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NFL players hide and fear concussions

BY HOWARD FENDRICH Published: November 22, 2009
Washington Redskins kick returner Rock Cartwright remembers his brain "shaking like a bell” when he was walloped in a game against the New York Giants a few years ago.

"You know how a bell vibrates? That’s how my brain was going at that time,” he said. "I think five minutes later, I came back to myself. I went back out there and played football.”

What Cartwright never did when the hit happened? He never told Washington’s medical staff his head ached.

He’s not alone. Thirty of 160 NFL players surveyed by The Associated Press from Nov. 2-15 replied that they have hidden or played down the effects of a concussion.

The AP embarked on the most extensive series of interviews about concussions since the subject became a major issue this season, talking to five players on each of the 32 teams — nearly 10 percent of the league — seeking out a mix of positions and NFL experience to get a cross-section of players. While not a scientific sampling, many of the players answered with startling candor.

"You get back up, and things are spinning,” Giants backup quarterback David Carr said, "but you don’t tell anyone.”

Now the NFL wants players to keep tabs on each other and tell their teams if they believe someone else has a head injury.

Told of the AP’s findings, NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said in an e-mail that commissioner Roger Goodell spoke to NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith last week about "the importance of players reporting head injuries, no matter how minor they believe they might be. The commissioner said that process needs to include players observing and reporting to the team medical staff when a teammate shows symptoms of a concussion.”

What emerged from the AP’s interviews was a wide-ranging, unprecedented look at the way active players think about head injuries in a world where "getting dinged” and "seeing stars” — and the potential long-term effects of concussions — are deemed a frightening but perhaps inevitable consequence of their job.

"Part of the game,” Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Deshea Townsend said.

Indeed it is. In recent weeks, high-profile players Brian Westbrook of the Philadelphia Eagles and Clinton Portis of the Redskins — neither of whom was surveyed by the AP — have been sidelined by concussions. Westbrook missed two games, then returned Sunday, only to leave in the second half with another concussion.

The NFL says its data shows an average of one reported concussion every other game — about 120 to 130 concussions per regular season.

Of the 160 players interviewed by the AP, half said they’ve had at least one concussion playing football; 61 said they missed playing time because of the injury.

"We’re obviously concerned by the data and by the information,” NFLPA assistant executive director George Atallah said. "We believe that there’s more relevant data and information that the league has on these issues that we’d like for them to share with us in confidence.”

During the AP interviews, some players quickly replied they never had a concussion, then realized they weren’t sure, such as Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive tackle Chris Hovan, a 10-year veteran, who said: "I probably was just too young and too dumb to realize it.”

Not that it’s necessarily easy to miss — or mask — the symptoms.

"Everyone can clearly see that you have a concussion: You are walking around like you are drunk,” Seattle Seahawks defensive back Roy Lewis said.

Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Bobby Wade told the AP he’s never tried to hide a concussion but is sure it happens frequently in the NFL. "You see guys with their eyes rolling in the back of their heads,” he said. "You see guys shaking their head trying to get it together. If there was a doctor evaluating them, I’m sure they would say, ‘Your brain has taken trauma."’

Players acknowledged staying on the field despite feeling "dazed” or "woozy” or having blurred vision, because, in Miami Dolphins guard Justin Smiley’s words, "It’s what you’re taught.”

Some talked about not wanting to let down the team. Others mentioned the importance of avoiding any sign of weakness in a sport where "warrior” and "gladiator” are viewed as compliments of the highest order.

And then there is the fear of losing a roster spot in a league where the absence of guaranteed contracts makes some players willing to sacrifice their well-being somewhere down the road for a paycheck in the here-and-now.

"If you’re a ‘bubble’ guy, you might want to be out there,” Tennessee Titans long snapper Ken Amato said, "so they don’t have to bring someone else in.”

Players spoke frankly about being afraid of getting the sorts of long-term problems seen in boxers; about hoping they will be able to remember their career highlights once they retire; about their wives’ constant concern; about whether they’ll be able to see their "kids grow up and have kids,” as Houston Texans offensive lineman Eric Winston put it.

Others told of memory loss during and after games, of not being able to recall what particular play calls meant, or of "talking gibberish” to teammates on the field.

"The only thing I remember is coming out of the tunnel at the beginning of the game. And then — a big gap,” St. Louis Rams linebacker David Vobora said of a concussion he got this season. "But I played the whole game, until the last series, when I started asking guys questions, and they looked at me like I was crazy.”

Asked whether they worry more about concussions than any other injury, 30 of the interviewed players said yes.

"It’s hard,” Baltimore Ravens center Matt Birk said, "to rehab your brain.”

Vonnie Holliday, a defensive end for the Denver Broncos, likened the pounding his head takes to "being in a car crash 20, 30 times a game.”

"I do often think about the damage I’m doing to my brain and my nervous system,” Holliday said.


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