Former Eastern Washington wide receiver Jeff Ogden details life of football and battle with CTE in autobiography
“You can’t make it up!” was a common phrase going around the Eastern Washington University athletic department in recent years while witnessing extraordinary, rare feats of skill – or otherwise – on the fields and courts in Cheney, Wash.
But that was well after the odyssey of Jeff Ogden.
Ogden’s life story is perhaps the best paradigm that can be found in the strange but true of collegiate and professional football. The before and after is just as riveting as the Hall of Fame career he had on the gridiron at EWU in the mid-1990s.
His story has been told in bits and pieces in the last 25 or so years. And now, it’s told by the 46-year-old Jeff Ogden himself, who played four seasons of football at EWU and went on to a five-year stint in the NFL.
Introducing “Tackle Life Head On: A Playbook on Defeating Life’s Obstacles.”
Ogden does not hold anything back in this 170-page paperback book spanning a lifetime of obstacles thrown in his way. Obstacles, that is, tossed at his head, face, femur, arm, shoulder, etc., and now his fragile brain. Hence the “Head On” reference in the title.
It’s an uplifting tale, a gloomy tale, a motivating tale and what he hopes is an inspirational tale. He wants it used as a “playbook for anyone who thinks their goals are unattainable or their challenges insurmountable.”
The ending, perhaps a sad one given the uncertainty of the disease he is fighting, has yet to be told.
Now residing in Denton, Texas, on the outskirts of Dallas, he dedicates the book to his daughter, Peytan, who was born in 2000 as the result of a relationship Jeff had while playing in Dallas for the Cowboys. As he battles memory loss, mental illness, sleep deprivation and other symptoms of the now well-known CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), Ogden had one major goal in mind.
“I essentially decided to write the book for my daughter,” says Ogden. “I wanted to put things down on paper before I’ve forgotten them so she would know what my life was like.”
He began writing the book earlier this year in February, and he says, “it was very therapeutic.”
“There are variables that kind of sets my brain off and I kind of shut down and disappear,” he explains. “It’s almost like my brain is overheating; it’s over-stimulated and I can’t handle a lot of things at once. I try to retreat and get back to zero, and add one thing at a time. I’ve found that planning and routine are much more important, and having purpose and direction.
“Those things have been able to keep me going,” he adds. “There have been some dark times in the recent past.”
The book is available via: https://liveheadon.com and is also available via Amazon.
The “can’t make it up” story begins in his childhood, and his parents, Lloyd and Janet Ogden, had their hands full with Jeff at a young age. With a variety of “clubfoot” ailments that required him to wear casts to elongate his feet, doctors fully expected Jeff to walk, but with a limp, and maybe not be able to run. Later, he had to wear boots with braces at night to continue the healing process.
That was just the start. Asthma, eczema (skin swelling), migraines and ADHD were all setbacks he had to overcome at a young age. Plus, there were those four stress fractures in his back in high school. He played a variety of football positions at Snohomish (Wash.) High School, but at 5-foot-9 and 157 pounds, he was “out-muscled, out-skilled and out-played,” as he says in the book.
He also competed in basketball and track and field before graduating from Snohomish in 1993, and although football was his passion, he wasn’t on the radar of any colleges. Instead, he went to Clackamas Community College in Oregon to compete in the pole vault and throw the javelin, and, eventually hoped to become a decathlete.
It didn’t take long for Ogden to yearn for football again, and that’s where his brother Pat came in. Pat was an EWU safety from 1986-89, and convinced the coaching staff to allow Jeff to walk on, including then-head coach Mike Kramer.
Before he left for EWU, Jeff received some parting words – ones he would use as motivation. As he points out in his book, a Clackamas coach told him: “You’ll never go as far in football than as a pole vaulter. You’ll get killed.”
Oh yes, Jeff also left Oregon with torn foot ligaments playing pick-up basketball while at Clackamas. But all of that aside, he moved in with Pat in Spokane and began his football dream in the spring of 1994.
Calling him a fish out of water at EWU is an understatement. At his first team meeting he met fellow walk-on Harry Leons, and their close friendship on and off the field commenced.
He had grown some, but he was still just 5-10, 170 pounds when he arrived in Cheney.
