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 defensive end Chidi Ahanotu. Ahanotu played at Cal before being drafted by Tampa Bay in the sixth round of the 1993 NFL draft. He played on the defensive line in 174 league games: five with the Dolphins; 16 each with the Bills, 49ers and Rams; and 121 with the Buccaneers. Ahanotu, one of the more than 4,500 retired players to bring suit against the NFL over head injuries, now lives in the Tampa area, where he is a full-time father of three.
When I made the decision [to join the lawsuit] I had what I thought to be enough information on the merits of the case and understanding that if there is something wrong with my brain, and with any of our brains, that there really wasn't anything in place to provide us care down the line. I have three kids and hope to have grandkids and be healthy throughout my life, especially where my brain is concerned. You know, everything else can fall apart, but the last thing you hope you can hold onto is your brain.
For those guys who are getting dementia we have the 88 Plan, which I understand is another one of our benefits that are there but are hard to qualify for. Which, in essence, makes our benefits package a joke, because they wave these things in our faces and then we can't qualify for them and they don't pay out.
I do have issues currently, but overwhelmingly I felt jilted, lied to by the NFL as far as the safety of the equipment I was wearing and the effects that blows to the head can have, and I felt that there was compensation in order for that as well. They can't even tell us if our brains are damaged. And that's a scary thought. I think a lot of us have noticed changes in our brain functioning. It's apparent that we're not as clear as we used to be, and it's scary to think, "Well, how far gone am I?" And no one can tell me. I've done the tests. I've participated in certain things, and no one can tell us because there's no medical way to do it while you're alive. You know, I was talking to a former teammate yesterday at the Bucs game, and he's like, "No, I didn't sign up because there's nothing wrong with me." And I'm like, "How do you know that? You don't know that. Your brain cells could be halfway gone. You could have CTE. You have no idea." And he just didn't grasp that concept for some reason.
I'm scared for my own health, and I think all of us players should be if they care about their lives. Dave Duerson was a friend of mine. Dave Duerson was a cigar-smoking buddy of mine, you know. "Until the sun came up" type of friend. And Junior Seau was a teammate of mine, and so I know both of these guys very well. So for me, and I keep telling everybody this, if you want to look up "man" in the dictionary, those two guys would be front and center on that definition. And if those two guys were affected by this thing to the point of taking their lives ...
Like I say, I was friends with Duerson. I was around him. No more than a week before he did that everything seemed fine. I mean, he's a commander-of-men type guy. I looked up to the man. I'm a commander-of-men sort myself, and I looked up to him. Like, "Man, I want to be like him one day," you know. And for him to do that, and for Junior to do that ... I've been around Junior since college. I played at Berkeley. He played at USC. We played against each other. I know who this guy is. And for these guys to do that, because of the CTE, which we all know they have it, it's very scary. It seems like you could just flip a switch and just ... I don't know. I mean, don't know. It's like a big question mark. But what I do know is that if those two guys did that I think all guys should be afraid. I think every one of us should be afraid.
None of us are looking for the public sympathy on this. That's not our deal. We're all aware, and we've always been aware, since we were NFL players, allegedly multi-million-dollar players [laughs], we're all acutely aware that there's nobody shedding a tear for any of us NFL players. I mean, we live a pretty good life. We made it to the top, where everybody wishes they could be. And whether it was money or whether it's the fact that we got to be out there on Sundays and play in the NFL, you know, no one's shedding a tear for us. But I don't believe any of us are looking for sympathy. It's just what's right is right.
Nobody cares. Nobody cares. They just want their football. Even if we were dying out there, they'd keep watching. If people were dying instantaneously out on the field, they'd watch, because ultimately this is a gladiator sport and this is their entertainment. They just want their football, man, and I'm pretty comfortable about that.
I'm not blaming people. I'm not blaming people for that. It's entertainment to them. They think, "Hey, everybody knows what they got into out there. They chose to do it." It's not something that keeps them up at night, if something happens to any of us. It just doesn't. But I don't blame them for that, at all. That's fine. They don't have to. We need to watch out for ourselves, and that's what we're trying to do.
Knowing what you know now, if you had it to do over again, would you still play football?
Back when I was in high school, like when I first started playing, I was a soccer guy. I played soccer my whole life. And if they had said, "You know, you can get this CTE and you might just flip a switch and want to kill yourself later down the line," I wouldn't have played [laughs]. Probably, honestly, I would not have ever played. I mean, I was an athletic guy. The basketball team wanted me to play for them in high school. I probably would've just said, "Well, I'm going to play basketball." I would've done that. I mean, football wasn't like the only sport I wanted to play. If they said, "Hey, you can get brain damage and want to kill yourself later on in life" and all this kind of stuff, I'd bow out. I'd say, "Excuse me. I think I'll play basketball." Or, "I'll keep playing soccer. I'll play another sport." But yeah, I wouldn't have played.
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.