NFL players hide and fear concussions

BY HOWARD FENDRICH Published: November 22, 2009
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/> "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. "When does it catch up with you?”

Two-thirds of the players the AP interviewed said the NFL is significantly safer than it used to be with regard to the risk of concussions, thanks primarily to changes in rules and equipment, particularly helmets and mouthpieces.

But there are caveats.

"Players are bigger, faster, stronger,” Baltimore’s Birk said, echoing other athletes. "It’s simple physics: Force equals mass times acceleration. It is a violent game, and there are inherent risks to the game itself. … Collisions are becoming more intense.”

About half of the surveyed players said they’ve been paying attention to recent news about NFL head injuries.

That includes a congressional hearing last month, when Rep. Linda Sanchez, D-Calif., said the NFL’s resistance to accepting a link between multiple head injuries in NFL players and brain disorders such as dementia and Alzheimer’s reminded her of tobacco companies denying a link between smoking and disease. At that hearing, Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., asked the NFL and its players’ union to turn over medical records for an independent review.

As attention to concussions has increased, so have the efforts by the NFL and the players’ union to address the issue — including working to update the joint letter and brochure they sent to all locker rooms in 2007 to educate players about head injuries.

Goodell told Congress he expects to announce "shortly” new funding for concussion research and that the NFL is trying to learn about "new practice techniques that will reduce the risk of head trauma outside of the games themselves.”

Dr. Joseph Maroon, the Steelers’ team doctor and member of an NFL committee on concussions, called the subject a "major priority” for the league. In a telephone interview, he cited an ongoing study in which helmet manufacturers’ products are being tested and noted the NFL mandate of 2007 that every player undergo neurological testing in the preseason to establish a base line against which results can be compared in case of a concussion.

Dr. Thom Mayer, the NFLPA’s medical director, said there are "good trends” in data he has seen, showing that "it appears that concussions are slightly down from where they have been” and that "it appears players are being held out, when they have a concussion, longer — maybe twice as long.” He did not give specific numbers.

In the AP interviews, players with more than a half-dozen seasons in the NFL said the league, its teams and the union do take the issue more seriously now than at the start of their careers.

"They are more careful, the doctors and trainers,” Chicago Bears defensive tackle Anthony Adams said. "They’re better (at) watching for symptoms of what might be a concussion.”

Still, concerns abound.

One player voiced his feelings this way: "It worries me, because I have aspirations after the game to work. I’d like to be able to remember everything. I feel like in some ways, my short-term memory isn’t as good as it was, already. I don’t know if that’s from getting older. I don’t know. But you only get one brain, obviously.”

The words of a grizzled veteran? No. That’s 26-year-old Colin Allred, a Titans linebacker midway through his second NFL season.

Other players discussed the difficulties of determining when someone does, indeed, have a concussion and nervousness about accumulating multiple head injuries.

"The unfortunate thing in our business, more times than not, is that either guys don’t know it or don’t let somebody know it and continually play through those kinds of situations, where it’s week after week, it’s hit after hit, where they’re not coming out of games and they never get healed,” said Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner, who’s had two concussions in a 12-year NFL career. "And I think that’s probably — and I’m just guessing — where the biggest effects are down the road, is guys that may not have a record that they had 10 concussions but probably had that or more so and just played right through it.”

Several players said they refuse to allow themselves to contemplate the dangers of their sport because it would become impossible to perform well while devoting any shred of thought to concussions.

"You could easily die in a car,” New England Patriots tight end Benjamin Watson said, "but you don’t think about it, because you’re focused on what you’re doing.”

There also is some dark humor.

One player joked about eating through a straw at age 45, and Dallas Cowboys linebacker Keith Brooking said: "I tend to use it as an excuse with my wife when I forget something. She tells me to do something, and (I say), ‘I’ve been hit in the head a lot, Baby. Sorry. I forgot."’

Cowboys backup quarterback Jon Kitna spoke in more serious terms.

"I firmly believe you can be paralyzed on any play, and I believe there’s going to come a time when somebody’s going to die on the field from a hit on the field. Because the game is getting so fast, the big guys are getting bigger, and the little guys are getting littler, but the collisions are getting greater. That’s the scariest thing for me,” Kitna said. "What else are you going to do? Shut the game down?”