OregonDiscarded gladiator

A boy. A sport. The Faustian bargain between them.
Sergio Olmos1 year ago20516965 min

Jonathan Boland jogged onto the Parkrose High football field, making his varsity debut in September 2011, proud that he was among the few freshmen talented enough to play with the upperclassmen. He wore a medium-size jersey and a thin mustache, still going through puberty and uneasy about how much older everyone else was.

“It was a scary time in my life. I was 14 years old playing dudes that were signed to Oregon,” Boland said, referring to this dude: Brett Bafaro, 6-foot-2, 220-pound senior linebacker with Hillsboro’s Liberty High School, who would go on to play for the Ducks. In a 2012 interview with The Oregonian, asked about why he preferred defense to offense, he replied, “I prefer to hit people in the mouth.”

Boland had the fear. A boyish aversion to getting hit in the mouth. The game was expected to be a blowout. Bafaro’s Liberty Falcons were contending for the state championship, while Boland’s Parkrose High Broncos were not. In Oregon, the same schools tend to see one another in the state playoffs year after year, while the same schools at the bottom, like families in the Middle Ages, linger there for generations. The previous year marked the first time Parkrose had made the playoffs in over two decades. Boland buckled his chin strap and got limber, aware he and his teammates were David playing Goliath.

He was sent out to play safety.

On one series, Liberty handed off the ball to their running back. Bafaro, who lined up as fullback on offense, ran escort. He had been laying Parkrose defenders supine all game, and on this play, only Boland was left to prevent a touchdown. He watched as the running back galloped toward him, like a centaur holding a football. Inside, he panicked. “I was more focused on not getting hit than delivering the hits,” he said. He dove for the legs. The Liberty running back barely slowed, stepping around him, with the contempt some people have for beggars.

Boland remembers himself, then, as an ankle biter, someone who wraps their arms around the legs of another player to tackle, rather than initiating full contact. He didn’t have the appetite, at the time, to hit people in the mouth.

On another series he kept his eyes focused on the quarterback, trying to anticipate the play. He took note of the quarterback’s posture, the way his shoulders were angled. He went where they pointed. In football parlance he was “declaring,” abandoning the rest of the field to dedicate himself to one receiver. If he were successful, he wouldn’t need to tackle anyone. If he misread the quarterback, he might leave open another receiver.  But he’d guessed right. He leaped into the air and intercepted the ball. He was in disbelief. His teammates rushed to congratulate him. He jogged off the field, hearing his name on the loudspeakers, his chest swelling with pride.

During his four years at Parkrose High, Jonathan Boland passed or 6,450 yards and rushed for another 3,000.

Parkrose would lose that game, 21-14, nearly upsetting the championship contenders. And in that moment, with his mother cheering in the stands and upperclassmen patting him on the helmet, Boland discovered something.

“It was magical,” he said.

It was one game in a second-tier conference, in a city with more enthusiasm for soccer than football, but he found meaning. By the time he returned to the bench, he already was chasing the feeling again. “It triggered something in me to push me to go to college for football.” Boland said, “After that first game I said yes. I told myself, ‘I must get a scholarship to play football in college, anywhere.’”

Boland would lead the team in interceptions that year, earning honorable mention all-Northwest Oregon Conference.

Five years later, Renee Boland, hears a knock on the door. She opens it and finds her son standing there. “I didn’t even know who this kid was,” she said later. “He just looked like this wild person who had not slept in days.”

Jonathan, her youngest son, the one to be on ESPN, to land their family name in the newspaper, seems broken. “He just came in, sat down on the couch and started crying very hard,” Renee said.

She asks him what’s wrong.

“I don’t know,” he says. Then he reverses himself. “Mom just help me, just help me right now. I messed my life up.” He confesses some things he’d done.

The next day, in another part of town, a new case lands on Detective Darren Posey’s desk.   

The case tells the story of a boy, a sport and the Faustian bargain between them. Jonathan Boland wanted everything: money, fame and a life beyond his blue-collar Portland neighborhood. Football wanted everything from him: a willingness to sacrifice his own blood for sport. His is the story of who got what. And the role that concussions may play when athletes betray themselves.

