Harris Opens Up About TBI

BELLEVUE - Darin Harris didn’t realize his life would change forever on September 6, 2008. After a rough 44-10 loss at Oregon, the Washington Huskies were set to play the BYU Cougars in week two, their first game of the season at Husky Stadium. It was a beautiful day, the kind you hope to dial up for big non-conference games.

What fans probably remember most from that day was Washington quarterback Jake Locker getting called for an unsportsmanlike penalty that led to a blocked extra point and a one-point loss. While that was going on, Huskies safety Darin Harris was being intubated in an ambulance on the way to Harborview Hospital.

“I was covering Dennis Pitta; it was a third-and-10 situation,” Harris told Dawgman.com recently. “I was playing strong safety, he was the tight end. He runs a corner (route); we both go up. I got my hands tangled in his - I really don’t remember - and then I go down. I couldn’t brace myself. My heels clicked; I go down face-first planted right in the ground. My facemask impaled my upper lip. Two plastic surgeries later and I still can’t feel my chin. It feels like you go to the dentist and you get novocaine.

“I woke up making memories the next day at 2 o’clock. They put a tube down my privates, a tube down my throat. I was like, ‘What happened? Did we win the game?’ Then I found out we lost by one. I was more upset about that.”

After suffering a traumatic brain injury, Harris’s life would never be the same. The doctors told him he’d never play football again, so he sought a second opinion. Problem was, that opinion was the same; he would have to quit the game.

Right now, Harris is losing cognitive ability. Often he drops his train of thought, staring off for a brief moment before picking it back up. Sometimes if he has a plan to meet he might have to back out of it if he’s having headaches or physically isn’t capable of going.

“It’s been difficult,” he said. “Bring an athlete and being a person who says something and does it, finding out that you’re not invincible hurts the most. You’re doing stuff and you’re at your pinnacle in terms of what you can do physically and you feel sharp mentally…and then that stuff changes like that.”

A year after the accident came his darkest days. One day, while driving down the street, Harris wrecked his car. “By the grace of God my car stopped before it hit a big-ass tree,” he said. “I realized then I’m not a quitter, I never will be. There were times where I tried to kill myself. It’s just a different game now. This one’s a little tougher.”

Working full-time at Opticon USA, Harris devotes a lot of his spare time as a board member of the Brain Injury Alliance of Washington (biawa.org). He will take over as President of the Alliance in July.

“I’m not a doctor, I’m not a lawyer,” Darin said, matter-of-factly. “I can’t really change the laws. But I can let people that know change the laws. I can go out and tell them my story, and then they’ll do what they’re supposed to do and I’ll continue to do what I do, tell my story.”

Harris has also helped raise awareness outside the state to help pass what is commonly referred to as the Zackery Lystedt Law, named after the Tahoma High School player that suffered a traumatic brain injury playing football two years before Harris’s injury. Like Harris, Lysted has now devoted his time to support brain injury awareness, advocating legislation to make sure any player suspected of suffering a concussion is checked out by a licensed practitioner before receiving medical clearance to continue playing. It’s now the law in all fifty states.

You might think Harris would harbor a grudge against the game that put him in this strange place, but he doesn’t - despite the fact that he and a former UW quarterback filed a five million dollar lawsuit against the NCAA less than two years ago for damages suffered through concussions and brain injuries. Harris was also recently featured on Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel as a college athlete having to deal with medical expenses after graduation.

Always the competitor, Harris was on staff for the Ford Sports Performance’s ‘May Madness’ event alongside former UW teammate Manase Hopoi, coaching up the young defensive backs. Washington donates tickets to the Brain Injury Alliance’s annual gala and Harris continues to stay in touch with the program, recently returning for an alumni event where he was able to reconnect with one of his former coaches, Jimmy Lake.

“I learned a lot of good things from football,” he said. “I don’t hold any ill will. I happened to get hurt. But brain injuries happen a lot more often outside of football, so it’s about managing that and making it safe.

“It’s is a violent game. People are going to get hurt. But we have doctors and trainers all around. It’s just a matter of putting a little more emphasis on this part of it, trying to turn a negative into a positive.”

The spotlight’s glare is now pointed directly on football, traumatic brain injury and prevention - primarily because of the efforts of people like Harris and Lystedt, but also due to the deaths of Junior Seau and Dave Duerson. Football’s physical toll is now being measured in ways we’ve never seen before, and on first glance it can be quite jarring.

“I look at it differently now,” said Harris. “I’ve had to see therapists and all kinds of stuff. But I look at it like this; if I am depressed - I have chronic depression - it’s going to pass. So don’t get caught up in the moment. Everything is in passing.

“I have to realize that but it takes mental toughness to take a step back and take a bird’s eye approach and recognize that.”

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