For months, reporters have called Clint Trickett wanting to talk about football safety. Some called soon after he announced his retirement as a player last December, when he revealed that he had sustained five concussions in two seasons as West Virginia's quarterback. Others have called more recently, prompted by the coming release of the film Concussion, in which Will Smith plays the doctor who helped identify a degenerative brain disease linked to repeated head trauma.
But Trickett is not interested in talking about head trauma. "Everyone knows it's a dangerous game," he said. "I could tell right off the bat they wanted a negative spin."
While football is criticized for the physical toll it takes on players, many people seem enthusiastic about playing it. Trickett is among them.
Soon after his retirement, Trickett, 24, accepted a job as the quarterbacks coach at East Mississippi Community College. The son of a coach, he now grooms talented prospects to play the game that he cannot.
"When I said I'm never going to talk bad about the game," he said, "it's because the game has done so much for me."
He added: "People say, 'Would you want your son to play football?' Well, yes. Absolutely!"
A 'never quit' ethos
When Trickett was a boy, his family's household was organized along military lines. The three sons called their father, Rick, who had served in Vietnam with the Marines, "Sir." Disrespect was not tolerated.
Like many military households, those of college football coaches are itinerant. The Tricketts' stops in the towns where Rick earned his living read like an atlas of the game: Carbondale, Hattiesburg, Starkville, Auburn, Memphis, Baton Rouge, Morgantown, and Tallahassee, where Rick has been the offensive line coach at Florida State for nearly a decade.
Playing football was not required of the Trickett boys. What was demanded was finishing things they had started. "We never quit anything," Clint Trickett said. "I wanted to quit soccer at an early age. I told my dad, 'I don't like it.' He goes: 'I don't like soccer, either. But you ain't quitting it. You're finishing out the season.' "
Clint Trickett drew a direct line from that upbringing toward his toughness as a player on the football field. A slight 158 pounds as a freshman at FSU, he threw three touchdown passes against Clemson in his first game as a starter.
But he struggled to keep up his weight — he later learned that he had celiac disease — and with the strain of playing where his father coached. He transferred to West Virginia.
In his first start, in 2013, Trickett was hit on his throwing shoulder. Through grit and cortisone, he played the rest of the game, passing for 300 yards in an upset of No. 11 Oklahoma State. He went on to play more games despite the injury, which required surgery in the offseason, and later that year, he was knocked unconscious against Texas. That concussion caused him to miss the rest of that game and the next, after which he acknowledged that he had sustained a concussion in an earlier game that season but had not told trainers about it.
Rick Trickett grew concerned that his son would take the never-quit ethos he had instilled in him too far. "I want what's best for Clint,'' he said. "It's still just a game."
It can be easy to hide a concussion, according to Clint Trickett. Just keep your mouth shut.
"Seriously, that's the best way," he said. "Stay away from people who'd think you have one. Keep quiet. Just try to go out there and function."
When West Virginia played Maryland last season, a hit on the first drive gave Trickett another concussion. For a time, he said, he could not see out of the outer half of his left eye. Yet he did not mention the problem to anyone; instead, he passed for 500 yards and four touchdowns in a 40-37 victory. "Barely remember the game," he said.
As questions about head trauma have increased, college training staffs have worked to be assiduous in identifying players with concussion-like symptoms. In many cases, however, the decision on whether a player should be allowed to compete still depends on the honesty and cooperation of the player.
"A lot of it's based upon not just him but athletes being honest with us," said Dave Kerns, West Virginia's football trainer. "It's huge. Do you have a headache? They say no. We'll converse with them back and forth, and sometimes guys can mask things."
West Virginia employs a concussion exam that is used by NFL teams. But Kerns acknowledged that no system was perfect. "Everybody who got hit in the head — if you took the time to sit them all down, take a postconcussion test — that's all we'd be doing," Kerns said. "It is a violent game."
Trickett's final hit came just before halftime in a game against Kansas State last Nov. 20. Flushed out of the pocket, he forced a throw that was intercepted. Trickett ran down the defender and tripped him up, but after bouncing up off the turf, he knelt for several seconds and rose slowly. Afterward, he said, he felt "in a fog." At halftime, he vomited. But in the second half he led another drive before calling for members of the medical staff.
Weeks later, Trickett's symptoms — pain, headaches, dizziness — were still so pronounced that he announced he had played his final game. There would be no chance at the NFL, the Canadian Football League or anything else.
East Mississippi Community College has won three of the past four National Junior College Athletic Association championships. A two-year college, it has a simple sales pitch: It is a springboard, no matter whether you are rising or falling. (After De'Andre Johnson was seen on video slapping a woman at a nightclub and was dismissed from FSU's team, Trickett helped persuade him to enroll at EMCC. Johnson, a quarterback, hopes to play next season.)
For as long as he coaches at EMCC, Trickett said, he will be looking for the type of player he was. "You want a guy who's going to be a competitor and wants to be out there," Trickett said.
He added, "I'm not saying I want a guy who's not going to tell me if he has a concussion, but a guy who's going to want to not leave the field."