The longer I cover college football and recruiting as a job, the less emotionally involved I become. But I couldn't help but to be really sad when I heard the news that red-shirt senior receiver Willie Haulstead was academically ineligible for his final go-round in Tallahassee. I'm not vouching for his character, or claiming that he was destined for NFL stardom; only that his time in Tallahassee needs to be viewed in context.
Haulstead's story sucks. He's a student who, but for football, would not have otherwise had a chance at attending a university. Out of the Muck area, he finally ended up at Titusville (Fla.) High School, after which he chose Florida State over offers from Auburn and South Carolina, among others.
In 2010, Haulstead was one of the most important pieces for the Florida State offense. He caught tough balls over the middle, made the tough first down grabs, and was quite good in the red zone, catching 38 balls for 587 yards and six touchdowns. In an offense that spreads the ball around quite a bit, Haulstead's sophomore year was very good. Oh, and he was a top blocker.
Then the first concussion happened, in November of 2010, against Clemson. Haulstead would miss the next game at Maryland, before returning to catch six balls for 116 yards and a touchdown.
Haulstead was primed for a big junior year. Here's what I wrote about him entering his junior year in 2011:
The second leg of FSU's junior tandem is Willie Haulstead (6'3" 210). Haulstead is not as physically gifted as Smith, but did more in high school, and is older with better body acclimation. Dawsey should take some blame for not having Haulstead ready to be a major contributor from the first game of the year. Haulstead's best attribute is undoubtedly his toughness. Fisher routinely praises him for his hard work, his determination, and his willingness to hang in and make tough catches while getting drilled by opposing defensive backs. Haulstead caught 38 balls for 587 yards and 6 touchdowns as a sophomore. He was really beginning to come into his own after a 10-catch, 154-yard game against North Carolina, but a concussion kept him out of the Clemson and Maryland games. He had a single catch against Florida, though it was a 29-yard TD grab. If he had not suffered the concussion, Haulstead would have probably gone for 700 yards. He did manage 8 plays of 25+ yards, which led the team. He injured his shoulder this spring, which was incredibly frustrating for him as he wanted to work and establish chemistry to EJ Manuel. Haulstead has average speed and big, strong hands, but they are inconsistent. He needs to work on his focus, which should improve his route running and remembering the correct route to run. But he should be able to be a 50-catch, 700-yard receiver for the ‘Noles. 7-on-7 work this summer will be very important for this rising junior.
None of that promise was ever fulfilled.
Instead, Haulstead was crushed by the heat-seeking missile that is Lamarcus Joyner, then a safety. It was early in fall camp, and Haulstead was never the same after. (Note: I was not at that particular practice, but those who were describe it as a particularly nasty looking result, with Haulstead stumbling around and falling to the ground, clearly messed up).
Since the incident, Haulstead missed all of the 2011 season, struggled with focus, drive and conditioning, and caught just three passes in 2012.
After a strong off-season, Haulstead had the coaching staff excited that he could provide something more in 2013. Unfortunately, he won't get that chance.
Haulstead turns 24 in less than a week. He's without a degree, and I wonder what is the next step for someone in his position? I doubt he has put much thought into it.
And that makes me sad.
I don't know all that much about concussions. It's not that popular of an issue in college.
But I do work closely with a of people at SB Nation who cover the NFL, and they're aware of how serious a problem concussions are for the sport of football. NFL players have agents, and careers, and fame. And that brings attention to the issue.
And each time a new report comes out about the long-term impact of concussions, it's seemingly worse than the previous finding. It's never "well, concussions actually aren't as bad as previously thought." There certainly seems to be a link to CTE, the degenerative brain disease.
It's not a simple injury. It messes people up. Concussions can totally remove the ability for someone to function at a high level, or sometimes at any level at all. It causes depression, mood swings, confusion, memory loss, headaches, and other debilitating injuries.
Professional football players are dying in their fifties. You just don't see that in other sports. Junior Seau shot himself in the chest instead of the head, preserving his brain so that it could be examined. He knew something was wrong with inside his skull. And he was right -- as doctors found severe degenerative brain disease.
It's foolish to think concussions don't profoundly impact college players. And looking at Haulstead's career, it's almost impossible not to see someone who was struggling with the effects of the concussion(s).
A lot of smart people think the game of football will change drastically in my lifetime, perhaps not even resembling the game as I know it today.
I can't help but wonder how much impact the concussions had not only on Haulstead's inability to perform on the field, but also off. I first started thinking about this last season, when Haulstead, a receiver, was almost 20 pounds overweight when he came back in 2012. That wasn't like him. At all. First I thought it was laziness, then I thought it was more.
In response to some particularly ignorant commentary, commentor G&G, a former football player, said the following on Thursday:
I remember former teammates who became shells of themselves after a big concussion. Hopefully the program helps him find whatever help is available.. However, this issue is usually just the start of a downward spiral. It's nothing but sad, and we as fans should respect players who have taken mental tolls for the program just as much as players with career ending physical injuries.
Well said. Here's hoping Haulstead somehow gets whatever help is available now that he is out of the program.
And then I start thinking about how players in low-risk sports, like baseball and basketball, can get paid right out of high school, or within a year, and how football players must try to avoid serious injury for three or four times as long, while playing an exponentially more dangerous sport. But that's another story for another day.