In fact, Ogden was uniformed in equipment room leftovers – oversized pants, high-top cleats and large shoulder pads were the start, and adding a rib protector only made him more bulky. When you are No. 15 on a wide receiver depth chart with 15 players, you just don’t have much say in the matter.
His learning curve was steep too. He thought Will, Mike and Sam were actual names of defensive players, not the common names for the three linebacker positions.
But, all the same, “My dream was taking shape,” he remembers.
He also earned the affectionate nickname “Oggie” by his teammates, and was turning heads in practice. In a total of five scrimmages in the spring and fall of 1994, he caught 14 passes for 493 yards (35.2 yards per catch) and five touchdowns. At some point, he was dubbed EWU’s “Heisman Trophy Candidate.” He still hadn’t seen a down in a real game, so he was essentially being mocked, and he played along.
He played in just two games in the 1994 season, catching one pass for four yards for a team that finished just 4-7 overall and 2-5 in the Big Sky Conference. But he was rewarded with a partial scholarship for the 1995-96 school year, and it was easy to understand.
“Determination and physical and mental preparedness would separate me from the other players in the future,” he says in the book. Indeed, he worked out with his brother in the offseason, taking the bare minimum of what the coaching staff expected of him and expanded on it.
By the fall of 1995 he earned a starting position, but a back injury sidelined him for most of the season. Thought to possibly be career ending (and dream ending), he was able to return for the final game of the season and finished the year with two catches for 36 yards. Eastern was beaten soundly in that game 62-35, and the team finished just 3-8 on the season and 1-6 in the league.
As a junior in 1996, he saw action in 10 games – four as a starter – and finished with 10 catches for 216 yards. The team improved to 6-5 overall and 4-4 in the league, but still ended with a three-game losing streak.
With just 13 catches and no touchdowns in his first three seasons in the program, nobody saw what came next for Ogden or the team.
A sound chemistry on and off the field with Leons was the start. Leons, in fact, was a rags to riches story in his own right, having thrown five interceptions in his first career start for EWU and at one point tried to play for the school’s basketball team.
Ogden started the 1997 season with three touchdown catches in each of EWU’s first three games versus a pair of lower division foes. But he also came up huge for the big games too, like his 217 yards and three touchdowns (on just six catches) at Montana that catapulted the Eagles to the Big Sky Conference title and three NCAA Football Subdivision (then known as I-AA) playoff games. He earned national player of the week honors for his effort.
“We dethroned the kings of the conference,” he says in the book of the 40-35 victory. “It was after this game that I, and everyone else, knew our team was going to be special.”
Two weeks later, in a rivalry game against Idaho, he had 151 yards receiving with some key catches down the stretch. During EWU’s game-winning drive in the 24-21 victory, he was knocked unconscious on a completion near the goal line. Leons would always tell him “don’t worry, I won’t hurt you,” but on this occasion it happened. Ogden quickly regained consciousness, but his teammates had to finish off the victory.
The Eagles would win just the school’s second Big Sky title in history with a 7-1 record, and finished 12-2 overall to set a school record for victories. The season ended a victory short of reaching the national championship game, with a 25-14 loss to Youngstown State in the semifinals.
Enough went right individually for Ogden to raise some eyebrows at the next level.
He became the only football player in school history to earn both NCAA Football Championship Subdivision All-America honors and Academic All-America honors in the same season – until a guy named Cooper Kupp came along 20 years later.
In 1997, Ogden established school records at the time of 71 catches for 1,376 yards and 13 touchdowns, including playoff games. He closed his career with 84 receptions for 1,632 yards and 13 touchdowns, and his average of 19.4 yards per reception stood as a school record for two years.
Ogden’s story got more interesting when he defied the odds to actually make the roster of the Dallas Cowboys in summer of 1998. But before that came to fruition, Ogden had to be scouted and signed first.
At the conclusion of his career, he figured he was ready to finish his bachelor’s degree, work on his master’s and start his teaching career in special education. Jeff even planned to keep his apartment in Cheney through at least September, because he knew the odds were stacked against him to get the opportunity to play professional football.
