Darin Harris suffered a brain injury as a UW senior against Brigham Young in 2008. He has become an important voice in the education of the effects of brain injuries, and is a past president of the Brain Injury Alliance of Washington.

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Tony Dorsett, the former Dallas Cowboys star and Pro Football Hall of Fame running back, is in Seattle this weekend as the featured guest at the Brain Injury Alliance of Washington’s annual fundraising gala.

There, Dorsett will be presented with The Breaking the Silence Award. A few years ago, Dorsett made national headlines when he revealed that he had been diagnosed with having signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative disease of the brain.

The Brain Injury Alliance of Washington wants to recognize and celebrate his courage to speak up and share his experiences with CTE.

Brain Injury Alliance of Washington

About the BIAW: The alliance’s goal is to offer support and education for people with brain injuries and their families. Services are free. The BIAW is holding its 11th annual gala and auction Saturday night at The Westin Seattle Hotel. The event is sold out. For information on services and future events, call 1-877-824-1766 or visit www.biawa.org.

“It’s a silent epidemic,” BIAW executive director Deborah Crawley says. “There are very few people who are willing to raise their hand and tell their story. Very few.”

Dorsett is not alone.

Darin Harris, a former all-state defensive back from Federal Way and a starting safety for the Washington Huskies in the mid-2000s, will be an important voice at the gala, too. He is well known, and respected, locally for his work with the BIAW.

And he has a story of his own to share.

Invincible no more

When he played football, Harris was sure he was invincible.

“I thought I was Wolverine,” he says. “I thought, ‘I heal fast.’ ”

Harris was a Seattle Times all-state selection as a senior at Decatur High School in 2003. He had always wanted to play for the Huskies and, if all went well there, maybe the NFL, too. As a true freshman at UW, he played in 10 games during the 2004 season, then 11 the following year. He missed the 2006 season while recovering from a cracked vertebra — an injury he unknowingly played through for several games at the end of the ’05 season.

In 2007, he returned to the field and was named the most improved player on the Huskies’ defense, finishing fourth on the team with 73 tackles. Wolverine was back.

Then in the second game of his senior season in 2008, in a game against BYU at Husky Stadium, Harris’ life was forever altered.

In coverage against BYU tight end Dennis Pitta, Harris was trying for an interception, but his hands got tangled between Pitta and the ball. Harris went to the turf face first. His face mask broke apart and impaled his upper lip, leaving a three-inch gash. Blood dripped down the side of his face as he lay on the field unconscious. An ambulance came on the field and took him to Harborview Medical Center. Eventually, he was diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury.

He doesn’t remember anything that happened on the field that day, or much from the days and weeks after. He does know what doctors told him later.

“They said I should be dead,” he said. “I’m a miracle right now. That’s what I like to believe.”

Washington free safety Darin Harris is loaded into an ambulance after his injury. (Ted S. Warren/Associated Press)
Washington free safety Darin Harris is loaded into an ambulance after his injury. (Ted S. Warren/Associated Press)

Aftershocks

There are particular details about his story Harris would like to avoid. His suicide attempt, for one. He doesn’t want to go there, back into that deep well of “darkness,” as he describes it. He’s better at this moment, but better is a moving target. His depression lingers, like a monster lurking in the closet. His headaches are debilitating and frequent. His sleep patterns are intermittent and unpredictable.

“I’m still a young man,” he says. He pauses. He is 31 years old. There’s still so much potential, so much life to live. And yet so much uncertainty.

“How am I going to be in a couple years? I have memory issues. I get mad quickly. I have headaches. All that stuff. It’s what my life is now. I’ve got to manage it.”

There was a time, for several years after his injury, that Harris didn’t know exactly what had happened to him, and what was happening to him. He was still just a kid, really. A kid trying to finish college, to figure out his place after he lost his identity as a football player.

They said I should be dead. I'm a miracle right now.” - Darin Harris

“I felt really alone,” he says. “At the time, I was very uneducated about brain injuries. I think a lot of people were. You see NFL players have issues, but as a player you think, ‘Oh, that won’t happen to me. That won’t happen to me. I’ll never get hurt.’

“Then it happened to me.”

One of the consequences of a traumatic brain injury is that the person doesn’t always know he or she has a brain injury. It took time — again, years — for Harris to understand what had happened, and then accept it. He had to learn how to ask for help, and then how to accept it.

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“It’s hard, as a man, with how I grew up, to say, ‘Hey, I’m weak in this area,’” he says. “It’s humbling, and it’s hard. I wish it wasn’t like that.”

He has since dived into his medical records. He has opened himself up to new treatments, new strategies. He asks questions of his doctors. Lots and lots of questions.

