By Chandler Morrison, Sports Editor–
ON A FRIDAY evening in November, Kyle Cates, a student at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, settles into a rocking chair on a corner of the wrap-around porch that surrounds his family’s home. Staring off into the forest that engulfs his dwelling, he reminisces on what used to be the pinnacle of his life: the game of football.
“Coaches always told me I just go out and hit guys,” Cates says as his mind drifts off to his playing days. “That’s what they liked about me, I just ran down hill and hit guys. They always told me that. And I tell them that they should have seen how hard my buddy, Hunter Davenport, hit. He was a beast.”
He wavers a grin as the drizzle fights through the mist just outside his two-story home several miles south of Dunlap, Tennessee. It’s just a 45-minute drive from the university where he used to play football as a preferred walk-on. Just months ago, it was the promise of a scholarship that helped him endure his freshman year. Just months ago, Cates was a linebacker that seemed primed for the spotlight.
A few months, though, can mold an entire lifetime.
It seemed like any other football player’s dream: work hard and move up the depth chart and maybe have a chance at the professional level. They never dream that, one day, their career on the gridiron would shrivel up. Even if they do, that moment is years away.
Cates’ case was an exception. Ten minutes was all it took to end a football career that had barely even begun to get off the ground.
EARLY ON, it was clear that Cates was a product of a family with a football legacy known by those who still live in the Dunlap community he grew up in. It was at an early age that he first found football because it was a joy, a hobby even.
“I loved little league football,” A grin appeared on his face as he spoke. “Especially when I was playing seniors. It was fun because you didn’t have to worry about working out. You didn’t have to worry about the right technique.”
As he progressed from the little leagues into the high school ranks, the techniques and schemes were overwhelming for some of his peers, but Cates had a leg up on this teammates.
“With my dad playing at Vanderbilt and all my uncles playing sports at the college level, they taught me the techniques,” Cates explains. “I was pretty hard-headed growing up, but I knew a little technique. The most fun thing was not worrying about everything and just going out and hitting people.”
The gridiron, though it brought him to Chattanooga, was not Cates’ calling initially. As he hit his sophomore year of high school, he was faced with an ultimatum: play the sport that his father, his uncles, and his two older brothers had played or forge his own path.
“Going into high school, I almost didn’t play football,” says Cates. “I was so worn out on it. That’s all I did. I would go to Chattanooga three days a week and…work on speed and strength. I was burnt out on it.”
In the end, it was his father, Tony Cates, and his father’s support that ultimately drove Cates towards a path in the de facto family tradition.
“He told me ‘it’s your decision, and if you don’t want to play, you don’t have to,’” Cates remembered. “‘I’m not going to force you to.’ Really, if he would have said, ‘you’re playing,’ I probably wouldn’t have played. He could care less about football, surprisingly. He said that all it does is beat your body up.”
The toll of a football career, though, never dawned on Cates after that conversation. Cates never suffered from major injuries in his four years at Sequatchie County High School, even starting games as a freshman.
Unless you consider concussions a major injury.
“Freshman year, I had a couple of them, nothing crazy,” Cates recalled, chuckling when asked if he had had any concussions when he was in high school. “The first major one was probably sophomore year. We were playing a rival, South Pittsburg, and I was at linebacker. I was running after the quarterback and this running back just cracks me.”
He forms a fist and taps it against his temple as he explains the moment.
“They just made a first down on the play. And here I was yelling ‘Punt team! Punt team!’ Davenport looked at me and told they just got a first down. And I was out of it. I was like ‘Oh no! Really?!”
A grin forms on his face as memories start to flood in. Even the ones that are now a blur between the glows of stadium lights on a Friday night and the pitch black of a concussion blackout.
“When you have a concussion and you get to your senior year and you’ve already had a bunch before that, you’re kind of used to the feeling, but you’re just out of it and you’re angry,” Cates explains in his living loom that resemble the interior of a cabin with an American flag covering the wall behind him. “After the games, I would be really mad. I would have black up and under my eyes, and I would be dazed off. Davenport would ask me, ‘Are you going to be alright to drive home?’”
His senior year, though, was arguably the best season of his career and his team’s best since 1973. The Sequatchie County Indians were rolling, undefeated heading into the playoffs, and there was a sense that every play mattered more. The community was rallying around the team, and the pressure to perform and not sit out was at an all-time high for the players.