After his senior season, in a workout in Cheney in front of a Dallas Cowboys scout, Ogden says “Harry and I seemed to be on the same, perfect page.” Ogden had now grown to the six-foot mark, and was nearing his eventual pro weight of 192.
There was no call during the NFL Draft in spring of 1998, but there were some calls afterward for Ogden. He fielded about 10 offers to join teams as a free agent, and even shunned his hometown favorite, Seattle.
But with Dallas having a new head coach in Chan Gailey and featuring a wide-open four-receiver offense, he thought Dallas would be his best opportunity.
He seized it, and like he did at Eastern, he paid his dues. However, Ogden went to a Cowboys mini-camp shortly after his signing with the goal to “not get cut.”
Ogden labored even harder to prepare for training camp later in the summer. He worked on his special teams skills to absorb “the more you can do” mantra. He fielded punts, he fielded kickoffs, he served as a tackling dummy for the starting defense and he volunteered for all the kick coverage units. He even served as personal water boy for legendary Dallas offensive lineman Larry Allen.
Ogden’s first preseason game was versus Seattle and he recalls making a couple of catches, one setting up a touchdown. His attempt to make the team then became jeopardized because of a quadriceps injury that sidelined him for 10 practices. At the time, he thought it would be a death sentence for one of 95 players competing for 53 roster spots.
In his last preseason game, after quickly subbing in for another player, he had a long gain with a difficult catch. He recalls hearing later that an assistant coach said, “Oggie just made the team with that catch.”
On cut-down day, still not knowing his fate, a dumbfounded but hopeful Ogden sat in his locker for 20 minutes before suiting up for practice. “I felt completely out of place” he says in the book. Eventually he put on his practice gear and went to practice, and stood in awe alongside Cowboys legends Deion Sanders, Troy Aikman, Allen, Michael Irvin, Emmitt Smith and 47 others as Gailey said, “Gentlemen, welcome to the 1998 Dallas Cowboys.”
“Neon Deion” was on the defensive side of the ball, and went against Ogden plenty of times, and gave the rookie wide receiver the nickname “Largent.” It was certainly a term of endearment Ogden cherished, because it was after arguably the best receiver in Seattle Seahawks history, and one of the best in NFL history, period.
Then came the hardest part of being in the NFL – absorbing the blows, staying humble in the face of popularity and holding on to that coveted roster spot.
The platform the NFL presented him was immense, due mostly to the recognition factor associated with being on the 53-man roster. But khaki cargo shorts and flip flops to your first public appearance? “Come on man” was the quip by Sanders after viewing the underdressed Ogden.
The Tuesday after cutdown day was an annual Cowboys luncheon where the team was introduced to the public, mainly sponsors. “What do you have on Largent?” Sanders asked, and promptly provided his own baby blue, penguin-style suit jacket to at least let the rookie look presentable from the waist up.
After catching a total of seven passes for 126 yards in the preseason, he played in all 16 regular season games for the Cowboy as a rookie. He caught eight passes for 63 yards, had one rush for 12 yards, returned three kickoffs for a 21.7 average and had 10 special teams tackles. His best day as a rookie came versus Seattle when he caught four passes for 26 yards, had his 12-yard rush and added a tackle on special teams.
He made the Cowboys roster again the next year, and caught 12 passes for 144 yards, returned 12 kickoffs for a 21.0 average and had four punt returns for a 7.0 average. All the while, he made countless public appearances and thought he had found a long-time home.
With an increase in playing time correlating with his increase in fun, Ogden was enjoying his second voyage from obscurity to popularity. Overachiever, hard-working, devout Christian, selfless – there are many different ways to describe him, then and now. They all fit the persona of an amazingly humble athlete who was playing at a level of professional sports that usually feeds the ego and pads the wallet.
His popularity soared when he spent the spring/summer of 2000 leading the Rhein Fire of NFL Europa to the regular season championship (7-3 record) and the championship in the World Bowl. He earned All-Europa honors – “All-World” if you will – after ranking third in the league in receiving with 44 catches for 635 yards and seven touchdowns.
That successful extra season may not have even happened had Ogden taken another fork in the road. While at training camp in Orlando, Fla., prior to leaving for Europe, Peytan was born. He made it to Dallas for her birth, but was so amazed at the little bundle of joy that he wanted to retire then and there.