People have questions for him, too. And like the management of his symptoms, explaining his struggles to those closest to him is an ongoing process.

“It’s been a learning experience for all of us,” he says. “And that’s what’s hard sometimes. I get really frustrated — I have anger problems, and it takes a lot for me to say that. I can get angry pretty quickly and I lose focus on what’s important. They say it’s because I have right frontal-lobe damage, and that’s what controls your emotions. But I’m getting better at it, with some counseling.”

“A love-hate relationship”

Earlier this year, for the first time, Harris bought season tickets for UW football games. He has relished the team’s success the past couple years, and Saturdays at Husky Stadium are still special for him.

He completed his undergraduate degree in 2009, and he holds no grudge against his alma mater. “I love UW,” he says. He has remained in touch with the Huskies’ team physician, Dr. Kimberly Harmon. He considers her a confidant.

He is, however, involved in a lawsuit against the NCAA, joined by former UW quarterback Johnny DuRocher, seeking $5 million in damages for the concussions and head injuries sustained during their playing careers. (Harris insists the lawsuit isn’t a frivolous money grab. He says he needs support paying off medical bills, and he was part of an episode of HBO’s “Real Sports” in 2015 featuring athletes struggling with such expenses after their college careers ended.)

Beyond attending Husky games, Harris has remained involved in football as a 7-on-7 coach with a childhood friend, Tracy Ford, of the Bellevue-based Ford Sports Performance. Harris still finds meaning and purpose in the sport and the discipline it demands, but he also would like more people and more leagues to be more educated about concussions and head injuries.

“Football, for me, is a love-hate relationship. It taught me a great deal of stuff,” he says. “But sometimes I look at the kids I coach and I’m like, ‘Hey, man, if you have an avenue to not play football, or you want to go pursue your academic career, go do that. There’s nothing wrong with that either.’ It’s all about changing the culture, I think.”

By culture, he is talking about attitudes surrounding head injuries — from fans to coaches to players themselves.

“A brain injury is something you can’t really see, so everyone thinks you’re OK, you’re fine,” he says. “I talk to people all the time (and they say), ‘I can’t tell you have a brain injury.’ Well, that’s great, but guess what I deal with? So that’s what I do: I try to tell my story as often as possible, just because people don’t really see it. When it’s right in their face, they see, ‘Hey, maybe we do need to do something different. Maybe those guys aren’t just being soft. Maybe they’re telling you the truth.’”

The future

Darin Harris, the former UW Husky football player who suffered a brain injury in 2008 while playing vs. BYU. (Jason Redmond / Special to The Seattle Times)
Darin Harris, the former UW Husky football player who suffered a brain injury in 2008 while playing vs. BYU. (Jason Redmond / Special to The Seattle Times)

In 2012, Harris attended the BIAW gala for the first time. It was there he says he met a man who had also suffered a traumatic brain injury, his during a bicycle crash.

“How do you keep going?” Harris asked the man. The man, Harris says, spoke of a brief moment of peace, a 20-minute window one morning when the headaches stopped and hope arrived.

It was then that Harris realized that he wasn’t alone. That there were others who could empathize with his struggle, could help him manage going forward. “It felt really good to share that,” he says. “I’ll never forget that.”

His experience at that gala motivated Harris to get more involved in the BIAW, which offers free services for those with brain injuries (and for their families). He became a board member and then served for two years as the board president, a volunteer position. “It made me feel like I had value,” he says. He traveled throughout the state to talk to support groups and youth football leagues, to doctors and parents, sharing his story.

“He’s been an inspiration,” said Allison Mollner, who succeeded Harris as the BIAW board president this year. “Many times I forget how young he is. He seems wise beyond his years, and he’s taken on a lot more responsibility as he’s gotten older.”

Harris has a daughter now. Ariana turned 15 months old last week. Harris and his longtime girlfriend, Raquel, have talked marriage. He has a steady job at Puget Sound Energy in downtown Bellevue. He’s living life.

This summer, he spent a month getting a new treatment at Seattle’s Brain Treatment Center. The procedure, called transcranial magnetic stimulation, sends electrical currents through the brain to active neurotransmitters. Harris did a month’s worth of treatments, five days a week, 30 minutes at a time. The early results have been pretty dramatic: He is sleeping better, and his mood isn’t as volatile.

“This,” he says, “is the best I’ve felt in years.”

He thinks about the future. He thinks about his Ariana. He likes thinking about her, planning life around her, for her.

He is not alone.

“Going through all these treatments, you’re always worried about yourself and how you’re feeling. You kind of become selfish and you forget about everyone else,” he says. “In a relationship, that doesn’t work. And having a daughter allows you to take the focus off of you and put it on somebody else for a change.

“It’s kind of a relief.”