Kurt Warner, W. Chrebet, concussions
OTL: Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy
For all of the well-intended congressional hearings and talk about the long-term effects of playing shortly after suffering a concussion, here's what matters to a lot of players right now: Heading into Sunday, Michael Vick is the starting quarterback in Philadelphia because Kevin Kolb's head injury gave him an opening.
We can talk long-term effects of playing all we want, but the men in the locker room are more focused the side effects of not playing. Until that changes, science will continue to take a backseat to economics.
"There were times when I got my bell rung pretty good and maybe shouldn't have gone back out there," said former Jets wide receiver Wayne Chrebet, who played through nine recorded concussions. "There were times in which I didn't have peripheral vision out of one eye and had to turn my entire head around in order to see a pass from the quarterback.
"But every year I see them bringing in younger and bigger guys from big-time schools, so if you ask me if I'm OK during the game what do you think I'm going to say? For a guy like me, I felt every game I was a free agent and that I had to make the team, so if you ask me if I'm OK, my response is on autopilot: 'yes.'"
Chrebet brought up the story of Wally Pipp, the Yankees first baseman who was replaced by Lou Gehrig because he was in a slump. Gehrig then started 2,130 consecutive games.
"I never wanted to be Wally Pipp," Chrebet said.
When I brought up recent research that suggests Gehrig's streak, which continued despite concussions that left him unconscious on the diamond, may have played a role in his developing the motor neuron disease named after him, Chrebet paused a few beats.
"I saw a survey that showed the percentage of former players who had concussions that developed Alzheimer's later in life ... that's kind of scary," he said. "A lot of people don't like to talk about it ... all you can do is live your life and hope you don't become a statistic."
And therein lies the game within the game, right? Not even the scientists conducting the brain injury research speak in exact science when it comes to the specific effects of a concussion, and so it becomes difficult to convince a guy desperate to keep his job to stay off the field. Five years after retirement, Chrebet suffers from headaches and has sensitivity to light. But look at Kurt Warner: He's basking in the spotlight on "Dancing With the Stars" despite suffering a fifth concussion less than a year ago.
"I have been very blessed in that I have been completely fine," he said. "No headaches, no depression ... absolutely no signs of post-concussion syndrome. I am doing well and feeling great." In fact Warner said he retired because of the stress of being a star quarterback, not the physical demands.
"I wasn't sleeping at night ... it just got to be too much," he told me. "I knew I didn't have it in me to make that sort of commitment for another season."
It is good to see everyone from high school coaches to Congress, which this week introduced a bill designed to prevent young athletes from playing with concussions and held a hearing addressing brain injuries, get more educated on the medical impact of football. But the difference between knowing the dangers and finding a way to shift the culture of football is locked in the differences between Warner and Chrebet.
Think about it: Some people can smoke a pack a day and live to be a 100 while others die of lung cancer before 50. Similarly each athlete is unique.
How a head injury affects one player may differ from another. This knowledge combined with the machismo of the sport can influence whether a player tells someone he may not be able to play. If he sits out with something that can't be seen as readily as a broken leg, will that be interpreted as him not being as tough as the next guy?
And in a sport in which contracts are not guaranteed, the "next guy" may get the job, whether everyone's seen the head trauma data or not.
"You kind of have to take it out of the guy's hands," said Warner, who said he would love to help the NFL in addressing concussions. "Players don't want to let the team down so they may not always be honest ... [When someone else decides] it also removes the pressure of having to play through an injury you probably shouldn't be playing with."
In talking with the players, I wondered whether there should be a maximum number of documented concussions a person can sustain before his NFL career is over. After all, morally, how can we just sit back and be entertained by someone who may be slowly killing himself? But as Warner pointed out, such a blanket policy may not be fair.
"We're talking about someone's livelihood so it's difficult to say to someone you can't play anymore based on number, even if they are not showing any signs of post-concussion syndrome," he said.
But part of "showing signs" is based on what players say they are experiencing. A more established player may feel secure enough to say he can't go, which is what Warner eventually did after suffering a concussion in November, but what about the players who are not as safe? A guy like Chrebet, who was undrafted, felt he couldn't sit out a practice or game early in his career.
Even two-time MVP Warner admitted he considered lying to the Arizona Cardinals' medical staff before deciding otherwise. The same week, Ben Roethlisberger, a two-time Super Bowl champion QB, had his toughness questioned by teammates Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes after he sat out a game because of a concussion.
Chrebet said after his head injuries forced him to retire early, "I spent the next two years doing nothing but feeling sorry for myself." Now he's two years into a career as a financial planner with Moldaver Chrebet Group at Morgan Stanley Smith Barney. "I've talked to guys older than me ... I know things will only get worse, not better. But it's hard for me to feel sorry for myself. If I had a chance to do it all over again, I would."
And he's not alone. Heck, Dallas' Jason Witten cursed out the team doctor for not letting him back on the field in the fourth quarter last week after a concussion and he's an NFLPA board of player rep.
Over the past couple of years, the NFL has become more open about and cautious regarding concussions, pushed in part by outside research documenting the detrimental long-term effects of head trauma. But what it can't do is remove the cutthroat, barbaric nature of the game.
No piece of equipment can prevent concussions. The incentive for players to lie, even in the face of evidence about dangers, remains too great because of the Catch-22 inherent to pro football: a player could be damned if he doesn't play and damned if he does.
Unfortunately, I doubt that changes anytime soon. Kolb sits and Vick starts. Men don't like showing vulnerability for something as simple as asking for directions. It's doubtful a genderwide epiphany is going to occur with multimillion-dollar contracts and short-lived careers on the line in a multibillion-dollar industry in which only the strong survive.
LZ Granderson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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