The Parkrose School District began as one schoolhouse on Northeast 122nd Avenue and Sandy Boulevard, in 1885, and for a hundred years was mostly left alone. Then Portland grew. Parkrose was annexed beginning in 1983, and as one resident put it in “The Wheel Keeps Turning: An Oral History of Parkrose,” “I thought that it was more or less the demise of neighborliness out here and we were subject to all the Portland problems.”

Gentrification refugees fleeing rising rents arrived in Parkrose. Over time, some residents stayed. Some left. Now the neighborhood is a kind of antechamber to the unbranded cities beyond, where the discards of Portlandia are at home. Among students in the district, 73 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. And while Portland is one of the whitest big cities in America, students of color make up 70 percent of the population at Parkrose High. It is a neighborhood at odds with the rest of Portland, producing the kind of friction that could make young men want to hit things.

Jonathan Boland came to football in sixth grade via the Portland Police, who sponsored a youth league to divert at-risk kids into team sports. One might expect the local high school team to be a natural fit for youth like him, but even The Mid County Memo, a newsletter circulated monthly in Parkrose, wrote of the team, “has been a running joke for nearly two decades.” Tim Price, the school’s head coach at the time, told the Memo, “The kids don’t want to come up here and play.”

If football coaches gave at-risk youth meaning and a license to hit guys in the mouth, they weren’t the only ones recruiting. Parkrose gangs drew from the same well. The high school had trouble just maintaining a varsity roster. It didn’t help that some private schools went into neighborhoods like Parkrose and tried poaching the best athletes. The pitch to a blue-collar family was simple: give your son, possibly your daughter, over to our program in exchange for a better education. The street gangs and prep-school recruiters left Parkrose with an anemic roster.

Boland changed that, for a time.

A week after the Liberty game, following a punishing defeat at Putnam High, Boland limped to class, bruised from the game.

“My neck area, my trapezoids, my shoulders, they were banged up, and I never been banged up after a football game,” he said.

Students approached him, congratulating him on being named the starting quarterback in the upcoming contest against Wilson High. He remembers hearing things like “Congrats, bro.”

He thanked them and tried to play it cool. The senior quarterback, Zach Abney, needed to sit out for a week from an ankle injury and the sophomore backup quarterback was snubbed. All eyes were on the freshman now.

The fear returned. “You could tell I was nervous,” Boland said. The game plan against Wilson called for slant routes, simple plays meant to ease him into the quarterback role. But he kept throwing the ball into the ground. Pass rushers were getting in his face and forcing him into bad decisions. The backup quarterback sat on the bench, looking on, and Boland knew he couldn’t keep throwing balls away.

Northwest Prep Report had this to say about Parkrose’s senior quarterback in 2014: “Boland is a good student and is grounded in his faith and has a lot of the personality traits we see in the great ones.”

Then he discovered something new about how to play quarterback. He clapped his hands and called for the ball. Pass rushers came at him. This time, though, rather than throw the ball away, he did one of the most instinctive things one can do when being chased: he ran.

Boland slipped past the defensive line, maneuvering like a motorcycle in traffic. First down. He broke more than 20 yards, as he remembers, then returned to the huddle. The upperclassmen patted him on the helmet. He heard someone say, “Good play, bro.” One of them told him to “do it again.” So he did. Another first down.

By avoiding contact, the Parkrose team found itself surviving in games. Big, lumbering defensive ends came around the edge, looking for Boland, trying to get their arms around him, wrangle him in the backfield. But he had different ideas, like a chicken taking it upon himself to be cage-free. He made highlight reels from these encounters. Broken plays where he improvised, shimmying out of a tackle, bobbing and weaving for the camera. He was reducing the game into a kind of freeze tag, seeing how far he could get before they touched him.

