Shaun Best doesn’t plan to be one of the millions of Americans watching the Super Bowl this weekend. If he does, he’ll be more interested in the players’ well-being than in the final score.
I first met Shaun in 2003 or 2004, when I was working in the lieutenant governor’s office. Shaun walked in seeking help. I thought he was a little different. He talked slowly. He moved slowly. He wanted to be a teacher, but he couldn’t get hired.
The Hermitage native had suffered a traumatic brain injury at the age of 12 on Sept. 25, 1977. He was struck by a vehicle while riding a three-wheeler without a helmet and spent three months in a coma. When he awoke, he had to relearn just about everything, including how to walk and talk. He graduated high school without attending special education classes and is one of the 18.9 percent of Arkansas adults over the age of 25 with a college degree.
But this has not been a Hollywood triumph over tragedy story. Kids were cruel. He spent a year homeless in 1986-87. He marvels at the brain’s regenerative powers, how parts that are undamaged can take on the roles of parts that are. But to this day, he suffers from persistent headaches, he struggles to maintain his balance, and he has suffered 41 falls that resulted in some kind of head injury. A succession of jobs has not worked out. He finally did get to substitute teach for a while, but that had to end as well, and he is on permanent disability. His last name may be Best, but to many employers and often for good reasons, he hasn’t been the best man for the job.
All along, however, the Smackover resident has been working with a small group he founded, the Challenged Conquistadors. Its mission is to open doors and create better lives for people like him who have suffered traumatic brain injuries. He’s spoken in local schools and across the country.
Unable to find permanent work, he’s instead found a mission that he – perhaps more than anyone else – is best suited for. Brain injuries, long ignored, have been in the news lately. Tens of thousands of American combatants have been coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan with the condition as a result of improvised explosive blasts, and Shaun is working with them when called upon. His message: A brain can regenerate, and so can you. While he has not been able to find permanent work, many of those returning veterans can.
"It’s only by God’s grace that I’ve been able to achieve the goals that I’ve set," he told me. "He’s given me the determination and patience and persistence to never give up."
He’s got another message: Wear a helmet. He spends some of his Saturdays in the bicycle section of a local Walmart encouraging parents to make sure their children protect their heads. He’s for requiring motorcycle riders to wear helmets, as they were in Arkansas until the law was repealed in 1997. Sure, you might think you have a right to ride without one, but then, he asks, must society then pay for your care if you are injured? He guesses his own health care has cost $3 million, and that’s not counting the work he hasn’t done or the taxes he hasn’t paid.
Then there’s football. A number of high-profile retired football players have suffered or are suffering from the effects of repeated blows to the head, including memory loss and dementia. More than 2,000 former players are suing the National Football League for negligence. A few ex-players have committed suicide, including the popular Junior Seau, who shot himself in the chest last year at the age of 43. We now know he had degenerative brain disease. Apparently, he knew it, too.
Shaun has mixed feelings about the sport, which he watches as a guilty pleasure. He’s worried that he’s seeing young men do to their brains long-term what was done to his in an instant. He’d like better helmets and limited contact in high school practices. "We can run through the plays without running into each other’s heads," he said.
He really, really wanted to be a teacher. He must have stopped by the office a dozen times seeking help, which we couldn’t provide.
But I was right the first time I met him. He is different. When it comes to the issue of traumatic brain injury, he’s the best man for the job.
Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be followed on Twitter at @stevebrawner.