Enemy Within

Three-hundred-pound defensive linemen trying to turn him into roadkill aren’t the only hazards Terrell Davis faces in the National Football League. The star running back of the Denver Broncos, who has led the NFL in rushing for most of this season, is one of an estimated 23 million Americans afflicted with migraines—in his case, searing bouts of pain that can leave him dizzy, nauseous and temporarily half blind. Twice this season migraines knocked him out of games for a quarter; after taking medication, Davis was able to rejoin the action. “Playing football with a migraine is a combination that makes me sick just thinking about it,” says Davis, 24, “but I do it anyway.”

Migraines, which can be caused by certain foods, stress and other triggers, may sometimes be alleviated by simple painkillers, but often sufferers like Davis have no choice but to tough them out. The San Diego native, whose father, John, died of lupus during Davis’s freshman year of high school, knew virtually nothing about the nature of his headaches, which compounded his sense of isolation and fear. Currently single and living alone in a small Englewood, Colo., apartment—though he signed a five-year, $6.8 million contract with the Broncos last year—he spoke with correspondent Vickie Bane.

I WAS 7 YEARS OLD WHEN I GOT MY first migraine. I was in the Pop Warner football league in San Diego, where I grew up with my five brothers, and regular practice had just finished. I went over to the parking lot and leaned my back up against a fence to wait for my mom, Kateree, to pick me up, and when I looked back at the field I noticed that my vision was blurry. I would look at things and all I would see were these big blotches, and I got scared. I started to panic.

When my mom showed up, we got in the car, and on the way home my vision started to clear up. But just as it did, I got this huge pounding in my head. I don’t have the adjectives to describe the way it felt. As soon as I got home, the headache came on even stronger. I told my mom and she got me some soup and aspirin and put me to bed, but that didn’t work at all. I wound up in the bedroom crying because my head hurt so bad. Every little noise was amplified, and I was in constant pain. My head was pounding, pounding, pounding for at least two hours.

I finally fell asleep, and when I woke up, I got sick. After that my head still hurt, but not as much as before. About 3 in the morning I woke up with this hangover headache that lasted through the next day. At school, if I shook my head, it felt like Jell-O inside. As long as I walked around without making any sudden moves, I was okay. But if I sat up too quickly after lying down, I could feel the headache draining down from the top of my head. I’m not the kind of person to commit suicide, but at the time it was happening, I remember thinking that I didn’t want to live at all, the pain was so unbearably bad.

My second headache came when I was 13, but after that they started coming as often as every three weeks. What I found to be helpful was going into a dark, quiet, cool room, propping pillows behind my back, sitting up at an angle and just letting the headache drain for hours. Eventually I would fall asleep, and when I would wake up, I’d throw up. That would last for about 45 minutes to an hour, but the aftereffect, the hangover, could last for days. Probably my biggest worry was not having a name for it, not knowing what it was. At the time I thought everyone who had headaches felt like I did, so I didn’t think a doctor would help. I just had to deal with it.

One of the few people who knew about my headaches was my cousin Jemaul Pennington. We were the same age, and we were very close. He didn’t know what was wrong with me; he just knew that I would get sick sometimes and he would have to take care of me: get me some hot tea, shut off the lights and make sure nobody bothered me. We had big plans for our futures, how we were going to have all this money and drive nice cars and open up a club. Then, in 1994, he was shot and killed in San Diego. I still don’t know why, and I still miss him a lot.

I tried to keep everything about my headaches to myself. I thought people would think I was crazy if I told them what it was like. I didn’t put a name on what I had until I went to the University of Georgia in 1992. During football practice I got a headache, and one of the doctors told me, “You have classic migraines.” Migraines—it’s a harsh word. But at least now I finally had a name for it. Some people said to me, “Oh yeah, I get migraines too.” That gave me a sense of security. I figured if this many people have them, and they aren’t dead, obviously these things aren’t life-threatening.

When I went to a doctor about my migraines, he gave me Naprosyn, an analgesic and anti-inflammatory drug. From that day on, I would take a pill any time I would work out with the football team. It was a dramatic sense of relief. I only got migraines about twice a year after that.

I never had an episode during a game in college, so I never worried about having one in an NFL game. But then I got one during the second quarter of the Tampa Bay game in September. I was on the field, and all of a sudden there was this bright light. I couldn’t focus at all. I knew a migraine was coming, and I tried to stay in the game. I tried just seeing the ball and the defenders. But it wasn’t possible, and I left two plays later. I sat down on the bench and told the trainers I had a migraine, and they gave me Lidocaine, a nasal spray that numbs the migraine. I had never taken Lidocaine before, but after about 15 minutes the migraine went away. I actually went back into the game and did okay.

Then I got another migraine during the second quarter of the San Diego game on Oct. 6. My vision started to get blurry, and I had to come out. Again I took the Lidocaine and went back into the game and rushed for 45 more yards. Afterward the headache came on pretty bad. Some people thought it might have been originally caused by some hits I took during the game. I don’t know, because I get plenty of migraines when I’m not playing.

Since people saw a report about me on television, I’ve gotten thousands of calls and letters from people suggesting all kinds of things to try, many of which I was already doing. For instance, I avoid chocolate, and I don’t drink caffeinated soft drinks or tea. I also went to see a neurologist. She told me about basic triggers for migraines: nutritional choices, sunlight, stress, even altitude. That was a real education for me. She suggested certain things I shouldn’t eat, such as the food additive MSG, and certain vitamins I should add, like magnesium and zinc, in which I was deficient. After a year or two we should be able to tell more about what’s going on.

I got numerous letters telling me to check my TMJ—the hinged joints that connect the lower jaw to the skull. I went to see an orthodontist last summer, and now I’m wearing these retainers to correct my bite. I’m also going to have to wear braces during the off-season. I won’t know for at least a year if these things will help. My short-term solution is to take the anti-inflammatory Indocin three times on any workout day.

I will not try anything I think is outrageous. One guy suggested I rub my head against the ground in a clockwise motion for 15 minutes. Someone else told me to put hot tea bags on my eyes for 20 minutes. One person even said I should inject myself with horse urine.

I’m not the sort of person to make a big fuss about anything, so I don’t like to make a big deal about my migraines. Some people think I’m a hardened person, that I’m not emotional. Not true. I just deal with things inside. I haven’t had a headache since the San Diego game—knock on wood—so I won’t think about getting one when I’m in a game. I’ll just go out and play.

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