When Boland took over as starting quarterback a year later, Parkrose’s score per game doubled from an average of 14 to 28 points. But as word spread of his talents, he no longer would walk away from plays unscathed. Once coaches knew Parkrose had a mobile quarterback, they could plan for it: set edges and contain, dare him to throw, force Parkrose to play football the way everyone else played. If Boland’s Parkrose rise was new money, on the night of Oct. 5, 2012, they met the old money: Sherwood High School.

Tim Curran, publisher of the Memo, described the team this way: “Powerhouse, juggernaut, unstoppable, mostly white kids. Loved kicking the crap out of inner-city schools.” That night, Curran recalled, the air was charged. “The racial thing is just a tinge, but,” Curran said, “it’s just a little bit different, you know, when they take down the cocky black quarterback.

“They did try (to) hurt that kid,” Curran continued. They were out to punish. Because they knew if you got Boland out of the game, it’s over. He was that team.”

Boland remembers rolling out, looking for Marshawn Edwards, his best wide receiver and best friend. A Sherwood defender was after him. So Boland made for the sidelines, hoping Edwards could get open, but quickly approaching the edge of bounds. He threw the ball into double coverage, as he got hit from behind.

Boland remembers being on the ground and hearing a ringing. He remembers bright flashes, like somebody was flickering the lights off and on. He stood up and had blurry vision. His team was walking off the field — he learned later that he had thrown an interception. In the moment, he thought to himself, “This feels different than a regular headache.”

If you would have asked him if he thought that headache was a concussion? “I would have said concussions aren’t real.”

“OK. Um, Jon, this is, this has been my question though,” Detective Posey says, sitting across from Boland years later. “When I first realized it was you, and what was going on, it’s like, ‘Why?’”

“I don’t know that,” Boland replied.

Even the commissioner of the NFL, Roger Goodell, a man impressive in his ability to inspire more boos from crowds than the visiting team, doesn’t doubt that concussions are real. There is no debate on the existence of concussions.

But Boland was still thinking, in 2012, of head injuries coded in the euphemism of getting your bell rung. Today it is less common for coaches to repeat those phrases, convinced that such language makes it easier to ignore a serious medical condition, or just aware that self-preservation demands they play along.

Jonathan Boland now suspects that concussions played a role in his life’s unraveling. But he says that if you’d have asked him about the impact of brain injuries when he was in high school, “I would have said concussions aren’t real.”

But even a sincere effort to explain concussions, beginning with the definition of the word itself, is more challenging than it seems. Try it. You may find yourself listing causes (blow to the head) or symptoms (passing out, seeing stars). But what exactly is a concussion?

The common image is a brain bumping against the inside of the skull and bruising. That understanding creates the kind of danger for athletes that “luck” creates for gamblers, a narrative that allows a person to tolerate more risk than he might otherwise.

There isn’t any bruise to observe. A concussion doesn’t show up on any brain scan. We can’t see it, but we know it exists. Much like a black hole’s gravity reins in the stars around it, a concussion creates a constellation of symptoms that prove a medical event has taken place.

The medical event is this: a specific threshold of G-force visited on the head, the slight increase in push that’s maybe the difference between fun and tragedy on the playground swings.

The G-force causes the brain to whiplash inside the skull. The neural connections that make up the brain stretch. At the microscopic level, there is a tug of war between two individual neurons in different states of inertia. The link between them, called the axon, stretches until it rips apart from the stress.

What’s lost could have been one tiny part of a mosaic that makes up a memory from childhood. But it gets worse. The broken axons, like a busted gas line, secrete chemicals that aren’t meant to be out in the open, choking the neurons around it — more childhood memories — spreading a small cloud of death, until the image of a nice thing your mother did for you once is now corrupted, partly floating as detritus in your head, to be discarded. A concussion is a tiny dismantling of yourself, in that way.

To understand chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the condition discovered in a former football player by Dr. Bennet Omalu, return to the observation of those broken axons spilling toxins. The tau protein emanating from the severed connection can clump and nestle itself in the brain, strangling it. The latest research suggests that even if a blow doesn’t meet the threshold of force thought to cause a concussion, a lesser amount of force, a hit that is not enough to cause a full-blown concussion, still contributes to “chronic traumatic encephalopathy” in that enough force causes the microtubules inside an axon to snap, and secrete tau proteins that way.

