VALLEY — On the coffee table inside Dustin Hudmon's living room sits a 3-inch-thick black binder containing all of his football memories — including the ones he can't remember.
On the inside cover rests a photo of the 6-foot-2, 190-pound high school junior with matted brown hair swooped across his forehead, all smiles, and his arm wrapped around his cousin, Ashley Sykes, the self-proclaimed biggest Beulah Bobcats fan around. There's Hudmon, surrounded by his teammates last year as he helps hoist the framed No. 78 jersey of former teammate Blade Longshore, who passed away from leukemia last season. And then, among the countless pages of photos, ticket stubs and newspaper clippings from the quarterback's high school career, there are the wristbands from the three trips to the East Alabama Medical Center after Hudmon sustained in-game concussions — a few of the many reminders of days that were wiped from his memory.
Hudmon, 17, decided to quit playing football in September after he was diagnosed with his third concussion in two years. He didn’t want to risk his long-term health and the possibility of developing a degenerative brain disease, like the ones found in so many retired professional football players, for a game.
"It was hard," Hudmon said, wistfully looking out from under the brim of his Beulah baseball cap. "Whenever I think about still wanting to play, it upsets me because I can't anymore. I wish it wouldn't have had to end like that.
"It wasn't fun. I don't remember my last game I got to play."
‘Back then… it wasn’t that big of a deal’
Not far from Dustin's scrapbook of memories is a memento from his father Randy’s childhood.
Right there in the family's living room, on a low shelf next to the television, is 14-year-old Randy.
His head is overflowing with curly golden locks. A gold No. 22 Beulah jersey is draped over his 110-pound frame as he kneels on the field, helmet by his side.
Randy graduated from Beulah in 1987 and played football during his freshman and sophomore years, mostly on the Bobcats' scout team. The "dummy side," he called it.
"I looked like something with the guts slung out of it," Randy jokes.
Randy doesn't know definitively if he ever suffered a concussion during his playing days, but he says the odds are that he had at least one.
It was a different era 30 years ago, and most people weren't fully aware of concussions, or they didn’t comprehend the gravity of the injuries. They certainly didn't hang up their cleats out of concern for the long-term health effects of them. It's something Randy still discusses with some of his coworkers at the Hanwha manufacturing facility in Opelika, where he’s a shift leader in the motor repair shop.
"I'm sure I had one somewhere along the way, but if I did, back then they just popped the ammonia caps and woke you up," Randy recalled. "Back then... it wasn't that big of a deal. Somebody gets their bell rung, they go to the sideline, get their head right and then they're back in there again."
Times have changed, though, particularly in recent years with new data from scientific studies, like the ones conducted at Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, as well as 305 lawsuits by more than 4,800 former players — according to a database compiled by the Washington Times — against the NFL alleging the league was willfully misleading with information about the effects and severity of concussions.
In late October, the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council released a study that found, among other things, that high school football players are twice as likely as college players to suffer concussions.
This season alone, at least four high school players nationwide have died from brain injuries incurred during games. Between 2001 and 2012, 36 high school athletes died from injuries directly caused by football, according to the Annual Survey of Football Injury Research conducted by the University of North Carolina and submitted in February.
Even with all the emerging studies and findings about the long-term impact of concussions, a high school athlete walking away from the sport out of concern for future health because of the injuries is almost unprecedented.
Several area coaches who have been around the game for decades, including Opelika’s Brian Blackmon and Loachapoka’s Jerome Tate, the winningest coach in Lee County history, have said they have never had a player retire after suffering multiple concussions.
“Until recent years, there wasn’t the technology or research there is today,” Tate said.
While the lack of research certainly played a role, the gladiatorial culture of football likely had a hand in it, too. On the gridiron, players are often encouraged to “keep pushing” and try to downplay the impact of injuries.
Despite the culture that has surrounded the game for decades, the Hudmons weren’t concerned about what outsiders may have thought of Dustin calling it quits — though they have said almost everyone has been very supportive.
“As far as my opinion, they haven’t been here. … They haven’t seen him suffer like he did,” Randy said. “When that happens, you have to just stop and ask yourself if it’s really worth it?
