I got my only concussion as a pro in my first NFL start.
In the eighth week of the 2011 season, I was a rookie with a chance to step into the starting lineup at cornerback for a home game against the Bengals. For the first time, the defensive backfield consisted of Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor, Brandon Browner and myself. I had played that season on special teams and in nickel, but didn’t have an interception and only had three tackles. This was my opportunity to justify five years of hard work at Stanford, and to prove that I was so much more than a fifth-round pick.
On the game’s seventh play, I trailed my receiver down the left sideline and looked back to see Andy Dalton toss it underneath to Chris Pressley, their 260-pound fullback. As he turned up the sideline I came down hard, squared up, and dove at his legs. His right knee connected with my temple, flipping him over my head. I got up quickly and shook my head back and forth to let them know nobody is running me over. The problem was that I couldn’t see. The concussion blurred my vision and I played the next two quarters half-blind, but there was no way I was coming off the field with so much at stake. It paid off: Just as my head was clearing, Andy Dalton lobbed one up to rookie A.J. Green and I came down with my first career interception. The Legion of Boom was born.
That was the second and last time I’ve had a concussion, mainly because I don’t make a habit of leading with my head. As a cornerback, I’m better served diving at the legs of ball-carriers bigger than me, and squaring up those who are my size. My older brother didn’t have the same mentality. He played head-first, and would sometimes knock himself out making a hit. There are plenty of guys like that in our league, including my teammate Kam Chancellor, Titans safety Bernard Pollard and Redskins safety Brandon Meriweather, who said this week he believes it’s his job to instill fear in the opponent. That mentality and those players are not the problem.
The NFL is the problem.
A NASCAR driver understands that anything can happen during a race; his car could flip at 200 miles per hour. A boxer knows when he goes in the ring what’s happening to his body. Just like them, we understand this is a dangerous game with consequences not just in the short term, but for the rest of our lives. All of us NFL players, from wide receivers to defensive backs, chose this profession. Concussions are going to happen to cornerbacks who go low and lead with their shoulders, wide receivers who duck into contact, safeties who tackle high and linemen who run into somebody on every single play. Sometimes players get knocked out and their concussions make news, but more often it’s a scenario like mine, where the player walks away from a hit and plays woozy or blind. Sometimes I can tell when a guy is concussed during a game—he can’t remember things or he keeps asking the same questions over and over—but I’m not going to take his health into my hands and tell anybody, because playing with injuries is a risk that guys are willing to take. The players before us took that risk too, but they still sued the league because they felt like they were lied to about the long-term risks. Today, we’re fully educating guys on the risks and we’re still playing. We have not hidden from the facts.
That’s why a lot of guys get frustrated with these fines and penalties, especially for the defenseless receiver rule. Nobody who chooses to play this sport should be described as defenseless. There’s nothing we can do about it, unless you want us to just wait until these guys catch the ball and then let them come down and we tackle them. That’s not going to happen. Now you have receivers going up to catch passes and players are hitting them with shoulder pads and guys like Chancellor and Meriweather are still getting fined. Those used to be highlight hits. Now that there’s so much public ire, the NFL is trying to punish guys and say, Hey look, we care. It’s not hurting anybody but the players by making the game more dangerous. Defensive players are used to playing fast, but now they’re being forced to play with indecision, and indecision gets you hurt in this game.
That said, there are definitely safety measures that I understand and support. Quarterbacks obviously have to be protected from vulnerable situations and late hits—they’re always a premium—but there are some penalties being called on legal plays where the quarterback is barely being touched and the penalties are affecting ball games, all because the NFL thinks preventing the highlight reel knockout is going to fix an image that doesn’t even need fixing. People are always going to play football, and if higher income families choose to pull their kids out of the sport, it will only broaden the talent pool, giving underprivileged kids more opportunities to make college rosters. Most of the top guys in this league come from underprivileged situations anyway.
And that’s not to say most of us chose football for money. I played at 5 years old because it was fun. You meet all of your friends, you learn about teamwork, camaraderie, discipline, following directions, how to time manage and how to rely on other people. Do I think about the consequences 30 years down the line? No more than I think about the food I’m enjoying today, which could be revealed in 30 years to cause cancer or a heart murmur or something else unpredictable. Those are the things you cant plan for, and the kind of optimism I have right now is the only way to live. And the next time I get hit in the head and I can’t see straight, if I can, I’ll get back up and pretend like nothing happened. Maybe I’ll even get another pick in the process.
If you don’t like it, stop watching.