A teammate of Cates, Garrett Castle, injured his spine earlier in the season, and he saw how devastated the community was when he was forced to give up football, or so he thought. Castle was later released by doctors in the midst of a playoff run, and was crucial to that year’s 13-1 run by the Indians, ending in a semifinal loss to state powerhouse Alcoa.
“When you love football so much, it’s just hard to go and tell someone, ‘Hey man I have a concussion,’” Cates continued. “You don’t say a word if you’re out of it. You just fake it.”
“I loved hitting people. I was addicted to the feeling of my helmet hitting somebody else’s helmet. I didn’t care. I would put my head down going 100 miles per hour, but a concussion never scared me.”
IT’S OCTOBER 2017. At Fork Union Military Academy, practice is in full swing for a recruiting event. Fork Union is a prep academy that works somewhat like a junior college. High school recruits enroll there to build character and, more importantly, to get recruited by Division I programs. The only difference is that an academy like Fork Union keeps players from losing a year or two eligibility, meaning recruits step into Division I programs as a true freshmen even though they played for a year outside of high school.
Big-time FBS and FCS programs are in attendance for the practice, scouting potential recruits for the 2018 cycle. Programs like Wagner and Chattanooga were hoping to find their next breakout player in the midst of the Virginian military academy’s campus.
Running through drills, Cates and other players were vying for attention, sometimes risking life and limb for a chance at big-time college football. The pressure to get a call from a college coach is overwhelming for a high school recruit, but for the players at Fork Union, it is through the roof because, for many, it is their last chance, a year removed from their prep days.
“We were in the middle of the season at FUMA and colleges were already signing our players,” Cates remembered. “The pressure there was crazy. You’re really putting in work there. Your parents are paying a pretty good amount of money to even send you there. You have to get recruited. That’s what you’re there for.”
Everything was routine that day. Cates woke up, had class, workouts, and then practice. The only exception was the extra pressure from recruiters that day. As he ran through a pull drill, it would become one he would never forget.
“It’s still my pride and joy,” Cates holds up a face mask that broke on that fateful day. A bend in the mask is marked by a large chunk of paint still hanging from the metal. “Actually, I was in the middle of a pulling drill on one of our linemen. I called him ‘Big Q.’ I came into him, and it was just a nasty hit. I really wanted to impress these coaches. I wanted an offer bad.”
The hit was so excruciating that coaches and recruiters alike noticed an immediate change in behavior. Cates shrugged it off. He had been there before. He had rocked or been rocked since his high school playing days. But something felt off.
“Sure enough, I felt that one,” Cates said. “I was out of it. They looked at me and asked if I wanted to take a little break real quick. And I was like, ‘Yeah.’”
He never spoke up about that concussion. When you split snaps with another player at your position most of the season and college recruiters are sniffing all over your highlight tapes, sitting out a week is a liability for your football career.
“[Fork Union] takes the concussions seriously,” Cates explained. “It’s not their fault that I kept going on with a concussion. I wouldn’t let them know because I was so good at faking it.”
“You can ask my family, I wasn’t the same Kyle. Normally, I’m laid back and easy to get along with like I am now. I got so used to that. I just thought that’s who I had become. I didn’t like it, but at the time, I just guessed that was me now.”
A CLOUD loomed over the head of Kyle Cates in the weeks and months after that October concussion. His diligence and hard-headedness earned him a call from second-year Mocs head coach Tom Arth, who gave him a preferred walk-on status with the promise of a scholarship when the current starters at linebacker graduated. Though he had finally achieved his dream of playing at a Division I program, his mind was elsewhere. He would fake a smile. He compensated his depressive state with jokes and cheering others up, even when he himself could not see the light of day.
His parents could tell that this was not the same Kyle Cates that they raised in little league football and out in the woods where his dad gave him the gift of hunting. This was not the same Kyle Cates that was a leader on a program best 13-1 squad during his senior year at Sequatchie County. This was not the same Kyle Cates that they sent off to Fork Union for a shot at a big-time college offer.
“You can ask my family, I wasn’t the same Kyle,” Cates recalled. “My girlfriend I had the time, she noticed that something was up. I was mean. Normally, I’m laid back and easy to get along with like I am now. I got so used to that. I just thought that’s who I had become. I didn’t like it, but at the time, I just guessed that was me now.”
Cates struggled to come to grips with the person he had become. He did not recognize the man in the mirror. He even hated himself at times.