“Is it really worth having an injury that could really bother you later in life? No. It’s an automatic (no), don’t even have to think about it. Ain’t nobody would rather watch him play than me, I could promise you. … It really took me some coping with, but at the same time, his health is more important than anything else he’ll ever do.”
‘He didn’t know his birthday’
The decision to give up the game he loved for the last 11 years was a unanimous one by Dustin and his parents, Randy and Crystal, but by no means was it an easy one — at least not for Dustin.
"I want to play, but I don't want to go through this," he told his father.
For Randy and Crystal, the decision was made long before the third concussion ever occurred.
After their son sustained two concussions within a five-week span as a freshman, the Hudmons were in agreement: Two concussions were bad enough, but a third would be the last straw. They didn't want to run the risk of Dustin being paralyzed, or worse, brain-dead as a result of another blow to the head.
"That could make him where he couldn't function in life," Randy said.
"You only get one brain," Crystal added. "You don't get another one. You have to protect it."
The Hudmons didn't think much of the first concussion, which happened Sept. 9, 2011, against Handley. None of them are even sure exactly when it occurred. Dustin played the entire game, and it wasn't until afterward that he felt the effects, staggering out of the Beulah locker room as he went to greet his parents.
They walked over to the ambulance, which was still at the stadium, to have him checked out. It was then that Crystal, who works at EAMC as a financial counselor, and Randy decided to drive him to the hospital for further tests.
Doctors diagnosed it as a mild concussion and Dustin missed the next two games. AHSAA protocol requires an athlete diagnosed with a concussion to be cleared by a physician before he can return to the field.
Two weeks after his return, against Coosa Central, the second one occurred.
Dustin was playing defense, which he rarely ever did. His focus, ever since junior high, was always on playing quarterback.
While running downfield to make a play on a flea flicker, Dustin was blindsided by a blocker, who upended him near the sideline and knocked him unconscious. He lay motionless on the field for a few moments before he was loaded into the back of an ambulance and once again taken to EAMC.
Dustin doesn't recall the games against Handley or Coosa Central. After he was knocked out in the latter game, he couldn't even remember the day he was born, Dec. 7, 1996.
"He didn't know his birthday, and his birthday is his number — No. 7, Dec. 7," Crystal said. "He's always had that number. He didn't know his birthday the second time."
Dustin didn't return until the next year.
‘Is it really worth all this?’
On the last page of that black three-ring binder in the Hudmon's living room is the wristband from Dustin's third and final concussion.
There it rests, vertically across the right side of the page with the date, Sept. 6, 2013, on one end, and the words "3rd concussion Beulah vs. Childersburg" scribbled on the other. Sandwiched between that wristband and a pair of ticket stubs, centered at the top of the page is an article from that game with the headline, "Childersburg shuts out Bobcats in region opener."
And right below that newspaper clipping, permanently scrawled in black ink, is the sad, simple reminder: Dustin's last high school football game.
Dustin doesn't remember that Childersburg game.
He doesn't recall Beulah's pregame meal from that day — he thought it was chicken, but it was spaghetti (he hates spaghetti). Nor does he remember his trip to the hospital in the back of another ambulance. All the memories from that day were jarred loose by two crushing hits that effectively ended his football career.
Dustin’s only memories from Sept. 6 come from the home video footage his dad recorded of the game. The footage is shaky, as most home videos tend to be, and the two concussion-inducing hits can hardly be seen.
On the first one, Dustin was on the receiving end of a helmet-to-helmet hit after keeping the ball on a read option to the far side of the field from where his parents sat in the top row of the stands at Bobcat Stadium.
Dustin stayed in the game, but Crystal noticed him stumbling on the sideline between quarters and went down to check on her son.
"Go sit down, mom," he said. "I'm fine."
"No, you're not," Crystal replied, noticing something was clearly wrong with him.
"Yes, I am," he insisted.
Like the rest of the day, Dustin doesn't remember the conversation.
He returned to the game on Beulah's next drive. As he took a snap at his own 12-yard line, he stepped up into the pocket and rolled out to his right. Sensing defenders barreling down on him, he hurled the ball 30 yards downfield, hitting wide receiver Caleb Boone across the middle of the field for a 47-yard gain.