In other words, there are consequences to being hit in the head.

In Oregon, Max’s Law requires a release from a medical professional before a student like Boland can return to play following a concussion. He visited the school nurse 10 days after the game, who noted in his file: “Improving slowly but continues to be symptomatic with significant use of brain…. He is unlikely to return to play this week.”

In the two and a half games Boland had to sit out the action on the bench, Parkrose scored a combined 20 points.

Boland wanted to return for a play-in game that would give Parkrose the chance to make the playoffs for only the second time in 26 years. One way for Boland to quicken his return was to pass an ImPACT test (Immediate Post-Concussion Assessment and Cognitive Testing). It isn’t something you can study for — it probes mental functions like attention span and memory.

He failed his first ImPACT test and there is no record of Boland passing a second one. But less than four weeks after his concussion, he was cleared by his family doctor and allowed to return for the play-in game. Parkrose lost 56-20.

Later, much later, Boland whispers to himself, “I’m so … dumb.” It was just past 10 a.m. inside the downtown interrogation room of the Portland Police Bureau.  

“Get into … maybe your frame of mind,” Detective Posey says. He is sitting across from Boland. The interrogation has been without friction. Boland hasn’t asked for a lawyer. But detective Posey is curious.

“I saw some of the news reports and stuff about, you know, what happened with the concussions,” he says.

As Jonathan Boland’s 2013 season went on, the Parkrose High School starting quarterback needed to bolster his Hudl account, the YouTube-like website where high school athletes post highlight reels of their performance — one way to get the attention of scouts.

He already had a lot of attention. As one newspaper article noted before the game: “Boland’s early season performance has helped him draw recruiting interest from several Pac-12 schools. Washington State, Colorado State, Colorado, Utah, Oregon State and California have all shown interest in Boland, according to France.”

In the fourth quarter against Liberty High, Boland was moving the ball up the field, performing for the camera, hoping to put enough on tape to get a scholarship. He was in the shotgun formation on Liberty’s 30-yard line. It was a quarterback draw, a designed run up the middle, into contact. A linebacker brought him down from behind, and as he fell, another linebacker landed on his head.

A spectator at the game tweeted: “He’s laying on the 25 yard line. Pretty quiet here. …”

Andrew Nemec, a reporter for The Oregonian, tweeted: “When the pile got up, he didn’t. EMT on site.”

Boland’s mother, Renee, was in the stands watching. She hurried down to the field and held her son’s hand. “I need you to open your eyes,” she said.

Boland has no memory of this moment. He doesn’t recall telling his mother that he can’t feel the lower half of his body. He doesn’t remember hearing clapping when he’s lifted onto a stretcher and taken away in an ambulance. Later, the hospital emergency room would fill up with fans.

“Are you done, I mean, you’re, are you done for good for football because of the concussions?” Detective Scott Chamberlain says.

“Yeah,” Boland says.

“So you can’t even play if you wanted to?”

“Oh, my head’s banged up.”

“That sucks, buddy.”

After Boland suffered that season-ending concussion his junior year, some nights he cried himself to sleep, unsure if his scholarship hopes were over. He embraced the sport’s mentality of “pain-is-weakness-leaving-the-body” as he dealt with his post-concussive symptoms, figuring it was OK to lift weights when he had “the little headaches, like the little baby ones” and not stop his workouts until “the big one comes.” At that point, he said, he told himself, “OK, cool. Workout is over. Let me rest.”

Jonathan Boland of Portland’s Parkrose High School was one of two quarterbacks named to the North Team for the 2015 Les Schwab Bowl, which features the best high school football players in Oregon.

He returned to football form, but his mother noticed a change. “I saw the decline in his work,” Renee said. “He would struggle, especially with math.” Boland began secluding himself in his room after football practice. “He always kept his light off or kept the light dim,” she said.

