After the Lack of a Son, a Soccer Coach Confronts a Horrible Reality

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By Stacy Connor

Michael Locksley was serving to coach Alabama to a nationwide championship in 2017 when his 25-year-old son, Meiko, was shot and killed.

Meiko was a standout high-school soccer participant who bounced between faculty applications as his thoughts and life slipped into darkness in his early 20s.

His father is now the top coach on the College of Maryland. Michael Locksley has mourned Meiko’s loss, partially, by main discussions about psychological well being and making an attempt to destigmatize it among the many younger males he coaches.

One factor he has not mentioned publicly, till now: Meiko had continual traumatic encephalopathy, or C.T.E., the degenerative mind illness attributable to repeated blows to the top and infrequently related to soccer.

C.T.E. can solely be identified, with certainty, posthumously.

“I all the time thought, like, how do you go from a traditional 21-year-old Division I football-playing particular person to, actually six months later, saying you hear individuals within the basement of an condominium the place you lived on the eighth flooring and also you don’t have a basement?” Locksley mentioned.

He continued: “That didn’t make sense to me. So I simply all the time would return to saying, ‘Perhaps it had one thing to do with these concussions.’”

Locksley mentioned that he didn’t know the exact position that C.T.E. performed in Meiko’s decline, and he’s proper. Researchers can not make direct hyperlinks, both. Had been Meiko’s extreme signs and mental-health points attributable to, exacerbated by or unaffected by C.T.E.?

A direct and private — deeply private — hyperlink to C.T.E. can be essentially the most inconvenient of truths.

Locksley nonetheless coaches, main a serious program in a serious convention. And he has one other son, Kai, enjoying professionally within the Canadian Soccer League. He justifies his continued position in soccer with a risk-vs.-reward calculation.

“I would like to have the ability to educate it and current it as secure as doable whereas nonetheless permitting this nice sport to provide the rewards that it’s given to so many households that I’ve seen over the 30-something years I’ve been teaching,” he mentioned.

“My aim is to stroll that skinny line very honestly,” he added.

Is it the view of a person who has suffered the incalculable lack of a son, but additionally has extra to lose?

The mind of Meiko Locksley is considered one of 152 belonging to contact-sport athletes below the age of 30 that have been donated between 2008 and 2022 to the UNITE Mind Financial institution and studied by researchers at Boston College.

In a paper printed Monday in JAMA Neurology, the researchers reported that 63 of the athletes, or 41.4 p.c of them, had C.T.E. Most have been soccer gamers who by no means performed previous faculty, generally not previous highschool. One was 17.

That doesn’t counsel that almost half of younger soccer gamers will get C.T.E.; the donations have been made by mourning households determined to seek out solutions, most frequently after a suicide.

“This examine clearly exhibits that the pathology of C.T.E. begins early,” mentioned Dr. Ann McKee, a neuropathologist and director of Boston College’s C.T.E. Middle.

What got here to be often known as C.T.E. was first identified a long time in the past in “punch-drunk” boxers. Signs can embrace reminiscence loss, erratic conduct and melancholy.

As of late, regardless of discoveries in contact-sport athletes and navy personnel of all types, C.T.E. is most frequently related to ageing soccer gamers. Junior Seau, Ken Stabler, Mike Webster and Dave Duerson are a few of its most well-known victims.

Researchers reported earlier this 12 months that 345 of 376 donated brains of deceased N.F.L. gamers had C.T.E.

However there’s a rising subset of younger individuals, too, just like the 63 within the newest examine, whose lives, deaths and C.T.E. diagnoses are hidden in relative anonymity.

One was the son of one of many high soccer coaches within the nation.

On the kitchen wall the place Michael and Kia Locksley dwell is a framed piece of wooden that reads, “House is wherever soccer takes us.”

Beneath it are 11 hanging picket slats, one beneath one other, itemizing all of the teaching stops. Towson. Navy. Pacific. Military. Maryland. Florida. Illinois. New Mexico as a head coach. Maryland once more. Alabama. Maryland as head coach.

They virtually attain the ground.

“I don’t know if I’ve room for any extra stops,” Locksley mentioned.

Meiko Locksley was born on April 24, 1992, at the beginning of that chain. His mom was in faculty. His father was an assistant soccer coach at Towson, the place he had performed security, making $12,000, he mentioned.

Michael Locksley had one son already, additionally named Michael. The Locksleys had two extra youngsters after Meiko: a boy named Kai and a woman named Kori.

Meiko was studying at 4 and completed his first Harry Potter e-book at 6. Kia insisted that he steadiness athletics with artwork, so he took piano classes; he performed “Right here Comes the Bride” for a marriage at 9. He did some baby performing and modeling. He wrote poetry and rap. He acquired good grades. He laughed simply, danced routinely.

