I saw the movie “Concussion.” After walking out of the theater, I no longer was able to think about or watch football the way I had for a virtual lifetime.
I have covered the NFL for nearly 40 years. I still love the game. I still thoroughly enjoy writing and talking about it for a living. I can’t imagine doing anything else.
It’s just that I find myself questioning much more of what I have witnessed all of these years, what I have helped glorify to a large extent, and wondering what the future holds for a sport that has been blamed for causing long-term brain damage to players at the professional level. I honestly never gave a single thought to such ramifications, especially when I began covering the league in the late 1970s.
I readily accepted those harmless-sounding terms such as a player being “dinged” or having his “bell rung.” I found anecdotes – such as the one where Jim Kelly, after taking a blow to the head, began reciting plays from his high school days in the huddle – amusing when they were shared after the game. I’ve had postgame interviews (at least one of which took place at a Super Bowl) with players who said they couldn’t remember certain parts of what took place on the field, and remember them being fairly lighthearted discussions.
There was absolutely nothing lighthearted about seeing “Concussion” recount tormented Hall-of-Fame Steelers center Mike Webster living in his truck (where he would spend part of his time yanking out his teeth and Krazy-gluing them back in) until he passed away in 2002. That led to the autopsy that began sounding the alarms about the elevated danger of head injuries in football.
There was absolutely nothing lighthearted about seeing the movie recreate the moment, in 2011, when former standout Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson wrote a suicide note before grabbing a pistol that he would point at his chest before pulling the trigger. He didn’t want to shoot himself in the head so that his brain would remain intact for examination.
There’s absolutely nothing lighthearted about the topic of head trauma. I’m embarrassed to say I’ve only developed a better understanding and awareness of it, as it pertains to football, in recent years now that it has drawn so much attention.
At the very least, “Concussion” will continue to prompt more conversations/debates such as the ones I’m guessing took place at many holiday gatherings since its release on Christmas Day. At the very most, it will cause some parents to do the very thing that is at the heart of one of the most powerful scenes of the movie: an exchange between the Pittsburgh pathologist (Dr. Bennet Omalu, brilliantly portrayed by Will Smith) whose findings triggered the controversy, and Steelers neurosurgeon Joseph Maroon (played by Arliss Howard).
“Do you have any idea of the impact of what you’re doing?” Maroon says. “If just 10 percent of mothers in America decide that football is too dangerous for their sons to play, that is it – it is the end of football. Kids, colleges and eventually it’s just a matter of time, the professional game.”
I have a very hard time thinking it will ever come to that, but then for the vast majority of my career I never envisioned I’d be dealing with this subject. I certainly never envisioned myself walking through an NFL locker room, as I did earlier this week, and asking players about a movie that casts such a troubling light on their livelihood.
In my informal and small sampling of opinions, I found only one member of the Buffalo Bills, defensive tackle Corbin Bryant, who had actually seen “Concussion.” Several others said they were planning to see it.
“I thought it was very informative,” Bryant said. “What really resonated with me was the Dave Duerson part. I’m a Chicago guy, he played for the ’85 Bears, so I know a lot about him. And him writing that letter at the end, right before he killed himself … ”
Bryant, who will complete his third year in the NFL with Sunday’s game against the New York Jets, acknowledged that the league has a “real problem” with retired players suffering from the lingering effects of concussions.
“We all get hit in the head,” he said.
But Bryant insisted that “Concussion” didn’t cause him to have even the slightest doubt about what he does for a living. He loves playing football. He also points to significant changes that have helped make the same safer – from coaches who stress to players at his position “to use your hands and athletic ability and not your head,” to advancements in helmet technology, to reduced practice time and contact in training camp and between regular-season games.
“I’ll watch it at some point, but I’m not rushing out to see it,” said center Eric Wood, who will complete his seventh season in the league Sunday.
Are you worried about how you might be impacted by what you see?
“Yeah, it definitely crossed my mind a few times,” Wood said. “I’ve had a lot of fun playing in the NFL, worked hard to get here. If I knew the potential beforehand of head injuries, which I didn’t, I don’t think I would have changed my path. But I may regret it down the line, having a little girl now. If you’re not there, that’d be tough.
“But when I was coming out” of the University of Louisville in 2009, “nobody even talked about it. I don’t necessarily feel lied to, but maybe my feelings will change after seeing the movie. In any big-time corporation, and the NFL’s one of them, there’s always something hidden in the background.”
Then, Wood brought up a reality that is always going to be present when mothers ponder whether to allow their sons to play football. For that very small percentage of exceptionally talented athletes who are able to reach the highest level of the game, there is a considerable amount of money that can be made. Riches beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.
“Growing up in a blue-collar family on the west side of Cincinnati, I’ve been able to create generational wealth for my family,” Wood said. “I help out my parents, my siblings. I’ve been able to do a lot financially I wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise probably.”
Guard Richie Incognito, finishing his ninth NFL season, also expected the movie to be tough to watch. “You hear about all this concussion stuff and how bad it is, and, obviously, it’s a very prevalent issue,” he said. “We use our heads a lot when we’re just making (minimal) contact.”
However, Incognito believes there’s more to the story of players, such as Webster, who wind up down on their luck when their playing days end. He sees other factors contributing to their emotional struggles and inability to cope with the world around them.
“When you get done playing this game, this game you played your entire life, you’re not the man anymore,” Incognito said. “You’re not making money anymore. There’s a lot more factors into guys’ lives being ruined after the game than just say concussions. I think there’s a lot of stuff that goes on.
“I think, big picture, (the movie) has a very small impact. Now there will be some parents that don’t let kids play football, which is fine. My mom didn’t let me play when I was younger for fear of injury. I had to wait until the sixth, seventh grade, when other guys were playing in the fourth grade.
“But it’s an assumed risk. We know what the risks are. You can go out there and hurt another part just as bad. But I think the thing with the concussions is that they didn’t know much about it before and now they know much about it.”
Bryant hasn’t discussed “Concussion” with any of his teammates. He has talked about it with his girlfriend, who accompanied him to the movie.
How did she feel about what she saw?
“She didn’t have a negative reaction,” Bryant said. Then, laughing, he added, “She doesn’t want to get on my bad side.”
Don’t be surprised if …
• Jim Caldwell survives as coach of the Detroit Lions. Jim Bob Cooter, promoted from quarterbacks coach to replace Joe Lombardi as offensive coordinator earlier in the season, has done a superb job of turning around the Lions’ offense. A new general manager has yet to be hired, and he might resist the idea of being forced to work with Caldwell or any coach for that matter. But a perfect example of a new GM finding success with an existing coach is the Carolina Panthers, with Dave Gettleman and coach Ron Rivera being in lock-step from the start on the way to a potential No. 1 playoff seed.
• The Dallas Cowboys part ways with defensive end Greg Hardy, whose on-field production wouldn’t appear to be enough to encourage the team to take the risk of extending his contract given his bad off-field behavior. Hardy has six sacks, but only 1.5 have come since Thanksgiving.