Worse, he stopped volunteering injury symptoms. During a game his senior year, Marshawn Edwards, his teammate and best friend, walked over to a trainer midgame and said, “Jonathan ain’t right.”

Boland was pulled out of the game and the trainer, Jun Kawaguchi, told his father that Jonathan might have a concussion. Boland showed up to school the following week and pretended to have gone to the hospital over the weekend. Kawaguchi called his mother to confirm the hospital visit. Renee didn’t know what the trainer was talking about.

Still, his hard work seemed to pay off when Boland earned a full-ride scholarship to Portland State University. But a year in, Boland sat on his bed in the basement of a house near campus in the fall of 2016. He had made it through his red-shirt freshman year in college and was supposed to take the field this year. His teammates were upstairs prepping their luggage for an away game. They didn’t know yet, but Boland couldn’t travel with them.

The trainers at PSU noted Boland’s struggles with clearing concussion protocol. In an early season practice drill during his sophomore year, he remembers coming down on his head. He kept the pain to himself. The old symptoms returned: headache, dizziness, sensitivity to light, nausea, sluggishness, slow reaction time and blurred vision.

That night he got up from bed and clumsily collided with a beam in his basement room. He vomited, twice. He took Advil to no effect. The next day he visited with trainers and mentioned the beam, but not the practice injury, hoping not to get sidelined. Documents note he “has vacant look and does not seem like himself … seemed concerned over the number of previous concussions and asked if he would be able to RTP (return to play) after having 4 concussions.”

Almost a month later, trainers noted that he could run only 10 yards before the onset of a headache.

PSU coach Bruce Barnum learned his star recruit wouldn’t play again.

“I was told, you know, because of the concussion situation he probably needs to walk away from the game,” Barnum said.  “I remember tears in my office when he couldn’t play anymore.”

On Oct. 3, he called his mom and dictated a Facebook post announcing his retirement. “12 years of playing the sport I love has been a really hard journey,” he said in the post. It continued, thanking Barnum for keeping him on scholarship.

Boland initially received an outpouring of support on social media. But then there was a silence.

Interviewed by Northwest Prep Report the day he signed with Portland State University, Jonathan Boland thanked “First and foremost God…. Then my family and the Parkrose community, sticking with me since freshman year. Got a lot of love for Parkrose.”

And all was not right. Where once he was a star, a hometown kid who rose above, a gladiator who was cheered on, now he was an aimless young man navigating life. Boland had a scholarship but not a purpose. He didn’t need to wake up early for practice anymore. He didn’t need to wake up early at all.

“You know that the feeling set in, of being done in football and not having a whole other life,” Boland said.

The grind was over and in its place was … school? He never felt like he was good at academics, at least not in the way he was good at football. Nobody ever showed up on Friday night to watch him beat algebra.

He started abusing Xanax, an anti-anxiety prescription medication. He also seemed to retreat from the people who cared about him. He stopped speaking to his mother after the Facebook post.

Zoey Racca, a young woman who was seeing Boland at the time, can’t remember him talking about how the loss of football was affecting him. “He was super quiet about it,” she said. “We were talking, like, all the time.”

But then she started to realize Boland wasn’t all there. “Like, literally, his mind is somewhere else. Like he’s on Xanax.” He seemed more interested in Xanax than anything else, and he didn’t try to hide being with other women.

“Literally over FaceTime I was like, ‘I’m not. Having sex with you anymore.’ And he’s like ‘OK.’” Racca was stunned at how indifferent he had become. “Then I was like, ‘OK, bye.’” Click.

The concussions hadn’t killed him, but they forced Boland into a negotiated settlement: a life devoid of conflict, sedentary and mostly in the dark. With marijuana and his pills, he felt like he could live again. “I just had the feeling I could just go do whatever I wanted to do,” Boland said. “That’s what Xanax does to you.”

A few days after ending his football career, he sat on his bed and lit up a blunt, a Backwoods cigar with weed in it. He was going to miss class again.