Initially, he thought that it was the result of the concussion. He remembered those stints in the locker room after football games when he would be angry at everything. Teammates would have to calm him down and ask if it was even safe for him to drive. He thought that this could account for the stranger he saw in his mirror. As time went on, he thought it was a permanent personality.
Then issues began to pop up that could not be chalked up to character traits or behavior parameters. One day, while in an engineering class, his mind was in a scary place, and he knew something was amiss.
“I started to lose the ability to read really good,” Cates recalled as the skies outside his full-glass windows subsided to night. “I couldn’t read at all. I couldn’t read the words, they were getting all jumbled up. I started doing bad in my classes. I was thinking, ‘Man this ain’t normal.’”
As his cognitive ability was starting to wane, Cates remembered what had happened the week before in a routine football practice.
“I came up on the fullback,” Cates said. “It was a pretty good hit. I knew I was out of it. That was the second worst hit I’ve had other than the one at Fork Union. After that, I couldn’t read good, and I was constantly just confused. The coach said, ‘It looked like he was on drugs or something.’”
When he connected the dots between that concussion and his lack of academic success, he called up his mother who recommended he be checked out. A team doctor from Erlanger Sports Medicine eventually ran tests on Cates.
“It took him about 10 minutes to figure out what was wrong,” Cates explained. “They came in 10 minutes after they ran some tests and they were like, ‘Hey, you can’t ever play football again. You’ve had all these concussions. You know, one more hit and you could die. Your brain’s swollen.’”
The doctors diagnosed him with Secondary Impact Syndrome, a condition the resulted from Cates’ brain never recovering from concussions. His brain was swollen for nearly a year while he finished out his season at Fork Union and began at Chattanooga in the fall of 2018. He received minor concussions between the October 2017 incident and the major one he received while practicing with the Mocs. The swelling never went down, and if a concussion happens while the brain is swollen, it could potentially be deadly.
“I held it all in,” Cates remembered, the smile now fading as he fought his emotions on the wooden wrap-around porch adorned with Christmas lights. “I went to McKenzie Arena where our locker room is, and I called Dad. I couldn’t hold it in. I busted out crying, and he came over there. Luckily, I had the trainers, and they helped with my rehab and cryotherapy.”
The pain Cates felt was not only emotional, but as he finally let his brain and skull recover, he was in deep physical pain
“My head was on fire, burning really bad,” Cates said. “There was a constant headache. If I was driving, the headaches were so bad that I was borderline reckless. Dad told me we need to get you out of here.”
“As a Christian, you just have to trust God. If it’s your plan, God can change it in a heartbeat.”
THE THREE biggest pastimes of the South are manifested in Kyle Cates. Football is the obvious one. The other two define what life after football means for him: God and hunting. He still remembers the first time he shot a deer.
“I was with the Game Warden,” Cates chuckled as he told the story. “We were up on a mountain, and it was like five degrees outside. I think I was like 10 or 11 maybe. A bunch of does came out and I shot one, and I was so excited. It took forever for the excitement to die.”
Almost as if it were divine timing, Cates and his father went to Kansas on a hunting trip shortly after he received the news that he would not be able to play football. They had planned the trip, and they thought he would not be able to go because it conflicted with football.
“I knew God would show me something,” Cates recalled. “Sure enough, the Kansas trip opened my eyes. It gave me a lot of time to think by myself. I think he was trying to tell me that there are a lot of people you can touch in the outdoor community. I knew, at that point, that it was probably where I needed to be.”
The life of Kyle Cates had come full circle. He loved hunting and then football. Then he was forced to give up football and founding hunting in the ashes. When he’s not finishing up his degree, he’s hunting or filming others hunting. Just weeks ago, he shot the unconfirmed state record deer with a 17-point rack and a big score that’s still being calculated.
For Cates, his life may have seemed to take an unexpected severe left turn, but when you ask him if he would change a single moment, he remains persistent that he would not.
“As a Christian, you just have to trust God,” Cates explained. “If it’s your plan, God can change it in a heartbeat. You can waste a lot of time doing that. Obviously, that wasn’t my plan to stop playing football, and I loved every single minute that I played, but he took me away in a scary path so I would never have to go back to it.
His beaming personality is in stark contrast to the situation that unfolded in his life, but today he stands (or sits in his rocking chair rather) happy about the time God gave him to play the sport he loves. He’s even more thankful when thinks about the plan God has now, involving his first love of hunting.