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“He had only a few dangerous days as a toddler,” his father mentioned.

Meiko started enjoying sort out soccer at 7. It was the late Nineteen Nineties. Considerations over concussions virtually didn’t exist, particularly for kids.

“They have been 7 and weighed nothing,” Kia Locksley mentioned. “And the hits, it virtually seemed like they simply bounced off one another.”

She is haunted by her carefree perspective. She remembers Meiko being knocked out on the sphere in center faculty. Moments later, he appeared OK.

“All the pieces that I seemed for at the moment was in place: He was strolling, he was speaking,” Kia Locksley mentioned. “However I look again now with the data, positively, I ought to have had him evaluated then and brought precautions then.”

What makes C.T.E. particularly difficult is that it’s precipitated not simply by apparent concussions, researchers say, however by the cumulative impact of subconcussive hits — all of the smacks and jolts which may barely register on the time.

Whereas Michael Locksley was offensive coordinator at Illinois, Meiko turned a star highschool quarterback. When his father was supplied the top job at New Mexico, Meiko performed for a highschool in Albuquerque.

He went to school to play at Youngstown State. It was about then that his mother and father observed worrying adjustments.

Meiko had self-discipline issues and stopped going to class — uncharacteristic for Meiko and embarrassing for Michael, who presumed that his son was merely operating with the incorrect crowd.

Meiko transferred to New Mexico to play for his father, transferring from quarterback to security. Kia Locksley was in graduate faculty there. She and Meiko would meet on campus for espresso.

“He began speaking about how he was depressed,” Kia mentioned. “And that was very new.”

The Locksleys acquired Meiko into counseling, and Michael had “guardrails” to maintain him on the suitable path — as coach, he might monitor class attendance and request drug assessments. Meiko’s conduct appeared to stabilize.

However Michael Locksley was fired early of their first season collectively. Meiko stayed. He sustained a concussion that stored him out of a number of video games due to extreme complications.

Meiko transferred to a Pennsylvania junior faculty, then to Towson. His mother and father have been close by. Michael had turn into offensive coordinator at Maryland.

Meiko’s mom observed he had a rising lack of ability to grasp easy conversations.

“I’d be on the telephone with him for thus lengthy about little issues, and I simply didn’t perceive,” Kia mentioned. “I used to be confused, like: ‘What’s incorrect with you? Why are you unable to course of this?’”

He was moody and simply agitated. He misplaced a worrying quantity of weight and have become much less involved about how he dressed and seemed. He acquired into an off-campus combat and was kicked off the soccer staff. He argued routinely with a girlfriend.

Then he started hallucinating.

“I acquired a name in the midst of the evening, and Meiko was on the opposite finish and his girlfriend had left,” Kia Locksley mentioned. “She went again to, he thought, New Mexico, however he instructed me she was nonetheless right here. And I mentioned, ‘What do you imply?’ And he goes: ‘She didn’t depart. She’s on this closet.’”

Meiko performed what he mentioned was a recording of her, however it was utterly silent. “I heard nothing. However he heard her voice,” Kia Locksley mentioned.

Kia Locksley thought it was a psychological breakdown, indicators of an sickness. Michael Locksley suspected medication.

Neither thought of C.T.E. or the affect of soccer.

The Locksleys felt fortunate to have cash and connections. Meiko went by means of a string of therapists and medicines. He went to Florida for a mind scan that turned up “scorching spots” (injury from concussions, presumably), however supplied no actual solutions.

He was finally identified with schizoaffective dysfunction.

As soon as, at dwelling, Meiko turned enraged and smashed a window. Police have been summoned.

“And that’s once I heard him say,” Kia Locksley mentioned, “‘Why is that this occurring? I didn’t ask for this illness. Why do I’ve this? Simply shoot me now. Simply kill me.’ He went for the police officer’s gun. He needed to die versus coping with the psychological sickness that he was battling.”

Kia Locksley discovered to take care of Meiko by “emotionally detaching” from her expectations of him.

“I bear in mind praying one evening and simply crying,” she mentioned. “I needed to launch and let go of who I needed him to be, who I assumed he was going to be, all of the desires that I had for him.”

Michael Locksley coped together with his son’s decline in another way.

“I stored eager to knock the wall right down to say, ‘Come on out of right here, man,’” Locksley mentioned. “It felt like he was a prisoner in his personal mind.”

Then got here the evening of Sept. 3, 2017.

The season opened the evening earlier than Meiko died. No. 1 Alabama performed No. 3 Florida State in Atlanta.

