‘I just didn’t want him to be all alone’

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Brown coach Phil Estes made frequent visits to Harvard freshman football player Ben Abercrombie at Rhode Island Hospital after Abercrombie was paralyzed in game against the University of Rhode Island last month. [THE PROVIDENCE JOUR-NAL / GLENN OSMUNDSON]

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Harvard freshman football player Ben Abercrombie. [COURTESY OF HARVARD UNIVERSITY / GIL TALBOT]

When he first heard that Harvard freshman football player Ben Abercrombie had been severely injured playing against the University of Rhode Island in the first game of the season in Kingston, Phil Estes, the longtime Brown football coach, felt sick to his stomach.

Maybe it was because his son Brett is a senior football player at Brown.

Maybe it was because he’s been a football coach his entire adult life, has seen so many kids come and go in this old game that’s now firmly in the cross-hairs of controversy due to the too many reports of CTE found in the brains of deceased professional football players.

Maybe it was because he and his staff had once tried to recruit Abercrombie to come to Brown, although it had been one of his assistants who had done most of the recruiting.

Maybe it was all of it.

Whatever the reason, he began to visit Abercrombie at Rhode Island Hospital on the morning rides from his East Greenwich home to Brown, always bringing some doughnuts.

Maybe it was because he could envision his own son in a hospital far from home, one of those haunting visions.

And maybe it was because Abercrombie was part of the unofficial Ivy League football brotherhood, this unique football world of no athletic scholarships, where kids play for the love, this quirky little league that’s essentially been playing college football since the sport began, back at the tail end of the 19th century.

“I just didn’t want him to be all alone,” Estes said softly.

He was sitting in the Brown football office on a recent October morning, this dark-haired man who still looks like he could play a few minutes at left tackle for somebody.

He has been at Brown for 24 years now, the last 20 as head coach, arguably the best football coach at Brown in the so-called modern era.

But what he did those two weeks or so that Abercrombie was in Rhode Island Hospital now transcends whatever happens on a football field.

“I wanted him to be OK,” Estes said, “and I didn’t know what to do.”

So he would bring the doughnuts and sit in the room. Abercrombie was paralyzed from the neck down, and most of the time he was asleep when Estes was there. But Este s would stay anyway, as if that was his way of symbolically saying ‘I am here for you, I care, even if we’re not talking to each other.’ So he would sit there, almost as in a silent vigil, but also as a football brother.

Estes knows these are not the best of times for football, this game he loves and has spent his life in. He knows that concussions are the elephant in the locker room. He knows this game is now at a certain crossroads, a game that better find a way to make itself safer, or else its future is going to be as up in the air as a punt in the wind.

“I didn’t want him to be alone,” Estes said. “I wanted him to see people. Because I know that people care. I know that the Ivy League cares. I know that this is the brotherhood of Ivy League football.”

He paused for a second.

“And I didn’t know what else to do.”

Isn’t this every football coach’s nightmare, these men who stand on the sidelines and see the collisions, and hear them, too, the symphony of the game?

And then there are the players who don’t get up after those collisions, the ones who lay on the field after those collisions, the fallen soldiers, the price tag for all the cheers.

A few days ago Abercrombie left Rhode Island Hospital and was transported back home to Alabama and a treatment center there.

And on Friday morning, Estes was sitting in his office in the field house on Hope Street. He was preparing for Brown’s game against Princeton when the discussion turned to concussions.

“It’s the disturbing part of the game,” Phil Estes said quietly. “And it never leaves you.”

The elephant in the locker room.

—breynold@providencejournal.com On Twitter: @breynolds401