With Chris Borland's retirement from the San Francisco 49ers at age 24, the question of whether an NFL career is worth the potential price is coming up yet again. This makes it a good time to turn to the people with the most informed opinions on the subject: former NFL players.
In 2013, Deadspin contributor Rob Trucks called around to retired NFLers involved in a lawsuit against the league over concussions and related issues to ask them about their careers, their lives, and whether, if they had it all to do over again, they would still play football. The answers were as varied and interesting as the players themselves. Some enjoyed long careers and some short ones. Some of them were very successful after their playing days, some less so. Some suffered because of what they did in the game, and some didn't at all. All of them, though, had complex feelings and nuanced opinions on a sport they'd dedicated much of their lives to, and all of them are worth listening to as the debate over the NFL's future develops.
I got knocked out three or four times on the field. I don't remember. You know, they didn't diagnose concussions then. As soon as they woke you up and you knew you were in a football game, they put you back out there. There was no diagnosis of anything then.
There was one play in San Francisco. My own teammate got me. I got a knee to the back of the head. I couldn't even get up, and they put it on NFL Follies. I'm getting up and I'm falling down. They didn't take you out then. They expected you to play.
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 ...
I probably would have chosen a different sport. I was talented in several sports. I probably could've been a hell of a baseball player so yeah, I probably would have, actually, chosen something else. And I'll tell you now: I have an 11-year-old son and I'm definitely choosing a different life for him. He will not play football.
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'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 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.
I hope that they don't regulate it so much that it's not football anymore. Football is a collision sport. That's what people come out to see. It's kind of like people that go to car races. You hate to think about it, but they're there to see the wrecks, to see the accidents. And in football they want to see the hard hits. They want to see the people getting hit and tossed up in the air and down. That's what they pay their money for, and they pay a lot of money for it. You know, these owners are making a lot of money having players on the field risking their livelihood.
I remember playing in Chicago, down on the goal line. It was cold and I had to shoot an A-gap, which is right between the center and the guard. And you had to stay real low. Essentially you're down on all fours. You're just shooting the gap. And I remember the outside guard pulled, and when he pulled he actually dinged my head with his knee. It was pretty hard. I remember standing on the sideline and the thought that came to my head: "The kid that sat next to me in first grade's name was Paul Brown." I had never remembered that, ever. Never. And all of a sudden it came to me. I'm like, "Yeah, that hit didn't do me any good."
In a way that was kind of a manly thing. I hate to refer to it as a manly thing. You know, "I'm going to bust your ass." And I'm on defense, so if I'm going to tackle you I'm going to brace myself and I'm going to stick you. And that was the way we did it. Coaches promoted it. Players promoted it. When I was playing for the Saints, I was the captain of the special teams and they allowed me to grade the films. On Tuesday we watched the films of the game, and they allowed me then to award the money for the biggest hits. And so on Mondays I'd go in there and sit down and watch the film and pick out the big hits. We called it rathole money. It probably wasn't more than 20 bucks, but I passed out that 20 bucks and guys thought pretty well of themselves: "I knocked the hell out of that guy. Got myself 20 bucks, and I'm going to go out here and buy myself two or three six-packs and I ain't going to tell my wife nothing."
I feel pretty fortunate when I look around at 59 and see the damage that a lot of my peers are going through and have gone through over the last 10, 15, 20 years. Am I concerned? Hell yes. You know, your decision-making process is sketchy is best. My memory is not good. I do feel depressed more often than I should. So yeah, I'm really concerned. I did have an MRI where they came back and basically said they didn't see any problems with the MRI, but I guarantee you I have CTE. Unfortunately we're not going to know it until I'm dead.
The reason why you should play football, or play any sport, is because of what you learn from the sport. Less than one percent of these kids are going to go on and play college, much less professional football. So why are you letting your kid play? Why do you want them to play? Well, the reasons should be: it's fun, they play with the kids that they go to school with, and they're going to enjoy the experience. But it's the life lessons you learn, because there's something about the physicality of a sport. And I'm not necessarily talking about the major collisions, but it's a man on man thing, if you will, and somebody wins and somebody loses. And when you lose you have to learn why you lost. You have to learn to brush yourself off, to get back in the game. It's a huge thing for boys to do, because these days parents are not going to let their kids fail at anything. And they're going to fail at football. You're going to fail at any sport, but especially football. Every single game there's 11 positions and somebody wins and somebody loses on every one of those possessions. I think it's a great teaching tool. You help facilitate maturity. You teach about life through sports.
I don't think we have the answer yet. I don't think the quarterback can be an untouchable. The rules to protect them against just out and out violent hits is probably good, but there's got to be a happy medium. I guess the way I feel is it's a physical, sometimes violent game, and that's the way we were taught to play it. And you can't take all of that out of the game. If you do you might as well play touch football, and that's not what the fans pay to see and that's not what the players get paid to do. So I'm not sure what to say there, but I don't think they have the answer yet.
I know more and more guys that are just lost. But guys are scared to try to get evaluated because they can't afford it. It's that cut and dry. They can't afford it. As a player representative when I was with the union, I fought for lifetime medical, I fought for some measure to help the guys after the game. It's only a small percentage that makes that really, really big money, but the general public doesn't understand that. They think all professional players make big, big money, and it's not the truth. But the thing is, when the five years is up on a former player, and the medical insurance is gone and you're on your own, there are things – I know this firsthand, personally – that will be excluded if you try to go to a private insurance carrier and get covered. The joint surgeries and everything else? They won't cover them. So what is a guy to do? What is a guy to do about his brain when he takes his medical records and he's asked, "How many concussions did you sustain? Three or more? Two or more?" What's the cutoff? When will a private carrier say, "Well, we can't insure that"?
We came into a sport that was very physical, and very physically demanding on us, but at the same time I think if somebody knew something that could have potentially life-threatening ramifications, I believe there's a fiduciary responsibility to educate those individuals so that they can make an educated decision on their future. And we feel that that wasn't done.
Rob Trucks interviews people. He was last seen on this site asking questions of wrestling legend Adrian Street. Before that, he spoke with Olympic gold medalist and former ABA MVP Spencer Haywood, and residents of Alabama about late Big Star singer Alex Chilton's time in Tuscaloosa. Several of his oral histories with 49-year-old Americans can be found at McSweeney's, and you can follow him on Twitter, @eyeglassesofky.