Illustration: Jim Cooke (G/O Media)

Antonio Brown is the most prolific wide receiver in football over the last eight seasons (or so), even while being a smaller and less imposing physical specimen than nearly every “No. 1” receiver in the NFL. How does he do it?

His dominance starts with his feet. Antonio Brown has the best feet in the NFL. His route running is masterful. His ability to change directions is unmatched. Coaches used to always tell us to take the time to win on the line of scrimmage, but for most NFL receivers, the internal clock moves too fast to spend a lot of time there. The voice within is screaming GO! Get into your route!, so you rarely see a receiver really work the line of scrimmage to get his cornerback off-balance or out of position. But Antonio Brown makes a school of it. He will wait until the ball is snapped, pull out a map, unroll it, point to exactly where he wants you to think he’s going, roll it up, put it back in his pocket, then run to another spot just as the ball arrives in his hands.

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But Brown is not just a small guy with good feet. Because he is so successful, so “controversial,” and so paid, he has a target on his back. A big one. He draws double-teams from defenses then gets smothered on Twitter. Specific coverages neutralize him while Stephen A. Smith excoriates him. All of that weight, plus an ill-timed trip to the cryotherapy chamber, has resulted in his feet being compromised, which I’m sure has him already feeling a certain way.

And now they want his helmet.

The American Football Helmet is a complex piece of equipment; it is both a shield and a sword, and it fits your head like a gantlet. When you slide it on, you know you are at work. You know that it’s just you out there, enclosed in a bubble. The manner in which you view your head—once precious, to be protected, vulnerable to cracking—changes. It can withstand punishment. It is a fortress. It is a weapon.

Light changes in that bubble. Awareness changes. Sound changes. It is quiet in there. But then gets very loud when you hit someone. You are like a crustacean deep below the surface of a violent ocean, and the sharks are always circling.

You become something else in that bubble. For the best in the world, altering that perception en combat is a huge risk.

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But many have attacked Brown for this stance, as if switching helmets were as easy as switching brands of coffee—although I’m not sure any of you would give up your Starbucks, even if your boss demanded it.

Photo: AP

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If Antonio had the time or inclination to sit down and write things down for us, I imagine it would be a mash-up of the following points: the new helmet doesn’t fit right; it gives him a headache; the chinstrap feels weird; he can’t see his periphery (which makes him more vulnerable to big hits and less likely to track the ball in the air); the league’s “health and safety” initiative is bogus and just an attempt to limit liability; there’s no such thing as a “safe helmet”; NOCSAE is a political organization; “helmet technology” is a PR stunt; and we’re all going to die anyway. All of these things are absolutely true.

Fact is, there’s a WARNING sticker on each and every helmet, including the new and improved NOCSAE-certified models. It reads: “No helmet can prevent serious head or neck injury a player might receive playing football.” No helmet.

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The “helmet technology” boom followed the discovery of CTE and the ensuing concussion panic. Next came structural “innovations” prototyped by myriad start-up companies claiming to be on the cusp of a “concussion-proof helmet.” Meanwhile, Crack! We’re all still smacking heads and that WARNING sticker has yet to be removed. Like they say, no helmet can solve the rapid-deceleration-of-the-brain problem that occurs on every football hit. Any football hit can catch you wrong and it doesn’t matter what NOCSAE says—you’re toast.

In this light, Antonio’s affinity for his helmet is understandable. He is a finely tuned instrument. Throw off one key and the whole thing gets retuned. Who knows if it ever sounds the same again?

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Most athletes are superstitious when it comes to equipment—you dance with who brung you. I was a Riddell man when I played. That was the basic model, and the one we all used. Your head adapts to it and you forget about it. It becomes an extension of your superego. When the Schutt came along, it was touted as lighter and more advanced, and no one was interested. It was only the guys with concussion problems that were implored to make the switch, and if I remember correctly, it did nothing to prevent a recurrence.

Each new helmet design foisted upon players has a new shape and a new feel. It doesn’t just change the shape on the outside; it changes the shape within. It changes the placement and feel of the pads that are touching the head. It changes the pressure points on your noggin. It changes the neurological response to a very specific tightness on your head. And because of the different shape, it changes your field of vision, the frame through which you see the field and everyone on it. This all forces you to think when you have no time to think—when thinking will get you hurt.

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And when you do have time to think, perhaps because your feet are hamburger meat and you’re not practicing, you may very well be thinking Jesus—why can’t I just wear my helmet?


Nate Jackson played six years in the NFL and has written two books, Slow Getting Up and Fantasy Man. He co-founded Athletes for CARE, a non-profit that advocates for the health and wellness of athletes. He lives in L.A.