Concussion and the NFL. One former players opinion…
I only played sparingly in the NFL for 3+ years but back in 1988 era the practices many times were more damaging than the games. Why do I mention this? As I was full of tears and emotions watching a former Badger former Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steeler and someone who I looked up to and had the awesome opportunity to talk to about the game of football, Iron Mike Webster and how he was portrayed in the movie Concussion. These emotions made me reflect on the game that I grew to love and hate. In total I participated in 18 training camps in my life starting in the 6th grade. Mike played 18 in the NFL and that is just an amazing toll that was taken on his body. If we were to look at the players that I knew like Stan Brock, James Campen, Paul Gruber and others (I have not talked to any of them at this point about their thoughts on this) that played a long time in the same era that I did I have to imagine that they too are a bit on the cautious if not fearful for what may have happened to their brains.
In the video I included was a glimpse of some of the types of intensity that the game has. I had seen the part in video I was in but never watched the entire video till now and I did not know that my roommate and teammate and good friend Paul Gruber was also in the same video. It was interesting that he was and the length of his part and mine kind of was similar to how long I made it compared to his. In the full video LC Greenwood said that “anyone at this level can play but the ones that actually do are the ones that can remain healthy and or play in major pain”. Our bodies are the vehicle used to play in this game and the brain is the motor that runs the body. We need to not only protect the body as best we can but we now see that the brain also needs great care!!
The other great thing that is brought out in this movie is the deceit and motive for the NFL to not let the public know what really goes on with players lives and health. This movie really made it clear how much has been hidden over the years. The NFL and media have really minimized much of what really happens in this game behind closed doors. I am a believer in transparency and anything that can help people understand the better!!!
For me and this is just me speaking on my experience. I am NOT speaking for others by any means. I know that when I lift my head from a horizontal position to vertical and actually see the same damn stars that I used to see when I got hit and sometimes get a bit dizzy it concerns me more now. For many years I just ignored it as I always did while playing. When bright light hurts my eyes and I get blurry I believe that it is because I have passed the age of 50 and many people have the same issue with their eyes. I often get tears in my eyes when I am not feeling any emotion that causes tears I wonder is that something to do with my brain? When I get sharp pains that run through my head at times I figure they are just a headache. But now that this new information has arrived I look at these in a different light. I know my ex wife was concerned a lot by some of my behavior and comments and forgetfulness but I did not really take her serious about those because I could very easily come up with other reasons for it. I know there are times that I am spot on and sharp as a tack and other times I forget where I was yesterday and have to really search sometimes on my phone or my day to try to find that memory. Is this scary? Hell yes but I can honestly say that it has not deterred my love for the game of football and many ask would I do it over and I say yes and especially today I would. Why? Because I believe that the game is phenomenal training for real life, and is worth the lessons that I learned. And now that I have heard that the NFL has limited contact practices to 18 a year (when I played we had more than 18 full out practices in the first two weeks of the year). Today the game is more about conditioning, positioning, technique and speed. This does not say that the chances of concussions are less and the hitting is not as hard but the chances of 70,000 hits that were suggested in the movie that Mike took in his career has to be cut significantly!! I also believe that Mike may have sat out more practices and games after some of the hits he took and that would have allowed for his brain to heal some before getting injured again.
The other big thing is that players today know the risks much more than we did. I was in the era that smelling salts were just leaving the game but there were at least once a practice that I would have a hit to the head that I would “see stars”, shake my head to get the “cobwebs” out, tell a teammate that wow that was a hell of a “dinger” etc. etc. so if I do my own math I probably had a major hit to the head in the NFL about 250+ times and in college approximately 300+ times. This is by no means completely exact but a somewhat educated guess. I took the number of practices that I know we had full pads on and probably had an inside drill or a game and figured that I had 1 hit most days and many times more than one that caused me to know I got hit.
Does the CTE cause impairment enough to cause major depression, addiction etc.? This I hope gets answered at some point but I know my serious addiction to alcohol and pain medication was rampant while I was in college and the NFL and I was blessed with many incredible counselors and mentors to help me get sober and work on my depression and difficulties after the “game”. As I watched the movie I couldn’t help but wonder if these players had the type of counseling and support that I was able to get or if they did not and that their issues were magnified because they did not have the emotional support that is often needed to arrest this type of thinking. I see it as very similar to people getting out of serious combat service. The ability to switch off the incredible intense emotions that go along with this type of activity is engrained in brains of these participants and if there is now a proof that something happens to the brain to further cause difficulties in dealing with life after the game this is a very good thing. I applaud the works of Doctor Bennet Omalu!
The last things I hope that this research will find is that does the number of hits significantly increase the problems or is it the severity? If it is the number then I believe that players can track these hits and have a much better understanding of the risk associated with the game. And people need to be aware that the risk of most anything in life is there. We have to learn to assess the risk vs. reward on a regular basis and that is what is so beautiful about this research. If I end up with Alzheimer type issue because I played the game then my hope would be that I did it to help others make a better informed decision about the direction they choose. A player like Chris Borland may not have left the game in his prime had this research not been revealed and I think that the decision he made was very courageous and right for him and I am sure there are many others that are thinking similar to him. Does this make him less of an amazing football player than Mike Webster? Absolutely not and as much of a hero as Mike was for me it also saddened me to see him live his life how he did after he left the game.
What I am saying here is that if I had sons would I allow them to play the sport and my answer used to be I was glad I had girls and don’t have the option of deciding. Today I can honestly say I would support them if they desired to play 100%. I would also though really monitor and caution them about the need to sit out if they get a hit such as the ones mentioned above. I also would be one of those parents that are watching the coaches very carefully and finding out if the coach has the kid’s best interest at heart as opposed to their own success. I believe that there is the same danger for someone playing football, as there is the kid that skate boards, plays basketball, or other sports through their high school years. If a boy or girl loves the game of football they should play.
But the burden needs to fall on programs that are running the game to find resources for youth coaches to be trained properly, to be monitored more than a couple times a season and to have accountability for making sure that the game is being played properly and in the athletes best interest.
I believe that the NFL should and needs to take however many millions of dollars along with college sports and kick in to provide the proper resources to allow for this training and accountability. The game needs to be taught correctly and parents need to have trust in the coaches and administrators of the league.
This past season I had the privilege to volunteer coach at a 6th grade level. I absolutely loved the kids and saw kids that I knew were timid and scared of hits and the intensity of the game. My head coach Gary Ellerson and his coaches did a great job in encouraging players and helping those kids feel a part of the game. Gary also did a great job of keeping those players that were not in the proper condition or mind set for the game off the field for much of the time but still allowed them to feel a part of the team. I saw other teams that had coaches screaming at the kids to hit harder, play better and was very negative in nature. I am one that thinks that there is a time a place for yelling but it should be about motivating, helping encourage effort (not performance), fun, etc.
I am so grateful for what I have been able to learn from this great game. I also hope that in some way I can use what I had to help others get through the difficulties of life. I am very much at peace with the decisions I made for the most part in my days and I hope that other players can find help because of this movie.
And although the movie did bring a lot of thought and emotion out in me I was very happy I got to watch it and I also believe that the great game of football will continue!!
Have a great day!!!!