Growing Up On the Gridiron: Football, Friendship and the Tragic Life of Owen Thomas

Coming September 1, 2020 from Beacon Press

Long before the dangers of concussions among NFL players made headlines, a 9-year-old redheaded Owen Thomas ran onto the field. Like many other football boys in America, he fell in love with the competition, the drive it inspired, and the unforgettable brotherhood that lead many men to say that playing the game was one of the most meaningful and formative experiences of their lives. 

In the Pennsylvania suburbs where Owen and his teammates grew up on the gridiron together, the shared experience of football created bonds as strong as those built among soldiers during war. The tribe coalesced around a charismatic Owen, whose leadership and talent carried him to Penn, where the 6-foot-2 240-pound beloved defensive end was voted one of the Quakers’ captains. But Owen’s story took a devastating turn when he suddenly took his own life. He was 21-years-old.

Despite never having a diagnosed concussion, it was soon discovered that Owen’s death was likely the result of the pain and anguish caused by chronic traumatic encephalopathy, known as CTE. Owen’s landmark case would demonstrate that a player didn’t need years of head bashing in the NFL, or multiple sustained brain concussions, to cause the mind-altering, life-threatening, degenerative disease.

In Growing Up on the Gridiron, journalist Vicki Mayk tells the story of Owen Thomas, his family, teammates, friends, and coaches and explores the health concern he helped to illuminate. It’s also the story of Dr. Ann McKee, the Boston University-based neuropathologist who bucked conventional wisdom and the football establishment, as she studied Owen’s brain and its larger significance. 

Poignant sports writing that is more than a book about the concussion crisis, Growing Up on the Gridiron is also about the intoxicating nature of football culture in the United States, where the sport is a gift passed down from generations, fathers to sons, brother to brother. Few leave the game behind. Told in the tradition of Friday Night Lights, Owen’s story raises a critical question: does loving a sport justify risking your life? 


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