It was the last down Dustin would ever play.
“It ended in a bad way, but he’s got a lot of good memories from it,” Randy said.
As the camera pans left, following the ball as Dustin releases it on the run, you can barely make out three Childersburg defenders descending on the defenseless quarterback. While the impact of the hit can't be seen on the footage, Crystal's uncle, John Martin, who was standing near the end-zone gate, said he saw Dustin's head bounce off the ground twice as a result of the whiplash.
The camera doesn't linger on Dustin. It's focused on Moore's 47-yard reception as it cuts to the next clip — Dustin staggering off the field with teammates Josh Cleveland and David Eastridge on either side helping to carry him to the sideline.
After watching the footage, Crystal was certain her son lost function of his motor skills following the hit.
“You could tell he was just kind of dragging his legs, and it took him some time,” Randy said. “The more he walked the better he got, but it was ...”
Crystal interjected: “He couldn’t move his legs. It was like he was just hanging on his teammates.”
Dustin's little brother, Austin, was supposed to be the backup quarterback, but Randy and Crystal didn't want their other son out there.
"Do not put that child in there," Randy told coach Jarrod Wooten. "They can't protect that one, they ain't gonna protect him, too."
Wooten, who went to Beulah with Randy, understood their concerns. Austin didn’t enter the game.
At first, Dustin didn't feel much pain while sitting on the sideline.
"My head hurts and I'm just a little dizzy," he told Crystal.
Trainer Kate McGonigle helped him up and moved him over to the bench, where he sat and grabbed his head, the effects of the hit setting in.
"My head, my head," he moaned.
Dustin fell over but didn’t lose consciousness.
Randy was there to catch his son and helped ease him on to the ground. McGonigle and the other trainers tried to sit Dustin up, but he got nauseous. That's when they decided to load him into the golf cart and get him to yet another ambulance.
Dr. Eric Senn, a doctor of osteopathic medicine at EAMC examined Dustin, performed a CT scan and determined he had a Stage 2 concussion.
"If you care about your kids, you don't care to see them get their brains beat out of them over and over and over again," Randy said. "At some point in time you just got to say 'hey, is it really worth all this?'"
‘We looked like vampires’
Inside the Hudmons' red-brick Valley home, a large black No. 7 — that same number Dustin couldn't recall after his second concussion — adorns the door to Dustin's room.
One wall is dedicated to all of his football achievements, highlighted by "the Perfect Season" plaque, a monument crafted by Randy commemorating Beulah's undefeated junior varsity season in 2010, when Dustin started at quarterback as an eighth-grader.
Next to the television is a worn, youth-sized football. It was the first one Randy ever bought for Dustin a decade ago.
On the opposite wall are all of Dustin's baseball accolades — medals and home run balls, among other items. He was a two-sport star and still plays catcher at Beulah and for the Copperheads traveling team.
In the corner of the room is Dustin's twin-sized bed, cloaked in camouflage sheets. It's where he spent the majority of his time for three days after suffering his third concussion, shut off from the outside world.
"Eighty percent of those days he laid in his room with a blanket over the window, no TV on, no cell phone, no nothing," Randy said. "He was just lying there."
Along with memory loss, headaches and sensitivity to light are among the other effects of concussions. Dustin experienced both after each incident, the symptoms amplifying with each hit.
The third one was the worst.
The day after the collision that ended his career, Dustin had a headache that lasted three days. Medication didn't help, and the pain was almost unbearable, like "somebody was trying to push something out of my ears," he says.
After the third day, the Hudmons took their son in for another CT scan. He had a clear fluid trickling out of his ears and his nose, and they wanted to make sure he didn't have a fractured skull.
Even after Dr. W. Lee Warren, a neurosurgeon at the Auburn Spine and Neurosurgery Center, confirmed there was no fracture Dustin complained of intense pain in his head. It wasn't until another day later that the headaches began to gradually subside.
"I just wanted my headache to go away," Dustin said. "I was in a lot of pain."
