SThis 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 linebacker Eric Unverzagt. The now 40-year-old Long Island native, who played his college ball at Wisconsin, was a fourth round draft pick by Seattle in 1996, and played all nine of his NFL games for the Seahawks over the next two seasons. Unverzagt now lives on Long Island, where he is a special ed and math teacher as well as a youth soccer coach. He and his wife are the parents of two boys who do not play football. Unverzagt is one of the more than 4,500 former players who filed suit against the NFL over head injuries.
The lawyer said, "The NFL's only looking at guys that played five years or more." And I said, "Well, that's pretty ridiculous considering the average career's probably under three years."
People work their whole life to reach the NFL. I started playing football when I was seven years old and I probably stopped around the time I was 25, 26. But you're playing through college. You're playing through varsity football in high school. You're talking about a lot of time being built up for a short career of two or three years.
Most of the guys who play in the NFL, they're all studs in their high school. And by the time they reach, you know, their redshirt sophomore/junior year in college, they're the man. They're out there constantly. And they're drafted for a reason. They're drafted because they have no regard for their body and they're the one administering hits constantly, over and over again. The kids who are not the well-developed athletes, they're not seeing the field obviously. You're in the NFL for a reason. It's because you know how to hit.
I kind of figured I was just a number, because my playing career wasn't as lengthy as some others, but I wanted to be part of a group that was supporting or prompting the awareness of "Hey, there are issues with guys, even if you play one or two years, and we need to make more people aware that things need to be done as far as player safety." The number that they claim that you're going to get, I didn't even think about that. To me, that's not the reason why I did it.
I think Kevin Mawae said it best when he was speaking about the amount of money that the NFL makes and the amount of money that the lawsuit is representing. I mean, it's not a lot of money. It's almost like, like Kevin Mawae said, kind of a little bit of hush money.
Just from listening to things I would say that they're trying to make this problem go away. Because you see a change in the game over the past couple of years, that they're definitely doing things to try and show that they are making people aware of player safety. But to be quite honest with you, things get settled quickly for a reason.
I definitely see, and my wife sees, a huge difference in my behavior over the past five years. I'm definitely more anxious. I've never been an anxious guy. I'm definitely more depressed, definitely more worried about stuff. One of my major symptoms is definitely I'm very anxious and I'm very forgetful. And I know I'm only 40 years old, but I shouldn't have such bad short-term memory loss.
My wife had to point it out to me. I didn't even realize it. She even said, "You do have symptoms. You do have neurological symptoms."
I guess it's a—what's the word I'm looking for?—it's almost like you come to face-to-face with your issue, that "Hey, you know what? I am different." And I think knowing that my neurological or my mental behavior is different, and my wife helping me a little bit over the past couple months, it's definitely made me aware of it, after I had a little breakdown about it, and now I'm able to work with it a little more. Obviously with age things change, but it's funny, you know. And my wife pointed it out. I actually had a breakdown and told her I was sorry and that I loved her. You know, "You've got to let me know. You've got to help me get through all this." And I only played one year in the NFL.
I had a conversation with my father a few months ago when this was all happening and he was like, "I know you were upset when you got cut." He goes, "But I was happy, because I didn't want you to wind up having some physical disabilities as you got older." And I never realized that until I was 38, 39 years old. Until you turn 40—that's probably the cutoff now—and you say, "Hey, I'm not young and invincible anymore." You know, the position I played and the fact that I was very physical does have effects on your body long-term. And you feel it more as you get older.
I want this to move forward for player safety. I don't want it to be about a dollar amount. I want it to be about awareness and testing and better facilities, and things along that nature. If there is some type of settlement, to put the money into a concussion program, which I know they're already taking steps to do. Honestly, compensation helps. You know, financial—I can't think of the word; sorry, I've been hit in the head a lot [laughs]—financial relief helps you with anxiety about other problems you might have going on. So if someone gives you a check for $10,000 it's, "Oh, I can pay off this debt or this debt or this debt." So obviously if it helps a little...
Knowing what you know now, if you had it to do over again, would you play football?
I would say, "Yes, I would." I would probably be a little bit more, hopefully, just aware of when there was something going... You know, the term "your bell rung." Maybe you needed to sit out more. Or maybe the way the hitting took place would be different. You know, my kids don't want to play football right now, and I'm not pushing them. And people are like, "Are you okay with that?" And I'm like, "I am so okay with that [laughs]." Though I probably would play, just being aware of the damage it would do to my body. I mean, obviously we all should've known, but it seems like there was like a blind eye to it at the time it was happening.
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.