SANTA CLARA, CALIF. — One night Ryan Harris went to the movies with his wife. Harris is an eighth-year offensive lineman for the Denver Broncos, and started all 16 games this season. Going out was a nice way to unwind, until it wasn’t.
“My wife started crying,” says the six-foot-five, 302-pound Harris. “We were in another movie and they showed the preview for Concussion, and my wife started crying. I was like, we don’t need to see this movie.”
As the Super Bowl, there is so much talk, so many questions. The media cluster around players, and mostly the topic is the game, the matchup, the legacy, the week. The Super Bowl is a titanic enterprise, and every year it creates the capital city of the National Football League empire.
And underneath it all, the closest thing to an existential issue that this monster league faces is still rumbling, visible or not. Reported concussions rose 58% in the NFL this season, though reported is very different from actual. On Tuesday, it was reported that Marshall, Texas — birthplace of Y.A. Tittle and featured in the book Friday Night Lights — was discontinuing youth football. Kenny Stabler, the legendary former Oakland Raiders quarterback, was revealed to have chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, the neurological disease in which tau protein chokes the brain. So did former quarterback Earl Morrall, who died at 79. Under the terms of the league’s concussion settlement with nearly a third of its retired players, CTE was excluded.
As the Broncos and the Carolina Panthers prepare for Sunday, concussions are barely a whisper on the radar of the week. The NFL will hold a health and safety update press conference Thursday, featuring winners of concussion innovation technology, under a program co-funded by the NFL, GE and Under Armor.
But concussions get buried by the week, intentionally and otherwise.
“It’s like back in the day when people didn’t know much about what smoking did to you,” says Broncos offensive lineman Evan Mathis. “And as you found out, you really don’t talk about it too much while you’re smoking, right? And this week is all about football.”
Mathis pays attention. He’s aware of the possibility that there are genetic factors that influence a predisposition to concussions; he throws “tau protein” around in a sentence. He wants to know. He thinks playing without helmets may be an answer. And he hates when people say, players knew what they signed up for.
“It’s ridiculous,” says Mathis, who has played for five teams since 2005. “It’s absolutely ridiculous. We know that there are possibilities. We have no idea how likely those things are to happen, and there’s no guarantees. I mean, I hate hearing that. It’s a ridiculous thing to say — ‘They know what they signed up for, they got all that money, who cares if they lose a few decades of their life.’ They’re not thinking about people’s families, and it doesn’t give respect that there’s so much information we don’t have.”
Except players say the same thing. Broncos cornerback Aqib Talib, asked if he worries about the long-term health implications of football, says, “I don’t, man, I don’t. You just gotta play safe. Freak accidents happens, but we know what we signed up for, and anything can happen.” For that matter, Carolina cornerback Robert McClain says, “It’s all in God’s hands. I’m not going to try to do anything less than what I’m doing to protect myself.” Carolina fullback Mike Tolbert says, “I don’t want to know what it could do to me, because I’ve got a wife, I’ve got kids, I’ve got a family. My kids are four and two. You know what I’m saying? I don’t want that burden on myself or them.”
Tolbert was close with Paul Oliver, the former Chargers safety who shot himself in 2013 in front of his wife and two young children. Oliver was 29, and had an advanced case of CTE. McClain was friends with former Steelers, Broncos and Chargers linebacker Adrian Robinson, who hung himself in 2015 at 25. He had CTE. The stories pile up, and will continue to pile up. It was late last month that Tyler Sash, the former Giants safety who died from an accidental overdose of painkillers at 27, had a surprisingly advanced case of CTE.
Things, players say, have gotten better. They are down to one padded practice per week, from two-a-days; as Harris says, “You’re talking about banging heads at least 60 more times.” The biggest hits have been legislated downwards — Panthers backup quarterback Derek Anderson says that when he got to the league in 2005, he was shocked at the level of headhunting of quarterbacks and receivers, which has largely vanished. And reported concussions being up, whether because of team caution or player worry, is a good thing.
“When I first got in the league, oh, you took a hard hit? Get back in there, we’re going to deal with that tomorrow,” says Emmanuel Sanders, the Broncos receiver. “But now . . . I took a vicious hit versus the Rams, but they were like look, you can’t go in anymore. All week I had to go through the concussion protocol, get on the computer and go through these steps to be able to play in the game the following week. Whereas five years ago you come in, you stand on your toes, you bounce up and down, you bark twice, and it’s all right, you’re good.”
“Doctors are worried about liability, trainers are worried about liability, so if there’s any question, they’re pulling them out of the games,” says Anderson, who has had six big concussions that he can think of, and has a 17-month-old daughter and another baby on the way. “Whereas in the past, they’d come over and say, ‘You all right?’, and you’d say, ‘Yeah.’ Straight bullshit.”
“I think it’s a case of people covering their own ass, so to speak,” says Tolbert.
But it’s still football, full of subconcussive blows and brain trauma, and nobody pretends it can be safe. But players love the game, and it pays. The Super Bowl rolls on, and football has never been more popular, even as the tiny cracks appear.
“Ever since that Concussion movie came out, Will Smith, I’ve been getting a lot of calls,” says Sanders. “My grandma’s concerned. My mom’s concerned. Everybody’s concerned. But don’t be concerned, man. I signed up when I was 12 years old, and I know what I wanted to do. If I’m going to die, at least I’m going to die doing stuff that I love to do. And this is what I love to do.”