Brandon Sutton is no stranger to professional indoor football.
It’s why the newly-formed Triangle Torch arena team recruited him. Each year after Sutton’s Catawba College graduation in 2011, he played the sport.
In 2014, Sutton helped lead the Lehigh Valley Steelhawks to a Professional Indoor Football League championship appearance. That was when his career came to a halt after a head-on collision with one of his teammates during the game left him with a concussion.
“Soon as I made my move, he was coming full speed,” Sutton said. “I buckled down real quick and next thing you know, it was just ‘Bow!’ It was kind of strange because I played for two plays after the contact. The last play was when I blocked a field goal. When I got over to my sideline, somebody slapped my helmet and said ‘Good job.’ I just kind of blanked and dropped.
“It was a very, very scary experience for me.”
The concussion would sidetrack Sutton for two years. His 9-year-old daughter would wonder if he’d ever be the same as he dealt with bouts of vomiting, hallucinations, a harsh sensitivity to light and recurring migraines.
Nearly as painful was his adjustment to life without football. During his absence from the game, Sutton, 27, said it was tough to get noticed by teams without updated film and, more importantly, he had a family to look after.
“Everything happens for a reason, so in my mind, I was done playing football,” Sutton said.
For years, they’ve been saying football is a dangerous sport. You think about all the guys that had concussions and couldn’t even use their hands.
The 6-foot-3, 330-pound nose tackle has played football since he was 6, ending his high school career with a North Carolina East-West All-Star victory. His true freshman debut at Catawba earned him South Atlantic Conference Defensive Player of the Week.
Sutton had hoped to play in the NFL, but a knee injury his senior season in college deterred professional scouts, he said. He settled for arena football, where he had a solid pro career until his injury.
A team captain, Sutton helped the Steelhawks to the PIFL title game. After the 2014 collision and the collapse, he said he didn’t even remember ambulance ride. The game was in Nashville, Tenn., and he had to fly back to Pennsylvania the following day, the lights from the plane torturing his fresh head injury. During a brief stay at a hotel, he thought the room he shared with only a Lehigh athletic trainer was full of people.
While recuperating, Sutton couldn’t go outside and play with his young daughter. He avoided the light for months and couldn’t take care of her on his own, so his mother assisted them around the house.
“I couldn’t keep my eyes closed that long, and the light was so sensitive,” Sutton said. “I felt like there was so much going on. It was just a terrible experience. They wouldn’t clear me to work, so I couldn’t get a job. The whole month of March, I was kind of depressed. That was arena time; that was my season. All I was doing was being a full-time father.
“When I finally got able to do anything, I was like ‘Is this the life I want?’ ”
So, with anguish, he then decided it was time to close the door on football.
Sutton, a Greene Central High School graduate, became a custodian with an elementary school in Greene County in April of 2015.
“It’s not the best job in the world, but it’s a state job and benefits-wise, my daughter’s covered,” Sutton said. “When I actually warmed up to it, I saw how the kids warmed up to me. I didn’t think as a custodian I could impact a lot of these children’s lives. I look forward to going to work.”
Sutton also became more active in his local church and was baptized just a few days before he started his new job. He said the Eastern North Carolina community acted as a support group, replete with positive people with whom he could discuss a painful reality: life after football.
“You didn’t want to hear it, because you’re like that’s all I know,” Sutton said.
He was prepared to accept it.
But in November of 2015, Sutton got a call from Torch head coach Joe Resignalo. He told Sutton an American Indoor Football team was coming to Raleigh, the first since the Raleigh Rebels in 2006, and that he knew of his vast football resume. The Torch play home games at Dorton Arena and are in the AIF’s Northern Division.
Sutton admitted, however, he remained skeptical about the opportunity until he went to a tryout this March. Doctors had told him he was more susceptible to concussions since he’d already had one.
Once you get a concussion, you’re one or two times more likely to get the next, and the second or third impact could cause permanent, long-term brain damage, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“I didn’t want to say it but – I was nervous about it happening again,” Sutton said. “The doctor told me once you get one, you can get your second, third, fourth and you won’t even know what happened. I was told you can lose your memory, and I can’t afford to lose my memory. I have a 9-year-old child to think about. I couldn’t really picture me being a sitting vegetable.”
Sutton had second thoughts about playing again.
“I had a full-time job, working for the state. Everything was clicking. Money was flowing again, and everything was just falling back into place,” he said. “I had my money coming in. I’m making more money, and I’m balancing my money because I’m not out with the boys. I’m not buying this visor or that visor because it’ll look good on a helmet.
“I kind of liked my life I had before I got back here and played ball.”
Reward greater than risk
Sutton didn’t want to put his family through another scare. He admitted doctors were hesitant about his return because of the severity of his concussion, but when he passed all the tests, he was told one more indoor season wouldn’t hurt.
When he got to the tryout, something clicked. He was reminded of everything he loved about playing professional football. He was alongside guys he’d known for years. His body fell right back into place with the workouts. And, Sutton, who is very knowledgeable about indoor football teams and their history, felt like he had a chance to lead a football team once more.
To him, that outweighed the risk of another concussion, so he signed that day and became one of the team captains. He wasn’t cleared to play from his concussion until March 24, the day before the Torch faced his former team, the Steelhawks.
Scott Meserve, the Torch’s offensive and defensive line coach, said Sutton has been a disciplined leader on and off the field. The Torch are 3-4 and wrap up the regular season at the Philadelphia Yellow Jackets on May 28.
“He’s overcome a lot of obstacles the last two or three years,” Meserve said of Sutton. “He’s come up a ways this year as far as when he started. He’s done everything I’ve asked him to do. He’s a standup guy, and he would do anything for his teammates.”
Meserve, who has 25 years of coaching experience in high school, college and arena football, said he’s able to closely monitor his players during games and in practice. He always has his eye on Sutton.
In games and practices, I am being monitored by doctors for signs and symptoms, so I know I’m in great hands.
With Sutton’s position anchoring the defensive line, his head is always at a high risk on the field. Arena football uses an eight-on-eight format, and the subs more often involve skill position players.
On the fast-paced, 50-yard fields of indoor football, Sutton rarely gets plays off.
“As a nose guard, my job is to line up in front of the center and bang, bang, bang, every single play,” he said. “It’s at least 50 plays where I’m making head-on plays.”
Sutton couldn’t ignore how the team embraced him, though. It was also difficult to overlook how he’s made it to an indoor championship game but didn’t win.
He wants a chance to possibly end his pro career with a ring or at least on his own terms.
I don’t think I can break the streak and end my career without getting a ring. I really think that’s what it is. It’s kind of hard to walk away.
“I really think that’s what it is,” Sutton said. “It means a whole lot. It’s kind of hard to walk away.”
Sutton said the only effects lingering from his concussion are unexpected headaches.
“The concussion process was very confusing,” he said. “Your body tells you that you’re ready. … I feel like everything is fine, but sometimes you find yourself alone and having blank moments.
“It’s a hard thing to describe.”
Jessika Morgan: 919-829-4538, @JessikaMorgan