But his family helped convince him otherwise, mainly because he was just a season and four games from becoming vested in the NFL pension fund. As it turned out, he reached that threshold on Oct. 28, 2001, versus his hometown team, the Seattle Seahawks.
Despite a late-season foot injury that would have normally sent a player back to the United States for treatment, Ogden was allowed to stay in Europe and finish what he started – a goal of becoming a better player for the Cowboys in the future. He saw his first action in 21 days when he played in the World Bowl, and he and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones embraced on the field after the thrilling win.
Six weeks later, Jones traded him to the Miami Dolphins. He was reunited with Gailey, who was Miami’s new offensive coordinator after also being let go by Jones after two seasons in Dallas.
The move to the Dolphins turned Ogden’s personal life upside down with his newborn daughter back in Dallas still. But his pro career flourished for two seasons in Florida, as he became a record-breaking returner for the Dolphins.
He set five records for the Dolphins – two in the regular season and three in the playoffs – and his 13.7 career punt return average was a franchise best. In two NFL Playoff games for Miami, he had a pair of catches and six punt returns for a 13.1 average with a long of 45.
He concluded his career in 2002 by playing in three games for the Baltimore Ravens and had two punt returns for 21 yards. His pursuit of perfection on the gridiron was caused by the “constant fear of being cut on Monday.” Eventually, he was, and his nine-year collegiate/professional football career was over.
In all, he played in all 31 NFL stadiums and, not surprisingly, Lambeau Field was his favorite. In five NFL seasons, he played in 67 regular season games – including 64 of a possible 64 games in his first four years in the league. He finished with 28 catches for 304 yards (10.9 average) and one touchdown, plus two had 57 punt returns (one an 81-yard touchdown), 15 kickoff returns and also played on kick coverage units.
But that wasn’t all he left football with. And now the sad tale ensues.
Ogden took on his “permanent off-season” head-on, and it began fairly normal. He had started the Catch A Star Foundation, with the intent to help foster children find homes. Through a variety of fundraising initiatives, during its three years of existence the foundation raised enough to provide adoption assistance, place two children in permanent homes and provide educational scholarships to others.
“I am humbled that my ability to catch a football enabled me to help others,” he says.
He became a personal trainer and opened a gym in Pittsburgh, and was able to make the short trip to see his alma mater Eagles play West Virginia in 2006. He coached at several different levels, including a women’s professional team.
He also made an appearance on the television reality show called “Millionaire Matchmaker,” when suddenly “it seemed like every woman in town knew who I was. Needless to say, all of this was awkward and sometimes unnerving.”
What became most unnerving was the toll on his body from the countless hits and injuries he had endured, mostly in the NFL.
Back when he played, there was no baseline testing for concussions as there is now. Basically, players would be asked “can you go back in?” and more often than not the answer was yes.
Ogden remembers a helmet-to-helmet hit while in Miami that bent his facemask so much that his helmet was so oblong that it no longer fit properly. He recalls another helmet-to-helmet contact on a pass play versus Denver. He once suffered what he thought was a broken collarbone, but that turned out to be a dislocated shoulder. He went back into the game, although that arm was rendered useless.
The one he remembers most – but actually doesn’t remember – was against Berlin while in Europe. As teammates related to him later, he was tackled and then stood dazed on the opponent sideline instead of going back to his own team’s bench. Medical personnel ushered him back to the Rhein sideline, but his only recollection of that time frame was going into the locker room at halftime.
Amazingly, he was allowed to play in the second half and he recalls the team was down 20-0 before rallying for a 28-27 win. He scored two touchdowns and had a kickoff return of 75 yards, despite having to be told each down what pattern to run because he couldn’t remember the plays.
To help relieve the anxiety of his parents at games, he would knock on his helmet after plays to signify, “mom, I’m fine.” But even Ogden admits he wasn’t fine much of the time.
His “permanent off-season” days deteriorated rapidly into a constant battle with mental health. In 2008 he returned to EWU to be honored on the 100-for-100 all-time team, commemorating the best players in Eastern’s 100-year football history. It was a miracle he even made it back to campus.
