Senior Staff Writer
For many basketball players, there is an adage that basketball is life. But for Davidson’s Jake Belford ’16, a healthy life comes before basketball. After suffering the fifth concussion of his career in early December, the senior forward has decided to hang up the shoes and put down the ball. He is retiring from the game of basketball.
Concussions have become perhaps the hottest issue in sports medicine, and with good reason. Recent research has discovered and begun to reveal more about chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a brain disease found in some athletes with repetitive brain trauma that causes dementia, depression, memory loss, and other degenerative symptoms.
The concussion issue has made headlines across American sports culture, from the recent blockbuster movie, “Concussion”, starring Will Smith, to the mental health issues and deaths of retired football players like Junior Seau. Just last week, former Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antwaan Randle El said that he wished he wouldn’t have played football at all.
With all the national attention given to the concussion issue in football, we wouldn’t expect it to land on our doorstep at Davidson College in the substantially less violent sport of basketball.
But while we might not expect a Wildcat to be one of the first high-profile college basketball players to deal with the controversy, we would expect him to conduct himself with the maturity, intelligence and leadership of a Davidson student athlete, and that’s exactly what Belford has done. After recommendations from team doctors, and understanding the potential consequences of a continued career, Belford decided to set an example and stop playing the game he loves.
Sitting down with me last week, the political science major handled the conversation about his injury-riddled career gracefully, seemingly without regret. “I’ve always been the kind of guy to accept what happens,” he told me. “It’s all about how you react to it.”
For most high-level athletes, seeing a career and the game you love and have worked so hard for slip away in one painful instant would be devastating. But Belford isn’t most athletes. He says it’s how he was raised. Hailing from Battle Ground, WA, Belford entertained a variety of interests and sports, but eventually settled on basketball, making the all-league and all-area teams as both a junior and senior in high school.
Belford, however, wasn’t highly recruited coming out of high school. The sharpshooting big man quickly fit in at Davidson, though, and it was only a matter of time until he would stand out. After scoring a career-high 20 points against Campbell and adding double figures against nationally-ranked North Carolina at the beginning of his junior season, Belford was beginning to look like Coach McKillop’s next star forward.
But after just six games last season, Belford suffered a non-contact, season-ending knee injury in practice. The talented Wildcats were still able to go on to win the Atlantic 10 Championship in their first season in the conference and gain Davidson’s first at-large NCAA tournament bid, but Belford was forced to watch from the sidelines. “I really wish I could’ve been out there contributing, but I contributed in other ways,” Belford explained. “It actually made me feel better that the team did so well. That was fun to watch.”
This season, then, was poised to be Belford’s breakout year. The Wildcats returned nine of their top 10 scorers and added Belford, who gave them another dimension coming back from injury. He had suffered his fourth concussion a year and a half earlier, so the issue was not really at the top of his mind. “Certainly if there’s a loose ball you don’t want to go head-first into it, but I wasn’t really playing with any inhibitions,” he said.
Indeed, Belford got off to a fast start, recording 10 points and 12 rebounds in Davidson’s season-opening win over UCF and 7’6” center Tacko Fall. But before he got the chance to really find his groove, he took a blow to the head in the Wildcats’ sixth game, at North Carolina, that resulted in his fifth concussion. “It was unfortunate and it was unlucky and it wasn’t anybody’s fault or anything,” he said, “but I knew I had to be done.”
His doctors highly recommended that Belford stop playing, but in the end it was his decision. “The [Davidson] coaching staff and the training staff and the doctors – everyone was so supportive. There was never any pressure to come back early or anything like that,” Belford said. “They wanted to make sure I took my time and recognized the danger of the situation. That made my decision to quit playing a lot easier.”
Belford decided that his future mental health was more important than a couple more seasons of basketball. “I’ve played basketball for 16 years. Hopefully I’ll have many, many more and won’t really remember how to play,” he joked. “It’s not that big of a deal when you’re talking about a whole life to live.”
He knows that he is more than just a basketball player, and believes his retirement is just a new beginning. “It would make no sense to sit and dwell and ask, ‘Why did that happen to me?’ I just want to take a new turn and discover something new,” Belford explained. “I’m done with basketball, but now I can commit myself more to the other things in my life.”
In the long run, Belford hopes to parlay a law degree into a job as an NBA executive or agent. But for now, those other things include reading books and assisting his teammates down the stretch of this senior season. In McKillop’s complex system, the Wildcats’ younger big men can use all the help they can get from their experienced senior. “I can’t play, but I can talk, and that’s a pretty useful skill,” he explained.
His choice has and will continue to echo throughout the college basketball and athletic communities. In fact, just a few weeks after Belford announced his retirement, Bernard Sullivan, a Charlotte player who also had a history of concussions, decided to end his playing career. “I want to be an example of someone who can put down his sport and still enjoy life,” Belford said.
He also holds open the opportunity to get involved in advocacy and raise awareness of concussions in basketball, especially for young athletes who have suffered brain injuries. “Having gone through it, there’re so many things people just don’t understand. It really is a mental struggle and easy to get down and depressed,” Belford said. “Whenever I talk to someone with concussions, they know I know how they feel.”
That people are beginning to realize the damage concussions can cause has helped Belford in the aftermath of his decision. According to Belford, his Davidson fans, classmates, and community appreciated the weight and aptitude of what he chose. “I think if I was anywhere else, I would’ve shut down,” he said. “At Davidson, there’s so much support, so much love all over the place, even from people not on the team. That made it a lot easier.”
“I haven’t come across anyone who says, ‘What do you think you’re doing? Get back out there,’” he laughed and proposed something that might sound ironic: “If there is a place to have a season-ending knee injury and concussions that force you into retirement, this would be the place.”
Belford’s battles with adversity at Davidson seem to have counterintuitively increased his appreciation for the school and the basketball program he holds so dear. “Everything about Davidson basketball is so great, but the actual playing of basketball is the thing that slips my mind the most,” he explained. “I urge younger kids to come to a program, because if something like this happens to you, being part of a program is going to make it all worth while. You’re not a number, not a stat, not just another jersey, you’re an actual person.”
That, combined with his recent decision to give up the game, has prepared Belford for the next chapter of a fulfilling life. “I think coming to Davidson made me a person that I love and can contribute to the world,” Belford said, “not just on the basketball floor.”