Battle Scars: Brennan Scarlett’s fight through injury

Michael Drummond/Senior Staff

The third metacarpal is just one of 27 bones in the human hand, but its role is crucial. Metacarpals connect the phalanges to the carpals. The fingers to the wrist. You can feel the back of your hand — right now, if you wish — and, through the skin, press on the metacarpals that give your hand its grip strength. You’ve used your third metacarpal if you’ve ever flipped someone the bird, but it does a whole lot more than that.

In 2012, Brennan Scarlett — then an outside linebacker in Cal’s 3-4 defense — fractured the third metacarpal in his left hand in a game against USC. It’s not a rare injury — most hand fractures involve the metacarpals. It’s often called a boxer’s fracture, because it usually happens when strong contact is made with the hand.

When Scarlett broke the bone Sept. 22, 2012, he didn’t think that much of it. It’s a 3-inch bone on a 245-pound linebacker. It’s the kind of injury plenty of guys play through — just put a cast on it, a “club,” as it’s known colloquially, and go out there and play one-handed.

Scarlett didn’t know at the time that the injury would eventually sideline him from competitive football for 707 days.

W
hen Scarlett was growing up in Portland, Oregon, his dad, Paul, who used to run track for BYU, turned his son onto sports from a young age.

“From the time I could walk, he would take me to the track,” Scarlett says. “I’d watch him run and work out with his buddies … That just translated into everything else.”

“Everything else” ended up being four sports at Central Catholic High School. He played middle linebacker on a team he helped lead to a league title. In the winter, he switched over to basketball, where he used his size to excel as a power forward and center. He sprinted for the track team, and, one year when he couldn’t play basketball, he jumped in the pool for the swim team.

With the laundry list of sports came a laundry list of injuries. Scarlett, now in his fourth year at UC Berkeley, can’t even remember all of them.

“If (the infection) had spread to the rest of my hand, who knows. Could have had it like amputated, or whatever. I don’t even want to think about what could have happened.”

— Brennan Scarlett

“I had a couple knees, collar bone,” Scarlett says. “I went through a lot. You know, high school was tough for me, as far as injuries go.”

It makes sense, then, that Scarlett didn’t take his hand injury — his metacarpal injury — as seriously as he would in hindsight. After he broke it on that Saturday in September, he had surgery the following Tuesday. He was back in practice on Wednesday with a club. He played that Saturday, recording five tackles and a sack.

“It was a mixture of me, if I can play I want to play, and also feeling the pressure from the staff, you know needing me out there,” Scarlett says. “It was a little mixture of both, I think.”

A later visit to the doctor showed he had broken it again while trying to play, only making the injury worse. So he took a week off, but returned the following week to play at Washington State in mid-October in limited action.

After a couple more weeks off, Scarlett played one last time against Washington in November. Even in cold months like November, “clubs” can get sweaty inside the bindings. Scarlett thought he was in the clear, but then the doctors told him he had a staph infection. He missed the final two games of the season and spent four days in the hospital.

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MICHAEL DRUMMOND/SENIOR STAFF

Scarlett got it cleared up, and it appeared fine. But when he went home for winter break, his hand started to puff up again, showing signs of another infection. Staph infections aren’t often serious, but, according to the Mayo Clinic, they “can turn deadly if the bacteria invade deeper into your body, entering your bloodstream, joints, bones, lungs or heart.”

“You know if you don’t catch an infection, and a bone infection especially — those things spread pretty quickly,” Scarlett says. “So if it had spread to the rest of my hand, who knows. Could have had it like amputated, or whatever. I don’t even want to think about what could have happened.”

The doctors did catch it early, and Scarlett was fine. They took out the bone in his hand and replaced it with a bone from his hip.

“It’s pretty wild what they can do with modern medicine,” Scarlett says. “I don’t have any troubles with my hand anymore or trouble with my hip.”

I
n the summer of 2013, Scarlett was ready to make his return to the team. He donned a red jersey for training camp, signifying that he was a “no contact” player, but he still participated in drills. There was no reason to think he wouldn’t see action.

Then the first game passed, and Scarlett sat. After a few weeks when things still didn’t feel right, Scarlett and the staff decided not to push it. The red jersey he wore in practice turned into a red shirt for the season.

“We were like, OK, maybe in a couple weeks it’ll be better, and it wasn’t fully healed, so it was like, let me not risk it,” Scarlett says. “You know, I’ve already been through so much with the hand and so I took the season off and just worked out, got stronger and got faster.”

