to kill me. Ha ha, hahaha,” Marcus roars with laughter. The bartender shifts uncomfortably.
“What is CTE? Is it like brain damage?” The bartender asks.
“Yeah I guess so. Chronic traumatic encephalopathy. I get bad headaches and make bad decisions. Fly off the handle real easy. And some days I don’t know my ass from my elbow. I’m a guy who used to read a lot. Now I can’t read a cereal box without losing focus. Probably getting the Alzheimer’s too. Makes me feel all crazy. Beer settles me down though. MUST HAVE MORE BEER!” Marcus hoots and slaps Alex on the back, and nearly empties his glass in two swallows.
“The saddest part,” Alex adds, “is that the game took tolls on our bodies differently. Everyone can see my limp and offers to help me. But they don’t get Marcus. You can’t see the scars in his head. No wonder he gets mad. The guy just needs a little help.”
Marcus looks at Alex, then down at his feet. “I know you hurt, brother. But what I wouldn’t give to have a bum knee instead of a bum brain. I can’t take this much longer.”
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-TALK
For more information about CTE, contact the CTE Center at Boston University