A year earlier, he had plans to open a “Wellness Bed and Breakfast” in Hidden Valley, Pa. He was going to live there, and have week-long retreats to help guests “train the body, heart, mind and soul.” But shortly before closing on the house, he was involved in a head-on collision with a vehicle driving in the wrong lane. “In that split second, my body was shattered,” he says in the book – perhaps an understatement.
Ogden’s right femur snapped, and exited his thigh. His left arm was shattered and he had a compound fracture in his foot. Surgeries ensued, including one to place a plate in his face by inserting it through his eyelid. He had a plate placed in his forearm, and a titanium rod in his femur, attached to his hip and knee with screws.
He took the accident as a wake-up call, a second chance. “God created me for more than just my physical abilities.” He moved back to Austin, Texas, to be closer to his daughter and pave a new path. But the physical part of the equation would not cooperate.
He saw a “block” to basic life tasks and functions occurring. His anxiety had progressed to full-blown panic attacks, and he was imprisoned by it.
“I had always thought that fighting for a roster spot with the Cowboys would be my greatest obstacle,” he relates in the book.
At one point, Ogden checked himself into a psychiatric hospital where he was asked if he was suicidal. He didn’t want to die, but he was adamant that he couldn’t and wouldn’t live like this. “Being conscious and alive is torturing me every day,” he told them.
Although CTE can’t be completely diagnosed until death, it’s a brain disease with no cure and only treatments. To this day, Ogden has the symptoms – including anxiety, depression, the inability to sleep and, of course, memory loss. He knows it will only get worse as time goes by.
He’s most afraid of losing his memory, which is occurring with increasing regularity, as he relates in the book. “My greatest fear is not that I would die from CTE,” he says, “it’s that I’ll stop living and be defeated before I’m able to make one last difference.”
He wrote this, as part of a poem he created in 2016:
What life have I
When no longer needed
No alarm to set
On Sept. 22, 2018, when the Eastern Washington football team took on Cal Poly at Roos Field in Cheney, Ogden was there with a large contingent of family and friends. They were all there for his induction into the Eastern Athletics Hall of Fame, and even reaching the peak of achievement at the university couldn’t keep him from being humble.
After seeing his receiving records tumble through the years, he knows it’s easy to be lost and forgotten. “Now I’m like 18th and 39th on these EWU receiving records, so now I’m wondering how I am even in the Hall of Fame,” Ogden joked to reporter. “No, but I really am happy and honored.”
He was living in North Carolina at the time, but didn’t stay there long. He then moved to Bothell, Wash., for a year during the Covid-19 pandemic to be closer to his family – the first time he lived in Western Washington for an extended period of time since high school.
But that’s when he returned to Texas, to be near Peytan, who lives barely five miles away from him. She is 21 now.
Now, in December of 2021, he is just starting the process of selling his new book. He also plays disc golf regularly, an activity both his body and mind approve of – even competitively at times.
“It may sound weird to a lot of people, but it’s a part of my routine,” he says of the sport he’s played for about four years now. “It was something I could do competitively even though I wasn’t with somebody. You can still play against your own score. You are walking, are in nature and in the sun moving. It’s a great community with nice people, and I like sharing the game with everybody.”
The upside is that few – if any – participants have ever received a concussion playing the sport.
He even hopes sales from the book are good enough to provide financial resources toward a new passion of his within the sport of disc golf.
“Eventually I’d like to make more disc golf courses handicapped accessible,” he says, mentioning friends and acquaintances who have been in the military and suffer from their own physical and mental ailments. “We want to increase an awareness and make them more available – instead of hills and rocky paths, maybe making some courses that can be used for that purpose. It’s an adaptive sport for individuals who don’t want to get hit – at least most of the time.”
Only time will tell if “Oggie” continues to remember his times in Cheney, his times in the NFL and his time with his family and friends. But the book – a piece of non-fiction and not a mere fable – will endure all elements of time. His wish to tell Peytan his story will come true – a story that, indeed, “you can’t make it up.”
Dave Cook spent 35 years as a college Sports Information Director, first at Eastern Washington University, then at Idaho and then back for his final 30 at EWU. A lifelong Washingtonian, his love for all things athletics, music, reading and running in the region are topped only by his penchant for writing what he terms as “more than anyone could ever need or care to know.”