Sitting during the 2013 season was tough for Scarlett. He could still do almost every workout — but he couldn’t help his teammates on the field. He was helpless as his “brothers” limped to a 1-11 season.

“He’s a natural, happy guy,” says Todd Barr, one of Scarlett’s teammates on the defensive line. “… but the whole ambiance around the team was that everyone was sad, and Brennan was right there along with us, also knowing that he couldn’t help us win.”

But as tough as this was on Scarlett, it didn’t compare at all to the devastation he and the whole Cal football team faced when defensive lineman Ted Agu collapsed during a teamwide training run. Agu was rushed to Alta Bates Summit Medical Center, but he died that day, Feb. 7. He was 21.

S
carlett first met Agu when he came on campus as part of the Summer Bridge program in 2011. Agu was a peer advisor.

“(Scarlett) is a real giggly guy, always has a smile on his face,”

— Todd Barr

“Ted was like, you know, he had a demeanor about him when he walked around — he kind of looked like, not like he’s mad, but like he’s all about his business,” Scarlett said.

Scarlett wouldn’t break through the tough exterior Agu projected for about a month. In the meantime, Scarlett told a couple of the players on the team he cut hair when he was in high school. It started with his little brother but soon moved on to his teammates. Agu was the first person to sit in Scarlett’s barber chair at UC Berkeley.

“He was the first guy, he gave me my shot, so I cut his hair and he told everyone else, ‘Yeah this guy, he gave me a good cut.’ So he helped me make a little side money,” Scarlett laughs.

From there, word spread.

“Once you cut someone’s hair, they’re walking around, they got a clean cut on their head, you know people are gonna ask like, ‘Oh, who got you?’ ” Scarlett says. “Like, ‘Brennan, you know, Brennan Scarlett. He got me this cut.’ ”

Soon, every Thursday, Scarlett would have players over to his dorm room so he could give them a cut. From Zach Maynard to Keenan Allen, Scarlett became the team barber in no time.

As the years passed, Agu and Scarlett bonded over late nights spent studying. One spring break, they drove up to Lake Havasu and spent the week there. Even now, Scarlett laughs and laughs when he describes the times he and Agu spent together.

“(Scarlett) is a real giggly guy, always has a smile on his face,” Barr says. “He’s just a natural, happy guy. He’s just a happy guy, always.”

Eventually, Scarlett and Agu created a plan they thought would make them both millionaires: their own app. Scarlett is purposefully coy about it — he doesn’t want to give away any secrets before it launches. But he will staunchly defend that he’s the one that came up with the idea.

“It’s funny, ’cause I came up with the idea a long time ago,” Scarlett says. “And he was like, ‘No! It’ll never work!’ and just shot me down. So, whatever. Then he came back to me and was like, ‘Hey, I got two friends that, you know, they’re trying to do this app,’ and he explained it to me. I was like, ‘I brought this up to you like a month ago. And you said you didn’t like it!’ and then he was like, ‘Yeah, I remember that, I remember that, but I think it can work!’ ”

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MICHAEL DRUMMOND/SENIOR STAFF

Agu introduced Scarlett to two other guys, and the group got to work, having weekly meetings to plan out their idea. But three weeks later, Agu passed away.

T
he app is still in the works. Scarlett says they’re in the later stages of developing it. This isn’t just an idea that’s been tossed around — it’s a real investment for the business major. There’s no timetable for the release, but Scarlett thinks it will be out within a year.

“You know, so, it’s a pretty cool thing,” Scarlett says. “We’re trying to really finish it, for his legacy ’cause, you know, he would’ve wanted to see it completed, and we’re gonna keep working until it’s done.”

Scarlett, meanwhile, has no more pain in his hand. That metacarpal, which has been replaced now, isn’t causing any more trouble, though he does have a dark scar running vertically across his left fist to match the nickname his teammates use for him: B-Scar.

He’s finally been able to play this year, now as a defensive end in a 4-3. He’s a team captain and has two sacks through the first three games of the season.

Scarlett still cuts hair, although not as often anymore, and he still has his goofy habits — like his collection of more than sixty pairs of colorful socks — that make his teammates smile. But nothing makes Scarlett smile like finally being on the field again.

“That was the biggest thing, just going through so much this past year and really my whole career, to be at this point, you know, as a redshirt junior my fourth year in college and playing with my boys,” Scarlett says. “It was really just a blessed feeling and, you know, I’m glad that I could be out there and glad I’m able to make plays and everything.”

Riley McAtee covers football. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @riley_mcatee