He missed the adrenaline rush got from football and he called a play, like a quarterback in a huddle.

Boland texted: “This JB. This Dig?”

The number responded: “Yessir.”

PSU coaches said Jonathan Boland, who started out playing safety his freshman year at Parkrose High, was athletic enough to play several positions at the college level.

The number was Saadiq Calhoun, former cornerback for Central Catholic High School and teammate in Boland’s new game. “Bring ya strap. If you want to hit this convent (sic) store right up the street,” Boland wrote, “I got a plan for it.”

The next day, Oct. 5, 2016, Boland, a roommate and Calhoun’s girlfriend, Emma Ogden, walk into a convenience store. The roommate thinks they have come to buy snacks and grabs a beverage from the cooler. Boland and Ogden know otherwise.

“We used to go there all the time,” Boland said. “I just went into the store and looked around, see if anybody was in there. Nothing was going on in my mind. I was like, ‘Dang this is actually about to happen.’”

A masked gunman, later confirmed as Calhoun, walked into the store, approached the counter, raised a gun to the clerk’s face and said: “Open the drawer and give me the money.” He also ordered the clerk to give him two boxes of cigars.

“Anything can go wrong,” Boland said, reflecting on the robbery later. “I mean, I could be in here for murder. One little slip of the trigger, bam.”

Boland, feigning heroism, asks the roommate if they should chase after the gunman. The roommate tells him that he doesn’t think it would be a good idea. The three of them walk back home.

In the next 48 hours, Boland robbed two more stores the same way, serving as the lookout while Calhoun acted as the gunman.

“Did you get any of the money that came out of that?” Detective Darren Posey asks Boland. They are sitting in an interrogation room in downtown police headquarters.  

“I got just the Backwoods,” Boland says, referring to the cigars from the first robbery. And from the second two, “Like 40 bucks, maybe.”

“Was the reason that you’re doing this, was it that you needed the money or was it just the …”

“Kind of.”

Was it the Xanax?”

“Definitely was, yeah, that, that, honestly, that really turned me, like … some of the things that I was thinking, ‘I’m like, oh, I’ve never thought of this in my life, like, what, what’s going on?’”

The district attorney’s office charged Boland with three counts of robbery in the first degree and six counts of robbery in the second degree. Under Measure 11, Oregon’s mandatory sentencing law, he was facing just over 57 years if found guilty on all counts.

Boland did not contest guilt. Instead, he admitted to committing the robberies, wrote an apology letter to the victims, and signed a consent for a search of his PSU locker, all during his interview with police. He never asked for an attorney.

“I felt bad, like, I did this to these people,” he said, during an interview last year. “I traumatized these people. I’m sorry for it.”

Joseph Schwartz is a criminologist professor at the University of Nebraska Omaha. He led a study that looked at 1,354 adolescent offenders to determine the association between brain injury and delinquency.

“There’s pretty consistent evidence indicating that brain injury is a significant risk factor for delinquent behavior,” said Schwartz, who was asked to review Boland’s case for this article.  “We’re seeing that brain injury resulting, temporarily at least, in lowers levels of self-control, which in turn is resulting in increased levels of delinquency.

“Jonathan on the other hand had multiple brain injuries over the course of time. And so those injuries could definitely accumulate over that period of time. And we can see that they’re much greater than the sum of their parts,” Schwartz said.

Renee spoke to her son’s public defender, thinking the transformation from star athlete to criminal was too sudden to be explained without looking at not only the concussion that took place 47 days before the first robbery, but the ones that preceded it.

“What’s portrayed in these robberies is not my son,” she said, sitting in her living room during an interview last year. “That’s not him.”

Boland’s public defender had him evaluated by a neuropsychologist who concluded, “His actions at the time of the alleged offense were a product of his post concussive symptoms (likely exacerbated as a result of multiple concussions over the past few years), depression, substance use/intoxication, and negative peer influence (while in a diminished state of functioning).”

Not everyone was persuaded.

One Portland prosecutor, in an email to a colleague in the district attorney’s office, wrote: “People are blaming football for committing a crime? Give me a break.”

