This is an interview series in which we ask the plaintiffs of the NFL concussion lawsuit one question (and maybe a few more): Knowing what you know now, if you could do it over again, would you still play football?
Today: Former offensive lineman Jon Melander. A fifth round draft pick out of the University of Minnesota in 1990, he played 10 games for the New England Patriots, 15 for the Cincinnati Bengals, and 29 for the Denver Broncos before a neck injury forced his retirement. He lives with his wife and three children near Minneapolis, where he works as a financial advisor for the Capstone Advisory Group. Melander is one of the more than 4,500 former players who filed suit against the NFL over concussions and other head injuries.
I actually hurt my neck my last year at Denver, and was playing with it at the end of the season and having issues and not really knowing what was going on. They did an MRI after the season was over. My contract just happened to be up, and after they did the MRI they decided not to re-sign me. And when you’re not under contract, there’s not a lot you can do as far as injury settlements and things like that. And I was young and I was stupid, and I decided to try to keep playing. That’s when I signed with the Raiders and didn’t exactly tell them everything that was going on, but I was having a lot of issues with my neck at that point. So I went from starting every game—missing just one start because of an ankle injury—to getting cut in training camp, because if you’re not playing full speed at that level you’re not going to make it.
The culture, the bravado, the fear of losing your position: all of that plays into it. I remember games where you’d get hit so hard you’re seeing cross-eyed. You’d make your way back to the huddle and try to shake it off and get through the series, mainly because you don’t want to come off the field. And that’s kind of what’s been instilled in you from the trainers and the coaches. As a matter of fact, when I hurt my ankle and missed that one start my last year in Denver, I had suited up that game and they were going to try to see how I was going to play. You know, I hadn’t practiced all week and I was limping around. And the coach brought me on the field to work me out and it was pretty obvious it was sore enough where I wasn’t going to be effective. So the coach said, “Well, you’re going to be inactive for this game.” I went into the training room and started taking the tape off the ankle, and the trainer came over and berated me, yelling and screaming, saying, “What are you doing? This is my decision, not yours.” That’s just the kind of thing that happens when you’re getting paid pretty well to do your job and you can’t be on the field for whatever reason. That certainly goes into the equation: when you’re out there and you get hit in the head and get your bell rung, so to speak, but now we know that’s a concussion and you probably shouldn’t be out there.
Obviously, the whole culture is “play at all costs and don’t let your teammates down.” And when there isn’t hard evidence, like swelling in an ankle or something like that to show that you shouldn’t be out there, then you’re going to do everything you can, probably, to be out there. You’re young and you think you’re invincible and you’re willing to risk it. A lot of that had to do with the fact that you weren’t really informed on what the long-term effects were going to be. I certainly, as far as the concussion stuff goes, didn’t even think twice about staying on the field after seeing cross-eyed after hitting somebody, and just kept on playing and banging heads. So I think that’s a big part of it, too, just being young and feeling invincible and not really being aware of all the long-term effects.
I’ve participated in different health studies and things, and I’m already showing some effects of head trauma. I’ve been diagnosed with hypopituitarism, which can be directly related to head trauma. Guys in car accidents, or boxers, have the same issues. The pituitary gland regulates a lot of the hormones in your body, and so now I have to take hormones and things just to feel good enough to go about my day. But the scariest thing is this whole CTE thing where it’s such an unknown and nobody knows if you have it until you’re dead. I think really, for guys that have played, not knowing if there’s a ticking time bomb in you, that’s the scariest thing.
I’ve got a son that’s a senior in high school, and he loves playing football and wants to play in college, and so I’m a little bit torn that way, too. I’m encouraging him to apply to colleges that aren’t necessarily interested in him in football but, you know, he’s obviously a young guy that thinks he’s invincible and not going to have issues down the road. But he’s already had a concussion. That was actually in basketball, not football. And so it’s a little bit scary, obviously, for me and my wife. We try to have frank conversations with him about it, but he’s set on playing football in college somewhere and so it’s really conflicting for the two of us as parents. He’s an offensive lineman, and so he’s one of those guys getting up there and taking hits every play.
I also think that even though he’s had a concussion that you can play the sport through high school—and he’s probably a Division III, or maybe a Division II type player—that you can play through your college years and come out pretty good on the other side as long as you don’t have a lot of head injuries in the meantime. And hopefully there’s enough awareness that guys aren’t trying to play through that stuff now. But I think the issues, maybe, for a player long-term are when you get to that next level, when every one of the guys that you’re playing against are 300 pounds, can run a 4.8 and are stronger than an ox, and that’s the guy that you have to keep away from the quarterback. I played five years, but guys that have played 10 or 14 years... I mean, I think that just all compounds. So maybe I’m being naïve. Maybe I’m justifying the fact that I played and my son wants to play and I think it’s going to be okay if he plays college. Maybe it is naïve to think that he’s going to come out on the other side okay.
Knowing what you know now, if you could do it over again, would you still play football?
Knowing what I know now, probably yes. But the issue there is what I still don’t know and that’s “What are going to be my long-term effects of getting beat in the head every play?” I guess that’s the big question every former player has, because you don’t know what five years or 10 years down the line are going to look like. I’m 47, I’ve got three kids and obviously want to participate as much as I can in their lives. And if that starts to go away then the answer to that question obviously would be no. Knowing what I know now, I guess I’d still play, because I can live with the shoulder and the back and the knees and things like that. I’d say that was a fair trade-off. But the whole head stuff, which is the unknown, is the trade-off that I probably wouldn’t be willing to make. And that’s the thing I don’t know about.
Rob Trucks was last seen on Deadspin interviewing former athletes about the end of their careers. His oral histories with 49-year-old Americans can be found at McSweeney's, and his latest book is on Fleetwood Mac's Tusk album.