It’d be pretty hard for anybody to blame John Urschel. Or Rob Ninkovich. Or even Ben Roethlisberger.
Over the past week, Urschel and Ninkovich retired, while Roethlisberger publicly discussed walking away from the NFL after this season and referenced a recent CTE study.
Truth is, in light of that CTE study released indicating that the brain disease was found in 110 of the 111 brains of former NFL players that were examined, it’s hard to blame any professional football player who ponders whether or not to continue playing the game. How could you not at least think about it?
That’s not to say that the study released by Dr. Ann McKee, the director of Boston University’s Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center, is verifiable proof that over 99 percent of NFL players will eventually get CTE. Even McKee herself admits that she has not examined a “random” sample of former player brains. Rather, all the brains she has received have been donated by the families of deceased former players who had exhibited some troubling symptoms.
As a result, there are still so many questions that need to be asked and things we don’t know. What about the players who didn’t exhibit any brain maladies later in life? And what about the fact that McKee lumps every brain into the same CTE category in this study even though there are four very different stages of the disease?
There are many more questions that need to be answered than just those, and, fortunately, a lot of neurologists are hard at work trying to get those answers.
Even so, that’s not the point. The fact is that it would be hard for anyone to argue that there isn’t some link between the repetitive hits to the head that football players absorb and CTE. That alone should be enough to give any NFL player pause.
I know it would for me.
It’s something I think about often for multiple reasons. For one, I played football for 18 years, seven of which were in the NFL. That’s a long time and a lot of hits to the head.
Am I destined to get CTE? If so, when? What symptoms might I exhibit and what will be the impact of those on my family?
It’s not something I dwell on, but I do forward any stories I read, like the one on former Dolphins great Nick Buoniconti or the latest CTE study, to my wife because I want her to be prepared for the possibility. Or perhaps I should say eventuality?
Then I think about what I would do today if I were still playing. Frankly, knowing what I know now, it’s hard to imagine walking out to that field during training camp and putting my helmet on so that I could knock heads with other huge athletes for 2 1/2 hours each day.
That’s not to say I definitely would retire. I just wonder how difficult it would be to go out there knowing with every helmet-to-helmet collision. I could be taking a step toward greatly impacting my mental faculties later in life. Even if I did play, would I be able to do it with the same ferocity and reckless abandon for my body, including my head, that I typically did?
Sometimes I wish that we had known what we know now when I was playing so that I could have made a conscious decision whether to continue my career while having my eyes wide open regarding the possible cognitive implications down the line.
Often, I’m very glad I didn’t.
Not that ignorance is bliss, but I can only imagine the mental anguish that would’ve come along with having to decide whether to keep my dream of being a pro football player alive. Maybe I would’ve played one year just to have my dream come true and prove to myself that I could do it before moving on to my next vocation? I really don’t know.
The thing is, your dreams and your perspective on those dreams change over time. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Ninkovich has two daughters or that Urschel has a child on the way. Roethlisberger mentioned his family a number of times in his interviews recently when discussing potential retirement.
A lot of times when a player is contemplating retirement, there’s a lot of chatter regarding their “love of the game.” Well, I don’t know many, if any, guys that I felt loved the sport of football more than I have since I attended my first game at age 5, but now that I am almost 10 years removed from my playing career with a family of my own, I realize it pales in comparison to the love I have for my wife and daughters.
That being the case, you must ask yourself if it’s really worth it. Is playing another year, or however many years, worth potential negative impacts on your relationships with your family and perhaps even unborn grandchildren someday?
If I had already achieved lifetime financial security like a lot of star veteran players in the NFL, it’s awfully hard to imagine continuing to bang with the big boys at that point. For what, exactly? More money? A chance to win a championship?
I’m confident that the 110 players who were diagnosed with CTE and their families would gladly give back championship rings and some of the money they earned if doing so could eliminate the symptoms that kidnapped the last years of their life.
I know I would.
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