Urban Meyer’s Brain And Your Cynicism

Urban Meyer's Brain And Your Cynicism

Urban Meyer stepped down as Ohio State’s head coach Tuesday morning amid a flurry of cynicism. He deserves it. He was suspended for the first three games of the season for his role in covering up an alleged domestic abuse history with one of his assistant coaches. When he got to keep his job, to many outside of Columbus, it felt like the Ohio State administration had put football ahead of moral clarity. The fact that there was a split between the school administration and athletic department over what to do made it worse. If Meyer had never won a national championship at Ohio State, would he have been kicked to the curb? If he did not own the rivalry with Jim Harbaugh and Michigan, would he be given such consideration?

His Past Was His Enemy

The complexities were made starker by Meyer’s history at the University of Florida. He won two national championships in Gainesville, but had a long history of players running afoul of the law. Every Fall camp from 2005 through 2010, it was not a matter of if some players would need to be suspended for off-field problems, but how many. There was of course, also his handling of star player Aaron Hernandez. He was a treasured tight end and a key member of the 2008 national title team for Meyer at Florida. Hernandez had at least two run-ins with the law at Florida, that got glossed over. But of course even Meyer could not have known Hernandez would eventually commit murder in 2013 as a member of the New England Patriots. In retrospect, however, analysts spent plenty of time reviewing how Meyer handled discipline problems in his programs.

So, Meyer has created many of the questions that get asked about him. He is responsible for much of the scrutiny, whether he wants to own up to it or not. That was true Tuesday, and it was true when he walked away from the job at Florida after the 2010 season citing health concerns. He said he was battling exhaustion, heart problems, chest pains, and other issues and he needed rest.

At the time many thought he was walking away from a program that was winning on the field but growing in reputation as rogue off the field. Give him a year away and he will wind up somewhere else, they said.

Certainly enough, after spending the 2011 season doing very mediocre college football studio work, Meyer found his health, his heart and his passion and was back on the sidelines, this time for Ohio State.

This Is Different

All of this led to further cynicism during his departure announcement Tuesday. This was just another time to leave, gather himself and turn up somewhere else in a year or two.

Castigate him for the Zach Smith debacle. He deserves it. Question him for getting out ahead of any further investigation into the matter. It’s not likely that there will be more, but we get the pessimism. We share it. But he claims to be leaving for health reasons. These are different, and much more specific issues than what he gave upon his departure from Florida. For that, he does not deserve your doubt.

Urban Meyer's Brain And Your Cynicism
Urban Meyer has had multiple games this season where pain from a cyst in his brain has caused the need for attention from team trainers. (Photo courtesy Larry Brown Sports).

Meyer has an arachnoid cyst in his brain. This is not a guy who needs knee surgery and has to take some down time. He has a splitting of the arachnoid membrane, one of the three coverings of the brain and spinal cord. Under that is a cyst….on his brain. We have seen him doubled over in pain on the sidelines this year with migraines. The cyst, or cysts, are part of the cause either of the migraine or the augmentation of the pain. Medically speaking, when they get extreme, they can cause seizures.

Urban Meyer's Brain And Your Cynicism
A graph of a achranoid cyst, similar to what Urban Meyer currently has. (Graph courtesy of of Weill Cornell Brain And Spine Center).

Anyone who has ever had a migraine can attest to how hard it is to work through. Only about 1% of the total US population has these cysts, according to Massachusetts General Hospital Research published in 2012. But the best way to treat them is with a craniotomy. Yes, opening the skull and draining the cyst in order to ensure the safety of the vascular structure in his brain. Look, it bears repeating. He has a rare cyst in his brain. It’s not like he can take an aspirin when he gets a headache. With a cyst, any type of blood thinner like aspirin can cause a significant brain bleed. The dosage and type of pain meds to manage what he has must be very specific because of the growth.

The Pain Is The Thing

How do we know such things? The magic of Google or WebMd? Not quite. Because I am sitting here typing this in pain and having just taken a similar pain med regimen at this very moment for a somewhat similar purpose, an abnormality/growth in my brain that cannot be managed with routine migraine care. Mine is a little different. A cavernous angioma is actually an abnormal growth, like a cyst, that has attached itself to capillaries in my brain. Only 4/10ths of one percent of Americans have this. The other difference is his is operable. Mine is not. It is buried in the lower right quadrant of my brain, meaning surgeons would have to cut through the cognitive part of my brain to get to it.

Oh, it’s not that we haven’t thought about it. Dr. Antonio De Salles is a medical rock star. He was one of the first neuro surgeons in the country to operate on someone with tremors while they were awake. After looking at my scans, he said the surgery would cause me to lose my cognitive ability for six months to a year with a 50-50 shot I would never get it all back. So we let it sit, in my brain, hoping it never grows, praying it never moves and tears open the blood vessels. Every year that nothing happens, increases the chance that nothing will ever happen by about 2%. Another few years, and we will be near the 50-50 mark. In the meantime, we are glad for every day that it did not lash out at me in the middle of the night.

But this is not about me and my neurological story. I am just a writer trying to keep his cognitive abilities in tact. Meyer, on the other hand, is a guy who works 18+ hours a day and also has a potentially dangerous neurological issue. This is still about Meyer and the side eyes he got when he said he was stepping down for medical reasons.

His Medical Options Are Few

When the cyst or growth puts pressure on the vascular components in the brain, the migraine is compounded beyond comprehension. People like us are amused when others talk about laying down in a dark, quiet room for a migraine. It’s useless to us. Some get Botox injections for migraines and we look on longingly. We already have abnormal growths in our brains. Injections of botulism into our brain are not an option. The pain we have is tormenting. Nothing but high end pain meds offer any relief at all, and even they can be debilitating. So you will excuse Meyer if he has no time or care for your dim view of his departure. He has bigger issues to deal with.

Meyer is fortunate. As coach of a football program at a major university, he had a built-in medical staff keeping an eye on him. He also had the college football fans of America doing the same, but with disbelief and distrust.

Question the way Meyer runs a football program. That is fair. Critique the way he manages his players. That is legitimate. Wonder aloud if he leaves ahead of the NCAA posse. That’s justifiable. But the guy is about to have a procedure that requires medical devices be inserted into his brain. It’s real. Think about your desire to have that done. So maybe when it comes to the skepticism, keep it to your digital media football expertise and leave the medical expertise to actual medical experts.