“I compare it to PTSD and the development of PTSD as a mitigating factor,” said Ricky Volante, attorney and adjunct professor at Harvard University’s extension school. “I mean the last thing you want is for an individual that is well aware of their actions to be able to go and commit violent crimes,” he said, imagining a scenario where football players bring their concussions into court. “All they have to do is pretend to have certain symptoms and they might be able to successfully get off with the crime entirely.”

“I’m not sure a concussion would be the sort of thing that would negate guilt,” said Michael Greenlick, the Multnomah County judge who oversaw Boland’s sentencing hearing. “Just like having a bad childhood or being abused as a child wouldn’t be a defense to a robbery.”

While the court decided what to do about Boland, Renee thought about her son. “I didn’t cook; I didn’t clean up my house. I barely was making it work. My job gave me a month off because I could not get my thinking together. I couldn’t process, and I could only imagine how he was feeling being away from home, and I’m at home, you know?”

Renee thought concussions had something to do with her son betraying himself, but she also began to see how the loss of identity broke him. “The world exalted him and, in so many ways, a lot of it was right because he’s a good person. But that exaltation in so many ways destroyed him. He couldn’t handle it when he got to a place where he had to start over.”

For Renee, the concussions aren’t the only part of it. She sees ways she and her husband failed their son. “There’s one thing. It’s reminding them that they are more than an athlete. You are more than a football player.

Jonathan Boland sat alone on the banks of the Columbia River and thought about how it felt being free again. It was the summer of 2017 and he was out on bail, awaiting sentencing. But for the first time in months, nobody was tracking him. The court-ordered GPS that was normally around his ankle was back home.

When it broke off, he envisioned police sirens and a SWAT team bursting in to get him, but instead his phone rang. He picked it up and explained to an officer that he wasn’t running. He was at the gym where he was allowed to work part time, showing a customer how to hurdle when his anklet broke off. The officer explained that the office was closed for the day. “You’re just going to have to go through the weekend and get it put back on Monday morning, 9 o’clock.”

Boland couldn’t help himself. He asked, “So, do I gotta stay home?”

The officer told him to be smart, “Don’t do anything that will get you back in jail.”


Boland sat near Portland International Airport. He smoked a Backwoods cigar with weed in it. “It was just good to clear my head, get away from everybody and feel like I’m free again,” he said.

Boland was supposed to stay away from drugs as part of the conditions of his release, but he was contemplating violating his bail in another way. He could stay here, in Portland, in the pocket, and take the sack that was coming. Or he could scramble onto a departing flight, or rush north into Washington state, tuck and run, and be the outlaw that everyone thought he’d become.

Overhead, planes made their final descent to the airport. If he left now, he would have a weekend’s head start before anyone knew he was gone. It had been almost a year since he played football. He had been getting tackled every fall since sixth grade. Since he turned 15, he had a concussion almost every year, but not this year. Not anymore.

So he came to a decision, out on the river, which changed his life forever.

He finished his blunt, picked up a little speaker playing music nearby. He wasn’t an outlaw. And he wasn’t a gladiator anymore either.

Jonathan Boland says he’s trying to make the best use of his time behind bars so that he can make a positive contribution to his community when he gets out.

“Football was one life,” Boland said last month, sitting above the cellblocks in a conference room at Oregon State Penitentiary, a year into his seven-and-a-half-year sentence.

He accepted a plea deal, mitigating down his charges on one first-degree robbery to serve the minimum sentence of 90 months without the possibility of early parole.

“Now,” he said, “I’m getting a second chance.”

Underscore is founded by the former Oregon team of InvestigateWest. This story and others are reprinted with permission from InvestigateWest. To read the full series on concussion in high school sports, visit the InvestigateWest website.

Jonathan Boland’s story is the subject this episode of Reveal, the podcast of the The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. Access it at revealnews.org, or subscribe to Reveal wherever you get your podcasts.

Sergio Olmos

A probing, long-form journalist. Habla español.

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