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The high cost of concussions

Helmet-to-helmet hits can have long-term effects on players. Matt Bowen

Print This October 01, 2009, 06:51 AM EST

This past year, I was called by the University of Michigan countless times asking me to take part in a research survey. I was told it was being done through the NFL and was designed to tally information about the post-career successes or failures of former players, and that it would help the league.

I finally accepted and ended up on the phone for close to an hour and a half — talking about my education, my marriage, my finances and lastly — my health. Concussions, in particular, because I had plenty of them during my seven seasons in the league.

The survey lasted longer when I told them that I still get headaches.

Out in the open

On Wednesday, a story in the New York Times detailed the exact survey I took part in, but it centered on concussions because, as we know, this is a hot-button topic in the league, in college football and in high school football.

They’re bad, they can be career-ending and, in my personal opinion, one Sunday someone is not going to get up from one — for good.

The message behind the Times story that spiked interest on the Internet and radio airwaves was the number of former NFL players between the ages of 30 and 49 who have Alzheimer’s disease or similar memory-related diseases. The number is shocking to say the least — 19 times the normal rate of men in that age group.

I’ll be 33 next month, and I’m starting to wonder if I’ll be included in the mix. But that won’t happen to me, will it? I went back to school, received a master’s degree and have no issues with my short-term or long-term memory.

But the headaches -- well, they just seem to hang around.

I came clean on that survey, talking to the woman on the other end of the phone line and telling her everything. Why? Because I don’t want players in this league to reach their 40s and forget who they are, or forget their children’s names, or suffer so much that they can’t hold decent jobs.

However, every player — past and present — is guilty of putting themselves in harm’s way when it comes to concussions.

And that’s why we’re looking at these numbers, and why they have the NFL scared.

Hiding the facts

Every player knows his own body — no question about that. On Sunday mornings, you know what you’ll be able to do on the football field, and the training staff and coaching staff are well aware.

It’s easy when we’re talking about an ankle, a knee or a shoulder. But concussions are totally different. You can’t treat them with ice, and you can’t tape them up. A needle won’t numb the pain.

You’re the judge. If you can play, you play. If you can’t play, well, you play anyway — and this is where the problems arise.

When I played, we used to take this test on the computer in August. We called it the “concussion test”: numbers, math, memorization, shapes, sizes, etc., etc., etc. The computer tallied your score. During the season, if you suffered a blow to the head, you had to take the test the following week. If your score compared well to the test you took in August, well, then you could probably get back on the field. If you failed, you were most likely out — until you could pass it.

I failed it in August — on purpose.

Why? Pretty simple. Because I knew that if I had a concussion, my scores would be low, and since I intentionally missed questions during my first test, I would score pretty well during the season.
Stupid? Asinine? Idiotic? All of that.

But the issue here is simple. Coaches can judge your toughness when a trainer says you have a grade-3 knee sprain, yet you’re still on the field making plays.

But a trainer can’t judge a headache. So you play, and you hit, and you hit again for 60-plus plays if you’re a starter. And if you’re a special teamer, 20-plus plays at full speed — with a 50-yard head start.

You play because you’re scared for your job.

“Real concussions”

Many of us think that a concussion is when you’re knocked out — like what happened to Florida’s Tim Tebow last Saturday night. Arms go up, the body stiffens and you’re asleep in the middle of the football field.

I’ve had that, with the knockout and the all-night vomiting. And I had one in 2003 with the Washington Redskins when I collided with Seattle fullback Mack Strong on our own goal line with a 20-yard sprint behind me from the other hash. We both fell back. I put a hand up and went to the sideline during the opening minutes of the first quarter.

The next tackle I made, on Seattle wide receiver Koren Robinson, was pure luck. He just happened to be standing in front of me, so I tackled him.

That was late in the second quarter. I had no idea how I got there. I threw a hand up again and finally realized where I was -- in the locker room, with a sweatshirt on and an assistant trainer sitting with me. It was the fourth quarter.

Amnesia, they said, the result of a blow to the head.

I started and played the next week at Carolina, and played well — until the fourth quarter when I hit Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith on a post route. My head vibrated inside my helmet. I was foggy, discombobulated, and felt like vomiting again.

But it was my choice to be out there. I was in charge, and I told the training staff I could play. No one forced me back onto the field, but at the time, I was a starter -- and I wasn’t going to lose that over a concussion.

But after talking with a neurologist this past spring, I was told that every time you see “stars,” which we all have at one point or another in our lives, you’re experiencing a form of a concussion. How many times does that happen to NFL players?

Try daily during the season.

The risks

I understand that former players, like New England’s Ted Johnson, have filed grievances against the NFL due to post-career concussion syndrome. I also understand that the league should be held somewhat accountable for the health of its players once they leave the game because it’s the right thing to do. The NFL needs to be involved, and hopefully, this is the right step.

But when it comes to concussions, I’m fully aware of that warning label sticker on the back of the helmet. Have you ever read one of those things? They’re dreary and frightening, and they can put a frown on your face — ending with “…can lead to fatal brain injury.”

What?

Yes, every player at every level knows that football is a major risk to your health and that concussions are a big part of it.

But the risk is higher at the NFL level because the hitting is out of this world, and the ramifications can be life-altering. You play for the money, the fame and the glory, but you also pay for it with your health after you leave the game.

People ask me all the time how I feel. And to be honest, there are days when I feel like absolute garbage -- and the headaches don’t help. I have two little boys under the age of 3 and another baby coming in February, and I need to be able to live my life fully with my family.

But was it worth it? Were all those helmet-to-helmet blows worth it?

So far, yes. But check with me down the road to really answer that question.

Follow me on Twitter: MattBowen41

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