Concussion awareness is driving more and more players away from the game prematurely. That fact is undeniable. Last week, Buffalo Bills linebacker A.J. Tarpley was the latest to walk away.
Tarpley first announced his retirement at 23 years old in an Instagram post. Then, on Tuesday morning, he explained it all in full to The MMQB in a first-person account.
The undrafted rookie out of Stanford might've figured into Buffalo's plans at inside linebacker this season in some role but as the concussions accumulated, as concerns grew, as the unknowns lingered, he believed it was time. As he explains in wincing detail, Tarpley suffered his third concussion since high school in a padded training camp practice and then his fourth on Oct. 25 against the Jacksonville Jaguars in London. The effects of both were scary to say the least.
Much like players before him, the pressure to play brought Tarpley back onto the field again and again and he admitted he downplayed the effects to trainers. Finally, after much research this offseason, Tarpley decided enough was enough.
In the end, Tarpley realized playing linebacker — and taking on ball carriers and blockers for a living — could mean even more concussions.
The read, of course, is worth reading in its entirety in the link above. Here are a few of comments that stood out:
On the third concussion in camp: "I met a fullback in a gap and his facemask caught the left side of my helmet. I went through the rest of practice with a headache and tunnel vision, and then went to the trainers after practice and asked them to check me out. I passed balance, vision and memory tests, and once I realized my memory was fine, I didn’t press the issue.
"For the next few days I had a raging headache. I drank several liters of Pedialyte and gallons of water trying to convince myself that dehydration was the cause. I knew that if I told the trainers about my headache persisting then I would have to be reevaluated and risk missing practice or even game time."
On deciding to play through it: "Do guys get second chances? Do players miss snaps and still make the team? Yes. But it’s not the sort of thing you leave to chance. If coaches can’t see you practice, they can’t rely on you when it counts. When their jobs are on the line, the priority is playing guys whom they trust to perform. I knew I couldn’t sit out. I couldn’t risk coming this far toward my ultimate childhood dream only to let this stop me short. So I did everything I could to hide it, and I didn’t tell a soul."
On the fourth concussion vs. Jacksonville: "My vision started to close in on me and I blew a coverage assignment on the next play. I got pulled off the field, and I tried to buy myself some time. When asked about the blown coverage, I told a coach that I made a mistake and it wouldn’t happen again. At that point the Jaguars had a first-and-goal and brought out their big personnel, which we matched. “GOAL LINE X! GOAL LINE X!” I cherished these moments. My coaches had trusted me to be the X on goal line, a position typically reserved for a team’s best corner or a defensive back that can also play in the box and make tackles. I refused to let them down, so I buckled my chinstrap and went to work."
On the effects of this final concussion: "The next four plays are still a blur. I managed to find my correct alignment through the horse blinders, and I just played on instinct. I told myself to hit whatever comes my way and don’t stop moving my feet. We stopped them on all four downs. But I knew something was wrong with my head, and pulled myself out of the game after that series. ... The trainers diagnosed me with a concussion and took me to the locker room, where I watched the rest of the game on TV. The vision problems continued and were compounded by a migraine headache. Then I lost feeling in my fingers, arm and shoulder on the right side of my body."
On his mind-set after some time off: "Still, my main goal at the time was to remain on the field. Players get cut every week in the NFL, and being an undrafted free agent who missed time in his first season didn’t sound like a comfortable position to be in. Luckily, our bye week followed the overseas game; I had two weeks from the concussion before we would play again and I decided that would be enough. The trainers and doctors I interacted with were always inquisitive and had my health in mind. I spent those next two weeks never feeling “normal” but always saying I was feeling better, even if that meant bending the truth."
On this looming decision for all players: "No educated person seems to be denying the relationship between brain injuries and football, yet there are no definitive measures. We still can’t answer the question of how much is too much. I was on the fence. I had to decide if I wanted to keep walking that line made thinner and thinner by my concussions."
On his decision: "This was not about me thinking I couldn’t physically play more football without suffering crippling brain damage. I have no current residual effects that I am aware of, cognitively or physically. The decision I made to retire from football is about coming to terms with the totality of my concussion history and what is asked of me as a linebacker. My position put me at an elevated risk for further injury with the likelihood that I would be exposed to hundreds or even thousands of similar situations. I understand that in order to continue playing at the level expected of me, I would have had to put myself in those exact scenarios.
"I will never know if I would have received life-impairing damage to my brain somewhere down the line. There is a chance I could have played five more years in the NFL and lived a long, happy and healthy life. But going forward my life will be entirely what I make of it. My happiness is in my hands."