Michael Locksley, an offensive coordinator for Alabama below Nick Saban, traded textual content messages with Meiko earlier than the sport, then referred to as him after the Crimson Tide received, 24-7.

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“I can bear in mind him saying, like, ‘Dang, Pops, man, y’all killed these boys,’” Locksley recalled.

Locksley cried whereas retelling the dialog.

The following evening, Sept. 3, Michael and Kia have been at their Alabama condominium. They have been woke up by cops at their door.

Meiko had been shot within the chest in Columbia, Md., close to the place he lived. He died on the College of Maryland Medical Middle.

Circumstances have been unknown that evening, and the case stays unsolved, six years later. Michael Locksley generally goes to the scene and sits in his automobile, hoping somebody may acknowledge him and inform him what occurred to his son.

It was Michael who beneficial the mind donation. By 2017, C.T.E. had obtained a whole lot of consideration, and soccer coaches couldn’t feign ignorance about concussions.

Locksley had seen the 2015 movie “Concussion.” A 12 months earlier than Meiko’s loss of life, the N.F.L. admitted C.T.E.’s hyperlink to soccer.

“I actually needed to know if the concussions performed any half within the connection together with his deteriorating psychological well being,” Locksley mentioned.

The outcomes got here in a convention name with researchers. Meiko had C.T.E.

The injury to his mind was deemed to be Stage 1 of 4 levels, like 38 others within the under-30 examine. One other 21 brains have been categorised as Stage 2. The remaining three — one N.F.L. participant, one faculty soccer participant and one rugby participant — have been Stage 3.

The information of C.T.E. swamped Kia Locksley with remorse.

“My God, I might have carried out one thing in another way,” she mentioned, tearing up. After a pause, she added: “Somewhat guilt.”

Michael Locksley discovered sudden consolation within the analysis. It was not medication, he was relieved to know.

However he was now a soccer coach with a conundrum. He has spent years separating Meiko’s mental-health struggles from his C.T.E. analysis.

He steadily talks about “psychological well being” and his program’s open-door coverage for gamers experiencing private issues. He has spoken at size about Meiko’s struggles.

It’s pure to surprise, realizing the C.T.E. analysis, if “psychological well being” is a handy euphemism, if not a little bit of strategic misdirection.

“I proceed to distinguish between the 2,” Locksley mentioned. “I’m a layman, and my layman’s mind-set is that they weren’t actually related, and perhaps they aren’t. Perhaps they have been. I don’t know.”

Michael Locksley has rebuilt Maryland’s soccer program, successful back-to-back bowl video games for the primary time in almost 20 years. He’s paid a number of million {dollars} a 12 months. He has a big dwelling, drives good automobiles and oversees a program with shimmering new workplaces and soccer amenities.

It’s his dream job. Locksley grew up in an space of Washington, D.C., that’s nonetheless troubled and harmful. He was the primary in his household to go to school, due to soccer. It’s the place he met Kia.

“The advantages of enjoying the sport of soccer, coming from the place I used to be, I wouldn’t be the place I’m immediately,” he mentioned. “The brown leather-based ball with nonetheless many ounces of air in it, it modified the lineage of my household.”

He continued, placing his emotions to phrases.

“Does it harm that I misplaced my son? One-hundred p.c it does. Does it harm to know that he had C.T.E. and it probably might have been due to enjoying faculty soccer, high-school soccer, youth soccer? Certain. However when you have been to ask me immediately how I really feel — I’ve grandsons now that love soccer and are enjoying contact soccer earlier than highschool.”

Kia Locksley now believes that youngsters mustn’t play sort out soccer, maybe till highschool. That echoes the advice of C.T.E. researchers who see a correlation between C.T.E. and the variety of years of full-contact participation.

Her husband sees that as impractical except a ban have been broadly carried out “and everyone did it.”

Meiko’s analysis has modified the best way he coaches, Locksley mentioned. He’s extra conscious of the indicators of concussions and appreciative of the protocols.

“It positively makes me suppose twice about how we follow, how usually we’re having contact,” he mentioned.

However he dismissed the concept Maryland may think about following the lead of some faculties, like these within the Ivy League, that restrict contact solely to video games, which researchers suppose would drastically scale back mind accidents in athletes.

“If one staff is doing issues a sure means and one other is doing it in another way, then generally that does create a aggressive drawback,” he mentioned. “I’m judged Saturday on successful video games.”

That type of judgment begins once more this Saturday, as Maryland opens its season towards Towson — the college the place Locksley acquired his begin and met his spouse, and the place Meiko final performed soccer.

The following day would be the anniversary of Meiko’s loss of life.

Audio produced by Parin Behrooz.

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