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 Rich Strenger, who now practices law in Lake Orion, Michigan. He played his college ball at the University of Michigan before being drafted by Detroit in the second round in 1983, and between that year and 1987, he played 49 games for the Lions. Strenger is one of more than 4,500 former NFL players who filed suit against the NFL over concussions and other head injuries.
I’m kind of old school. I’m 53 years old, and I love the game of football. I think it’s a great game. And although I think the league and anybody that’s involved with football does need to look out for the safety of the player to a certain extent, the bottom line is it’s a physical, hard contact game, and we go into it knowing that there’s a possibility of getting injured. You know, when you run into people for a living, you’ve got to kind of figure that it’s probably not the best thing for your body. So yeah, it was a hard decision for me, and I guess sometimes you try to justify things. I kind of was thinking along the lines of, especially as a young player, you go in there and you know there’s the potential to get hurt and your career could be over just like that. But sometimes you think if you get out of the game relatively unscathed that you’re pretty much going to be okay, especially when it comes to the brain. And then when things creep up on you as you get older and you start having some cognitive issues and different problems with your memory and things that maybe a normal person your age wouldn’t have, I think that’s kind of where people have the issue with the NFL. And then especially, as the allegations say, if they knew something back then that they didn’t let us know about. So I am conflicted with the whole thing. I really am. Because I just hope that none of this affects the game to the extent where it’s not the great game that it is. I don’t want this to ruin the game.
I do have memory loss and things. The thing with me being an attorney, sometimes I compare myself with other attorneys. I think my biggest issue is I have to do a lot more prep than other attorneys at my level, just because I have some memory issues. I’ll be honest with you: I don’t know if that’s just a normal thing for a 53-year-old guy. I honestly don’t know if it was something that was caused because of football or if it’s hereditary or if it’s just me.
I know I’m probably in the minority, because I’ve seen a lot of complaints from former players about the settlement, that it’s not enough, doesn’t cover enough, things like that, but I’ll tell you, the one thing I do like about it, the way I understand it, is that even though we’re part of the lawsuit, it doesn’t automatically mean we’re going to get any kind of compensation. We still have to go through a type of process where if we want to see if we’re eligible for any of the money we have to be seen by an approved medical professional and they have to actually determine whether or not we have any deficiencies in our brain, for lack of a better term. And I’m okay with that. If I do make the decision to go that route and somebody examines me and says, “You’re good. You don’t have any problems. You don’t get anything,” I’m perfectly okay with that. And then the person who really does have some problems, they get a bigger piece of the pie, I guess.
It doesn’t keep me up at night. Do I think about it? Yeah. Honestly, I probably didn’t think about it as much before all of this became a lawsuit and was in the media more. Obviously I have enough going on where I was capable of getting through law school and passing the bar exam. And even though I’m having some types of memory issues and cognitive issues, things like that, I still think I’m able to function relatively well on a daily basis. I just don’t know if I’m functioning the same as another 53-year-old under the same conditions other than the fact that that other 53-year-old didn’t play football and I did.
I did have a teammate, a receiver by the name of Jeff Chadwick, that was knocked unconscious in a game back when we were playing back in the '80s. I mean, he was out for a few minutes, and people were worried about whether or not it was more serious than just being knocked out. And I remember at the time, there was a Lion back in the '60s, early '70s, a receiver, I think his last name was Hughes, that actually died on the field playing at old Tiger Stadium. And I remember that kind of going through my mind at the time, all the similarities, you know, being a receiver, being knocked out on the field and then one person not waking up and actually passing away. And here my teammate was in the same situation. But fortunately for him he was just knocked unconscious and he was able to come back and play. I don’t recall how long they kept him out, but I’m certain it was less than they keep guys out now for concussions, because I know he didn’t miss the entire season. I don’t even remember him missing a whole lot of games. Obviously when you hear about the suicides of Junior Seau and some of those guys, it makes you think. None of those guys were my teammates, but you think about them and you worry about your family if things get so bad, your family having to take care of you, things like that. But there’s so much stuff you can worry about in life. You can worry your life away, you know. You’ve got to live it.
Sometimes in a game, when somebody does go down, for maybe a few series after the person is carted off the field I actually think the level of play, the tenacity, the energy kind of goes down for a couple series of play because people, it is in the back of their mind. But then, not because of concussions, but I think just the nature of the game, players have short memories. You have to have a short memory, because if you dwell on it you’re not going to play at the level you need to to continue making the roster every year.
I think some of the things they’re doing now, you know, keeping these guys out for an extended period of time, I think that’s good. I just hope they don’t go too far, where they make the game not even interesting. I mean, it is a contact game, and people like to watch big hits and things like that. And I think already sometimes they’re protecting the players a little bit too much and it’s kind of taking away from the game, and I think if they go any further it may—and I probably sound a little bit like a hypocrite because I joined the lawsuit—but, boy, I just don’t want it to go so far that it ruins the game.
I think the main gist of the lawsuit is maybe the NFL knew some stuff that they weren’t letting players know about the long term effects of concussions, and now everybody knows so you’re going in with an open mind. And I do kind of see the point of the people that say, "Come on. These guys knew when they were going in there, and they’re paid to run into each other for a living, that it was going to affect their bodies, so what are they doing complaining about it?" I do see that side of it. So I don’t know. It’s a tough call and I am conflicted about it.
Knowing what you know now, if you could do it over again, would you still play football?
Yes. I think athletics in general, but primarily football, for me, it teaches a young person so many good life lessons: how to win, how to lose, how to be a teammate, how to deal with adversity. I think the fact that I was able to play in the NFL and for the University of Michigan in college helped me a lot in the world afterwards. Whether it’s good or bad, people are impressed that you played college football or in the NFL, and I think it helps a lot in the business world. I think there’s just as many people that are unimpressed, which I’m okay with too, but it’s helped. It’s given me a lot of advantages in life. It’s taught me a lot of lessons in life. So yes, I would do it all over again.
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.