A Q&A with Vicki Mayk
Owen Thomas, star football player at Penn, took his own life when he was only twenty-one. The result of the pain and anguish was caused by chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). His landmark case demonstrated that a player didn’t need years of head bashing in the NFL, or even multiple sustained brain concussions, to cause the mind-altering, life-threatening, degenerative disease.
In her book Growing Up on the Gridiron: Football, Friendship, and the Tragic Life of Owen Thomas, award-winning journalist Vicki Mayk explores his story, the community touched by it, and the cultural allure of football. Her exploration raises a critical question: does loving a sport justify risking your life? Beacon Broadside editor Christian Coleman caught up with Mayk to chat with her about it and to ask what the impact of high schools and colleges canceling or delaying football seasons has had during the pandemic.
Christian Coleman: Tell us about what inspired you to write Growing Up on the Gridiron.
Vicki Mayk: What really drew me to the story was Owen Thomas, the young man who is at the center of my book. When he died by suicide in April 2010, I was invited to join a private memorial page that friends set up for him on Facebook. The way that everyone talked about him—from his teammates at his high school near Allentown, PA, and at the University of Pennsylvania to friends, former teachers, casual acquaintances—was mesmerizing. They told stories about him being a warrior on the field and one of the kindest humans off the field. One girl in his high school said Owen changed the energy when he entered a room. I wanted to answer the question: Who was Owen Thomas and how did someone who was so beloved by so many come to this tragic end? When it emerged that he had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, what we know as CTE, that added another important dimension to the story.
CC: How did you find out about the RIP Owen Thomas memorial page on Facebook?
VM: I actually never met Owen, but a series of events made me feel as if this story chose me. For nearly thirty years, I had lived five minutes away from Union United Church of Christ in Neffs, PA, where Owen’s father, the late Rev. Thomas N. Thomas, was pastor. One day, I decided to go to a service there and began attending somewhat regularly. I don’t know why I chose that particular time to begin attending a church I had passed almost every week for decades. It meant that, when Owen died, I was invited to join the memorial page on Facebook.
CC: His friendships are at the heart of the book. What was it like to interview his friends and teammates to learn about his story?
VM: It was an emotional experience to connect with these young men and women and hear them reminisce about Owen. I stayed in touch with his friends, family, and teammates off and on for nearly a decade after his death, and that longitudinal look at their lives is an integral part of the book. What struck me is that many still shed tears over his loss three, five, even seven years after his death. They keenly felt his loss at key milestones in their lives. One of his friends wore one of his t-shirts under his tux on his wedding day so that Owen would be present for him. I felt they had entrusted me with their memories and were relying on me to document their friendship with someone they had loved.
CC: Even though the dangers and risks of long-term harm are numerous, football matters deeply to many young men like Owen Thomas. Why is that the case?
VM: I learned that the reason young players love this game has as much to do with relationships formed on the team as it does about the game itself. In the book, I refer to this as the brotherhood of football. As human beings, we crave belonging, and football gives young men a powerful sense of belonging. Yes, they enjoy the sport. But bound up with that are the relationships they form on a football team.
CC: During the pandemic, there has been a lot of disappointment over high schools and college football conferences canceling or delaying football seasons. Does your book offer any insights about that?
VM: Football is central to American culture. That is something that has certainly been well documented over the years. Losing it is jarring. But I think my book highlights a key issue about what losing a football season during the pandemic specifically means to high school and college players. Jonathan Holloway, the president of Rutgers University, was interviewed on National Public Radio about canceling football season, and he talked about how much a student athlete’s identity is wrapped up in playing their sport. He said losing that identity is “destabilizing.” My book examines how players’ personal identity is developed by playing football and about how it defines them. Losing a season means disrupting that identity.
CC: And lastly, what would you like readers to take away from reading the book?
VM: I want readers to realize that, given the passion for football in America by players on all levels and by fans, there aren’t easy answers about the future of the sport. I also hope my book will raise awareness about head injuries. If you are a fan, be aware of the risks this game poses for the players you idolize. If you are a player, be aware of the risks you are taking in playing. And if you are a parent, be aware of the fact that research has found that the earlier boys start playing and the longer they play, the greater the risk. Make informed choices. Finally, I hope Owen’s story raises awareness about suicide. Suicide is a complicated issue. It sometimes happens despite treatment and the support of friends and family. But anyone who has lost someone to suicide will tell you: If you see a friend struggling, reach out.
About Vicki Mayk
A former reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Vicki Mayk has enjoyed a 35-year career in journalism and public relations. Her love affair with football began at the age of nine, when her father first took her to a Steelers game. She is the author of Growing Up on the Gridiron: Football, Friendship, and the Tragic Life of Owen Thomas. Connect with her at vickimayk.com and follow her on Twitter (@VickiMayk).