While the headaches were no longer all-day ordeals, Dustin still suffered from frequent migraines for the next two weeks. Beyond that, he was still particularly sensitive to the light.
"We looked like vampires. All the blinds were closed," Crystal said. "I've got sheets over the windows blocking all the sunlight out so it's not affecting him."
Dustin couldn't watch TV in the dark; the light emitting from the screen was too bright. He couldn't watch it with just one light on in the room, either. It bothered him too much. He needed the entire room illuminated to balance it out.
Randy and Crystal hated seeing their son in constant agony. The boy they loved and raised for almost 17 years wasn't himself for a while after the third incident.
He didn't have much of an appetite — and didn't eat much of anything for a few days after the hit. He was constantly tired, often lying down in the dark to try to relieve the headaches and then falling asleep without trying to.
"It actually took two weeks for him to come back around and start being himself," Randy said. "You could just tell. We always cut up and carry on and have fun, and you could just tell it was a whole different demeanor about him."
‘They’ve known me to always be playing football’
Dustin misses the game. He misses the long summer days on the practice field that started at 7:30 in the morning and wouldn't end until as late as 3 in the afternoon. But most of all, he misses the camaraderie that comes with being around the team.
"I still wish I could play, because pretty much everything changes now that I can't play anymore," he says. "It's just different."
Dustin still went to Beulah games and ate pregame meals with the team this season. He stood on the sideline in his No. 7 jersey and almost served as a player-coach, helping running back-turned-quarterback Trevon Brown adjust to the position. Coaches even discussed getting Dustin a headset for games.
But he didn’t practice with the team. He would work out after school with everyone else, but once they stepped on the field or into the film room, Dustin just went and got ready for baseball season.
He’s unsure of what role, if any, he will have around the team next season.
He misses joking with his teammates — guys he has played with since their flag-football days — in the locker room. He feels left out when he sits with them at lunch and hears them discuss new wrinkles in the Bobcats’ offense.
His teammates miss having him out there, too — although they don’t all understand why Dustin had to give up the game.
“They all ask me why,” Dustin said in October. “It’s like they can’t — they’ve known me to always be playing football. Today I had one of my teachers show us a trick play that somebody ran and somebody turned around to me and said ‘Dustin, y’all should run that.’
“Then they caught themselves and just thought about it and felt bad about it because I can’t play anymore.”
Cleveland, the offensive lineman who helped carry Dustin off the field after the third concussion, told Dustin he misses blocking for him. Wide receiver Tay Leonard, another of Dustin's close friends, wore Dustin's quarterback towel that has the No. 7 on it when he played this season.
It was his way of keeping Dustin on the field.
"It's just harder for me to go out there and see them practicing and me not be able to do anything," Dustin said.
With the game so cruelly taken from him, all Dustin can do is reminisce.
Gathered in their living room, the Hudmons crack open that black three-ring binder and flip through the pages, one by one, looking back on happier times. Even the numerous lopsided Beulah losses over the years seem like fond memories now.
"He's a competitor. He's a big part of the leadership on the team," Randy says, pausing as his eyes start to well up. "It is what it is. You can't change it. I hate it for him, because he doesn't have but a year and a half of school left. I love to see him; I love to watch my kids play.
"I coached them since they were old enough to play up until they started junior high ball. It's a lot of fun. You enjoy it. A lot of good times together and a lot of memories."
They continue to thumb through the pages, looking back on Dustin's short yet rewarding high school career.
Until they get to that last hospital wristband.
“I told him, when you get older in life I want you to remember there was good and there was bad,” Randy said. “That’s with anything you do in life, there will always be good and bad in anything you go through in life.”
There are empty plastic sleeves in the back of the binder, pages that were supposed to be filled by now. However, since Dustin’s football career is over, those 24 sleeves stay vacant, serving as a sobering reminder of the years of uncertainty that lie ahead for the 17-year-old.
"His health is more important to us than any ballgame he'll ever play. Whether he'll ever have problems from that, who knows? But I don't want to take a chance on him having problems from it," Randy said. "Until you've seen your child lay on that field motionless and then have to get loaded up in an ambulance to go to the hospital — that's something I don't wish on nobody."