Brain injury alters paths of Bussiere & Craig

Allen Craig's college roommate and ex-St. Louis Cardinals minor league catcher Garrett Bussiere is on a crusade to help those who have been concussed.

Roommates for two years at Cal-Berkeley and teammates on the Golden Bears baseball team for three seasons, Garrett Bussiere (bus-see-AIR) and Allen Craig often shared their dreams of becoming professional baseball players – and later reaching the major leagues.

The two were delighted when they were drafted by the same organization in the 2006 First-Year Player Draft, the St. Louis Cardinals. Craig was selected in the eighth round and Bussiere in the 26th. Both quickly signed.

Though the two remain friends to this day, almost immediately that first summer, their courses radically diverged.

Joining short-season State College, Craig began his steady march toward St. Louis, which he reached to open the 2010 season. He has since become the Cardinals cleanup hitter, earned a long-term contract and voted a National League All-Star.

Bussiere debuted at Johnson City in 2006
Bussiere opened his Cardinals career one level down, at Johnson City. On July 21, 2006, in just his 22nd game for the rookie-level club, everything changed. The 6-foot-2, 190-pounder took a blow off his mask, suffering a concussion that put him on the disabled list for the remainder of his first – and what became his only - season.

"It just seemed like everything was turned upside down," Bussiere recalls. "In almost as short as an instant, I went from competing on a daily basis to having my entire career in jeopardy."

During the winter of 2006-07, Bussiere experienced continued difficulty both while working out and in studying while trying to complete his degree. The catcher did not play in 2007 when the symptoms persisted. Bussiere's MLB dream officially ended that October with his release.

Fading away was not in the cards for Bussiere, however.

Helping others

Here in 2013, the Colorado native has turned his own long and challenging search for definitive answers about mild traumatic brain injury (mTBI) into a quest to assist others similarly affected.

Bussiere today
Now 27 years of age, Bussiere has just published his first e-book, Clarity Amid the Confusion, which is available from his website, healingyourhead.com. His hope is to assist individuals suffering from the aftermath of brain trauma by taking proactive action to expedite their recovery. Drawing from his own experiences and contacts, the author has collected input from scholarly sources on disciplines as diverse as nutritional neuroscience, exercise physiology, stress-reduction therapy and more.

"My main initiative is to be an information soundboard and to let people know there are things they can do to help the condition and speed the healing process," Bussiere explained.

Craig, who was concussed himself at the age of 12 or 13 when he was hit in the face with a ball, is very supportive of his former roommate's initiative to de-mystify a complex subject.

"Obviously, Garrett is a good friend," Craig said. "He was a good ballplayer with a lot of talent. It was a tough break when he took that hit off his mask.

"Concussions are really hard to understand and I am happy that Garrett is now working to help others," said the first baseman.

Bussiere's travels

It has been a long journey.

As a prep star from Wheat Ridge, Colorado, Bussiere was a 13th-round draft selection by the Milwaukee Brewers, but did not sign so he could attend Cal.

In the spring of 2004, the right-handed hitter blasted a home run in very first collegiate at-bat. Bussiere went on to hit .307, throw out 15 runners and was named the Golden Bears' Freshman of the Year.

In Bussiere's sophomore and Craig's junior season, the two may have experienced their greatest shared day on the diamond. In the PAC-10 conference opener on March 24, 2005, Bussiere hit a grand slam and Craig launched a two-run blast to carry Cal over Washington State. That summer, Bussiere competed in the prestigious Cape Cod League and seemed on his way.

Craig and Bussiere in 2006 Cal team photo
Those Golden Bears were loaded, with seven players drafted in 2006. Along with Craig and Bussiere, future major leaguers Brandon Morrow and Brennan Boesch were selected. Two years later, two other current MLB players, Tyson Ross and Josh Satin, were taken.

Even in his college days, Bussiere recalls having incidents, including a home plate collision in a game at the University of Arizona and another time in which he was struck in the head by a hitter's backswing.

As he returned to school following his Johnson City injury, Bussiere wanted to understand why he could not concentrate in classes and his grades slipped.

"It had always been my goal to complete my undergraduate degree at Cal… but my cognitive problems persisted," he recalled. "I was having a difficult time concentrating in my classes. At mid-term, my grades were so bad, I thought I might have to withdraw from the university. It got to the point that I actually had to join the Disabled Students Union at Cal to get accommodations. I didn't know what else to do.

"It affected me on most every level – academically, socially, with my family – it was a very tough time. I felt I was trapped in my own brain," Bussiere said.

Taking measures into his own hands to learn about how the brain works and his healing process led to him devouring numerous books and signing up for related classes.

"None of this information was directed at concussions but I thought a lot of the information could be repositioned to help people who had concussions like myself to clear those symptoms effectively," he explained.

As his energy levels increased, his outlook improved. The fascination even became the subject of his senior thesis, "Neurocognitive Analysis." It was unusual in that it was not related to his major areas of business and marketing. Yet, Bussiere received special permission to dive deeply into the subject that had clearly become his passion.

What baseball is doing

As others with a much higher profile than Bussiere - such as current Cardinals manager Mike Matheny – were forced to retire from the game due to the lingering effect of concussions, Major League Baseball has taken action.

A special seven-day concussion disabled list was created in 2011. More importantly, "return to play protocol" has been established.

Every player has neurological testing during spring training to establish a baseline of brain activity that can be measured against by a standard battery of tests when an incident occurs.

Even so, the problem has not gone away. At least four major league catchers are currently on the DL with concussion-related symptoms – David Ross of Boston, Detroit's Alex Avila, Oakland's John Jaso and Ryan Doumit of Minnesota.

Matheny is among those calling to end home-plate collisions.

Increasing awareness

In addition to athletes themselves, Bussiere wants to increase awareness on the part of coaches and parents at all levels to ensure everyone knows what to do and will err on the side of caution.

"Things like my situation, my story, happen to people more than the average person probably knows," Bussiere said. "To spread awareness and really advocate for an effective return to play protocol is a priority of mine."

His former teammate and friend in St. Louis knows Bussiere has found his calling.

"Garrett is very passionate about what he does," Craig concluded. "I am not surprised he wants to change peoples' lives."

Premium Article Special for subscribers to The Cardinal Nation

In the following exclusive audio interview, Bussiere describes in detail his injury, its aftermath, his quest for knowledge about mTBI and how others can benefit from his experiences. He also explains his future plans, including the establishment of an online community for those interested in the subject.

"It helps people to know they are not alone in their struggles. There is help on the other side," Bussiere reminds.

(27:01)

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Brian Walton can be reached via email at brian@thecardinalnationblog.com. Also catch his Cardinals commentary daily at The Cardinal Nation blog. Follow Brian on Twitter.

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