CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. — Months later, the father mustered the strength to sort through what was left in his dead son’s bedroom. A Little League photo collage. Mardi Gras beads from that soccer tournament in New Orleans. And a typewritten personal essay tucked into a yellow folder, with a single word pen-carved into its plastic cover:
His son Curtis had written the paper for a college composition class in 2009, five years before his death. In it, Curtis recalled having been knocked unconscious three times in 14 years while playing soccer, twice after leaping to head the ball, only to — “WHAM” — collide with another player. The continuing side effects, he wrote, included “horrendous migraine headaches.”
“If I feel this way now,” he wondered, “what will it be like when I’m older?” He was 19.
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Reading those words, his father, Bill Baushke, felt the floor drop beneath him. This meant that Curtis knew. He knew well before most of us that repeated concussions could also lead soccer players — and not just those who box or play football — down the dark spiral of cognitive damage and decline.
Curtis Baushke, pictured in his Clarksville High School soccer uniform in 2009, was knocked unconscious three times in 14 years while playing soccer.
Well before the death in 2012 of the semiprofessional soccer player Patrick Grange, 29, who was posthumously found to have chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the degenerative brain disease linked to concussions. Before the 2014 death of Hilderaldo Bellini, 83, the retired Brazilian soccer star, also found to have C.T.E. Before the specter of C.T.E. began to loom over every contact sport.
Curtis Baushke, racked by migraines and struggling with focus, was still focused enough to know. “Allowing kids to play too soon after a concussion could be very dangerous,” he wrote. “We need to find out the actual damage concussions cause people.”
When Curtis was not quite 5, a neighborhood boy bragged that his father was signing him up for soccer. Curtis then wanted to play soccer, too, but his parents were football and baseball people. “You go ahead and play soccer,” Bill Baushke recalled saying. “But next year you’re going to play baseball.”
Although Curtis excelled at both games, he eventually chose to concentrate on soccer, partly because he had been hit by pitches several times, once to the head. “He wanted to play a safe sport like soccer,” his father said.
With Curtis’s older brother, Ryan, playing as well, the Baushkes became a soccer family, their free time revolving around practices and games, field conditions and out-of-town tournaments. Life was lived on the mosquito-rich lawns down by the Cumberland River, under the lights at the sprawling Heritage Park and in the stands at the athletic field behind Clarksville High School.
Curtis played as a freshman on the varsity team, as well as for a premier club that served as a feeder system to colleges. “You’d start him maybe on defense,” Dave Donahue, one of his high school coaches, said. “But if you needed some punch, you’d put him in midfield, and then if you were a goal behind, you’d put him up front.”
“He was full speed, and just a terrific athlete,” said Donahue, who coached hundreds of players in his 26 years at Clarksville High. “He stands out, even to this day.”
Bill Baushke, 57, recalled how gifted his son had been at winning balls in the air with headers, at setting up teammates with pinpoint-perfect passes, at sending corner kicks curving toward the goal. But he also remembered the many times when Curtis “had his bell rung, sat out a couple of plays, and was told to go back in” — as well as that upsetting day when a disturbed classmate hit him in the head with a bowling ball, knocking him out.
Curtis began exhibiting behavior now recognized as suggestive of postconcussive trauma. Dramatic mood swings. Depression. Headaches so debilitating he would need to lie down in a dark room.
After high school, Curtis took a few classes at Hopkinsville Community College, where he wrote his personal essay about concussions. He moved to Chattanooga, Tenn., to live with his brother and took more college courses in hopes of becoming a sportswriter.
But Curtis, who was also found to have bipolar disorder, continued to struggle. He lost his job writing a blog about college draft picks. He injured himself while competing in a new passion — disc golf — and became addicted to prescription medicine. He moved back to the family house in the country, with that large front lawn where he and his buddies used to kick around a soccer ball. He stole, and used drugs, and lied. Maybe not lied; maybe he forgot.
Looking back, Bill and Patti Baushke might have dismissed their son’s self-diagnosis of C.T.E. as a convenient excuse for his problems. Credit Joe Buglewicz for The New York Times
“He wouldn’t remember doing things,” his father said. “He would sit there and deny it, but in his mind, he was telling the truth.”
Because of those severe migraines, his parents took him to a series of specialists, to no avail. They even had his brain scanned for tumors. Nothing. But it had to be something, Curtis insisted. He began to maintain that he had C.T.E.
Looking back, the Baushkes might have dismissed his belief as a convenient self-diagnosis by Internet. All they knew was that their sweet younger boy — who loved his grandmother, loved practical jokes, loved duck hunting — was failing to find his footing. More than once he made arrangements to move out, only to pull back at the last moment.
“I just don’t think that he felt he could do it,” his mother, Patti Baushke, 55, said as she sat before family photographs splayed across the dining room table.
A year ago last week, Bill and Curtis Baushke made plans to watch the United States play Germany in the World Cup. The elder Baushke left his job in Nashville early, only to come upon his son snoring loudly on his bed. He went to his own bedroom, changed his clothes and turned on the television in the living room, where wooden duck decoys adorned the shelves.
The game began, and the father called for his son. Called again, then went to rouse him. But Curtis had stopped breathing, and neither his father nor emergency medical technicians could revive him. Accidental overdose of prescription drugs.
His parents did what they knew Curtis would have wanted.
A few months later, the Baushkes participated in a conference call with researchers who had examined Curtis’s brain at Boston University’s CTE Center, which works with the Sports Legacy Institute, a nonprofit organization dedicated to brain trauma research and prevention.
Their determination: Curtis had Stage 2 C.T.E., meaning there was clear evidence of deterioration in the brain — surprising, given his young age.
“I cried and cried,” his mother recalled. “He was so right. Curtis wasn’t just making it up and talking crazy. He thought he had it, and he did.”
With that, the silence of unspoken what-ifs filled a house in the country, where the photographs on the dining room table depicted a gifted and airborne young athlete, meeting yet another soccer ball head-on.