Born in 1992, John Stefan Gaal, Jr. was the second of our four children. He was someone who was handsome, smart, fast, and strong…but, most importantly, he cared about others. John loved and played a variety of sports since he was 4 years old. For several years, I had the pleasure of coaching his grade school outdoor and indoor soccer teams. Both won a number of championships. John Jr played baseball up through 8th grade and was feared at the plate for his home run hitting abilities. Although he never played organized football until he reached his freshman year of high school, he REALLY loved that sport…so much so in grade school his email address was firstname.lastname@example.org. In fact, when the St. Louis Rams won the Super Bowl in 2000, Little John wore a ball cap that proudly noted this accomplishment for years to come.
Prior to his junior year, in the summer 2009, John Jr asked to switch high schools. A major reason was to gain more playing time on the football team. Before John made the change, he found out that the new school would also allow him to play soccer during the football season. To John this was Nirvana. As his father, a former college soccer player, I was delighted. Sadly, I allowed my pride to cloud my judgment. You see, the brains of boys do not fully develop until around the age of 25.1 As the football team’s safety on defense and running back on offense—as well as the center midfielder on its soccer pitch—the science suggests that John Jr was probably exposed to approximately 2000 sub-concussive hits per season.2 Today’s leading Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) scientists propose that it is not the occasional concussive hits that cause CTE but rather the ongoing repetitive sub-concussive hits that do!3
About this same time, a dear friend of mine from high school was completing his 4th of four tours of military duty…the last 2 being in Afghanistan. The final tour exposed him to multiple IED blasts. However, it was a nearby grenade explosion that caused his most severe traumatic brain injury (TBI) also known as an invisible injury of war. His related symptoms have worsened over time and, as a result, have more recently developed into Parkinson’s.
So, what does all of this have to do with the construction industry? Well, having retired after about 40 years in the industry, at the end of January 2019, and having served a vast majority of those years in the national apprenticeship and training arena, I can attest that Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committees across the US and Canada have invested millions of dollars over the past 2 decades on recruiting efforts. In so doing, many of these marketing and advertising campaigns have targeted 2 populations: former military personnel and ex-college/high school athletes (mainly football players).4 A common (negative) thread between these 2 groups is the fact that many of these individuals who served on the field of battle and/or on the field of play were exposed to repetitive TBIs.5 To this end, those of us construction professionals who are tasked with keeping our workers safe, now must think and plan beyond the physical aspects of safety. Make no mistake, we can no longer claim plausible deniability regarding this matter. In fact, we would be remiss in our duties if we do not also take into account the mental aspects of safety, henceforward.
In closing, my dreams for John Jr’s future were not to be as next month marks the 5-year anniversary of his death by suicide due to TBIs. Posthumously, Little John’s brain was diagnosed with Stage 1 CTE in December of 2017 by researchers at Boston University and the Concussion Legacy Foundation. In spite of this tragedy, I often think about our times together:
- scoring his only soccer goal in high school…the one that put his team in the state’s Final Four;
- visiting him while he was away at college just 10 years ago;
- hiking with him through the lava caves in Kona, HI on his 21st birthday; and
- holding him in my arms in his final moments on earth.
From one construction professional to another, I respectfully ask for YOUR assistance in breaking the silence concerning mental health in the construction industry. By doing so, TOGETHER we can STOP the stigma of mental illness. And, who knows…maybe help some parents avoid the pain and sorrow of losing a child to this disease. My family paid a heavy price! I urge you to learn from our life’s lesson that not only is life precious it can also be unfairly impermanent.
For more information, please go to www.2114CAF.org.
This article would not have come to fruition without the ongoing support from my dear friend and colleague, Cal Beyer. Over the past couple of years, we have collaborated on a number of projects focusing on mental health, opioids awareness, and suicide prevention in the construction industry…here and abroad. My family deeply appreciates his continuing efforts to establish and maintain John Jr’s legacy!