Painful Exits

Harry Flaster ’05 imagines that he was excited at this time last year, just one week before the Harvard-Yale Game. It had been the best season of his football career. “The Disaster” Flaster was leading the Ivy League in sacks, and was ready to take down the Crimson quarterback. It was going to be one of the most important games of his life.

One year later, Flaster does not remember any of it — not the week of anticipation and training leading up to The Game, not the moments before the first whistle, not even the helmet-rattling blow that would give him a career-ending concussion.

His friends and family would tell him that sometime in the third quarter, he smashed heads with a Crimson fullback and was knocked unconscious for a few minutes. He kept playing afterward, but trainers overheard him anxiously asking his brother, defensive end Josh Flaster ’06, the game’s score over and over again.

That darned score just would not stick, nor would the memory of the game or the week before it. One tackle had knocked his memory clean.

“It was really traumatic for me,” Flaster said. “I was prepping for the biggest game of my life, and I played in it, but I didn’t remember it.”

More trauma followed shortly thereafter, when the extent of his injury became clear. Although he was shaken up, Flaster still hoped to return to the sport at some point. His father, a neurologist, knew the risks were too great.

“My dad told me he didn’t enjoy watching me play anymore, knowing that another hit like that would cause permanent damage,” Flaster said.

His father’s concern pushed him to make one of the most difficult decisions of his life. After six years on the field, Flaster went from star defensive end to retired player. A key part of his identity had been erased. No longer an official athlete, he was suddenly just another Yale student.

Flaster is certainly not the first athlete forced to give up his sport. Every year, many Eli athletes go through similar situations. Whether due to injury or an adjustment of priorities, the transition from athlete to non-athlete is never easy. A change in athletic status is often frustrating, and occasionally downright depressing. Physically, socially and mentally, it can be a rough time in a student’s life.

“Any activity that is such a huge part [of your life] and integral to your identity — it’s a very scary thought [that you must give it up],” said Kara Gaughen ’06, who quit crew last year as a result of a herniated a disk in her back. “To have that taken away from you is difficult.”

Doctors’ dilemma

For Gaughen, sophomore year has been like freshman year all over again. Without crew, she said it has been a struggle to find new activities and passions.

Her decision to stop crew was a long process. After hurting her back last fall, Gaughen began physical therapy, but the stress caused her to re-aggravate the injury.

The Athletic Department’s doctors and trainers sent her to various physicians and neurologists, many of whom had conflicting views on the best treatment for her.

“There was a lot of confusion in terms of being shunted around to different doctors,” Gaughen said. “Different doctors had different interests in terms of my being healthy in 10 years or my being able to get in a boat and row.”

Despite the support Gaughen said she received from the Athletic Department, the process was daunting. Gaughen said she remembers going to Yale-New Haven Hospital for MRI’s and x-rays by herself.

“Listening to one, two, three doctors’ opinions on a subject I knew nothing about was very confusing,” she said. “It’s hard to gauge whether it’s as serious as they say it is.”

After a year of painkillers and rehabilitation, a doctor finally told Gaughen she would not be able to lift her children later in life if she continued rowing. That prospect frightened her into making a final decision.

Christopher Pecora, the head trainer for the Athletics Department, said the number of cases every year at Yale which involve a career-ending injury number less than five. Most of the time, Pecora said trainers try to help the athlete safely return to his or her sport. If it becomes clear that the athlete is permanently out of the game, Pecora said the goal shifts to allowing the student to return to safe recreational activity.

“Our faculty is very close to the athletes, especially if they are getting therapy,” he said.

Airing the laundry

Director of Sports Medicine Barry Goldberg, who consults with most of Yale’s injured athletes, said he considers a case very carefully before advising a student to stop playing a sport.

“It’s not done without a lot of thought,” he said. ‘It’s a terribly important decision these kids have to make.”

But one injured athlete, who wished to remain anonymous, said he felt that support dwindles after the decision is made to permanently retire from the sport.

“I think when it becomes clear that it is going to be a longer recovery process, they become less immediately supportive because it’s not an immediate concern [to the team],” he said. “It kind of does leave student-athletes in a strange position because it becomes much more of a personal issue and there’s much less team support.”

Pecora said most injured athletes continue physical therapy with the sports medicine department after the decision, and trainers make an effort to stay in touch with them. But, Pecora said there is no “set plan of support” for such cases.

Other former athletes feel the support is more than adequate. Former defensive tackle Chris Hagale ‘O6, who underwent two back surgeries this summer, said the support he has received has been “unbelievable.”

“They do your laundry and stuff,” he said.

Social limbo

Athletes like Hagale, who are used to committing themselves wholeheartedly to practice and games, often find that renouncing their sport can turn out to be a discombobulating experience socially, as well as physically.

Players are used to spending a significant amount of time with coaches and teammates — at games, on the bus and during meals. The high level of commitment necessary for varsity sports calls for a strict regimen of work and sleep. As a result, many athletes find that their social lives revolve primarily around teammates and fellow athletes.

Peter Enestrom ’06 decided to quit lightweight crew last year, the sport he has been playing for five years and for which he was recruited. Although Enestrom was not injured, he decided that the heavy time commitment and strict weight loss schedule were taking a toll on his mental and physical well-being, and he wanted to try other activities. Nevertheless, the decision is one he reevaluates a lot, especially because of his friends.

“A lot of my good friends were on the team,” Enestrom said. “You don’t really get to see them anymore.”

Goldberg said when students are forced to quit their sport due to injury, he usually advises them to stay involved with the team in some capacity in order to ease the transition from athlete to non-athlete.

“We encourage them to stay with the team in some sort of instructive role, so he stays in a social mileu in which he has been [until then],” he said.

Flaster agrees that his transition was difficult socially. But during his ordeal, he said he received plenty of support from his teammates and coach, who, though sad to see him go, understood what was in his best interest.

With more time on their hands, former athletes must often find new non-athletic activities to occupy their time. Flaster became more involved with the Yale Hillel and Enestrom started writing for the Yale Herald.

Football to fencing

But the desire to be physically active does not go away for former athletes. If anything, the drive to be fit is stronger in those who are used to regular exercise and competition.

“Fitness is definitely still something I think will never stop being a part of my life,” Gaughen said.

Although injuries may impair former athletes from participating in their sport, they can often still work out at the gym or play in club or intramural sports, along with the rest of the non-varsity folk. Now that her back no longer plagues her with everyday pain, Gaughen works out at the Adrian C. “Ace” Israel Fitness Center five times a week and has rehab twice.

“There’s usually always a sport they can participate in that does not put them at risk, even if it’s a recreational activity,” Goldberg said.

Somewhat ironically, football helped Flaster discover his new calling. Flaster said he used to train by running up the stairs in Payne Whitney Gymnasium. One day, he stopped by the seventh floor and watched the fencers practicing and thought it looked fun. So, when a concussion ended his football career, he tried out for fencing — a low-contact sport.

Flaster will not remember this year’s Harvard-Yale Game, either — his first varsity fencing tournament is at the same time.

“I want them to kill Harvard,” he said. “I’m kind of sore about what it did to my football career.”

Flaster later chats with coach Henry Harutunian (left). After an in-game concussion forced him off the gridiron, Flaster joined the fencing team, shedding 20 pounds of bulk in the process.
Smita Gopisetty
Flaster later chats with coach Henry Harutunian (left). After an in-game concussion forced him off the gridiron, Flaster joined the fencing team, shedding 20 pounds of bulk in the process.

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