Messenger: As Friday night lights return, father honors memory of son with straight talk about concussions

By on August 28, 2017

From St. Louis Post-Dispatch:  Every few days John Gaal sends me a link to a story or a study about concussions and football.

There’s the one, for instance, that found that 110 out of 111 donated brains from ex-NFL players had CTE, a degenerative brain disease often connected to multiple concussions.

The latest was about a study that found young, healthy athletes showed brain differences as teenagers after competing in sports where concussions were common.

Gaal knows my seventh-grade son plays tackle football.

Gaal’s not trying to be mean or give me sleepless nights.

He’s honoring his son.

John Stefan Gaal Jr., died in his father’s arms on March 24. The former football and soccer player at John F. Kennedy Catholic High School was 24. He killed himself after a years-long battle with concussions and mental illness.

“He was a good kid,” Gaal says. “He was a kind and gentle soul.”

Gaal fights back the tears with every sentence. It’s only been five months since he discovered his son in the family’s home in Ballwin. As he was dying, John pushed his father back with his strong, muscular arms and shook his head. “He wanted me to let him go.”

The field — both soccer and football — was his place of glory.

Like any dad, Gaal can remember his son’s athletic triumphs like they were yesterday. There was his first game on the JFK gridiron, his junior year. The school had been in a long losing streak. John, a safety, had gambled on a play late in the fourth quarter and only got fingers on the ball that instead floated into a receiver’s hands for what looked like the winning touchdown. But on the next series, he blitzed, sacked the quarterback and created a fumble. The offense scored. JFK won and the stands emptied.

Then there was his last home soccer game, the one where he back-heeled the winning goal off of a corner kick, sending his team to the final four of the state playoffs. It was his only goal in high school.

In between there were the concussions, four of them in total.

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