‘Paid to Give Concussions’
The MMQB screened Will Smith’s upcoming drama Concussion with 70 former NFL players. For some, it was a panic-inducing horror flick
ATLANTA — Cramped in his seat, the man in the back row of the movie theater cut a hulking silhouette. His knees pressed against the row in front of him, and every time he dug into his bag of popcorn, his leather jacket brushed against the adjacent chairs. He was otherwise quiet, at least for the first 90 minutes.
Then panic set in.
First, he breathed heavily. Then he rubbed his thighs.
“I can’t do this,” he said, huffing. “I can’t do this.”
He gulped for air. The woman accompanying him rubbed his back, trying to soothe him. The movie, in its own way a horror flick, had just become very personal. “I can’t do this,” the man said as the screen showed tight-angle shots of former NFL star Dave Duerson climbing into bed with a revolver. “I know that guy!”
The hulking man was screening Concussion, the Will Smith drama based on the true story of head trauma in football. As soon as the final credits rolled, the man in the back of the theater—one of 70 former players who saw the film last week—bolted for the exit. His reaction was as chilling as any line delivered by Smith’s character, Dr. Bennet Omalu, the pathologist who discovered chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and became embroiled in a drawn-out battle with the NFL.
“I know we were paid to hurt people,” says Keith McCants, the fourth overall pick in the 1990 draft. “We were paid to give concussions. If we knew that we were killing people, I would have never put on the jersey.”
For two hours and three minutes, The MMQB watched Concussion with these former players at a viewing arranged by the NFL Players’ Association. (The movie opens nationwide on Christmas Day.) Ken Parker, treasurer of the NFLPA Atlanta chapter, told the group beforehand, “We don’t endorse the film; we just knew it would be of interest to former players. So here it is. But as you watch, remember, knowledge is power.”
Many of the former players have participated in lawsuits alleging that the NFL concealed the risks of concussions. Audible gasps swept through the theater anytime Omalu mentioned the ages of Mike Webster, Terry Long, Justin Strzelczyk, Andre Waters and Duerson, who all died before the age of 51. One former player booed Roger Goodell (played by Luke Wilson) the first time he appeared on screen. A few men buried their heads each time Omalu approached an autopsy table.
“It was difficult to watch, but a good difficult,” said Danny Buggs, a Giants and Redskins wideout from 1975 to ’79.
Keith McCants, the fourth overall pick in the 1990 draft, drove six hours from Tampa to see the movie. When he exited the theater, he retreated to a bench in the lobby. Tear-soaked, the 47-year-old former linebacker hovered over his cane. “This touched my soul,” he said. “It was outstanding, but I can’t process it all, not right now. I watch this movie and I know we were paid to hurt people. We were paid to give concussions. If we knew that we were killing people, I would have never put on the jersey.”
“When you watch that movie,” said Terry Bolar, who played three seasons before becoming an agent in 1992, “you see how much the NFL resembles tobacco companies.”
“During the time we were playing, there were a lot of things we didn’t know,” said Chris Goode, a Colts cornerback from 1987 to ’93. “Now a lot of the information is out there. So if you’re playing the game, you know things. The information is out there, with or without this movie. What the movie might do is open the public’s eyes to what is going on. The public has been lagging behind.”
Concussion is based on Jeanne Marie Laskas’s GQ article “Brain Game” from 2009, which painted a picture of the NFL actively undermining Omalu’s findings to protect its business interests. Many of the same issues were also covered in the Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru book League of Denial and subsequent PBS Frontline documentary. What Concussion does best is simplify the degenerative brain disease CTE for the masses. In one scene, Omalu explains how a woodpecker can violently use its head as a battering ram and not suffer injury: its tongue wraps from the back of it mouth, around the skull and through the nostril—a safety belt, if you will, that absorbs the shock and protects the brain. The human brain has no such safety belt.
“I’ve heard so many doctors discuss brain injuries, but that example was so clear to me,” said Greg Anderson, whose husband, Taz, was a tight end for the Cardinals and Falcons from 1961 to ’67. “Nature protects the woodpecker, but it doesn’t protect us. It’s like God didn’t intend for us to play football.”
Greg Anderson sat a few rows from the screen. (“My father always wanted a boy,” she said. “Hence the name, and why I love the sport so much.”) Her husband, now 77, has had 41 surgeries since college—one for each year of their marriage. His back went first, then his knees, elbows, and his heart. Yet his brain has proved to be the most troublesome. For the past 10 years, Taz has visited specialists while battling mild cognitive impairment. He forgets things. His speech has slowed. He’s often aloof.
His wife sobbed through the entire film. “Of course, we won’t know if he has CTE until he has an autopsy,” she said matter-of-factly. “Taz has had friends who had CTE and killed themselves. He may have Alzheimer’s, he may have more.”
Willie Gault, the Bears and Raiders wide receiver from 1983 to ’93, has seen the movie twice in L.A., once with writer/director Peter Landesman.
“Every single football player in this country—NFL, college, high school, youth—needs to see this movie,” Gault said. “If I had seen it while I was a player, I think I still would have played football, but I would have played it differently. I would have had a different mindset.”
Outside the theater in Atlanta, Taz Anderson and his wife shifted their conversation to football’s next generation.
“We’ve been around this game a long time,” Taz said. “I played when they didn’t even sod the infields. We were soldiers. We were tough guys.”
“Well, isn’t that the point of it?” his wife said of the movie. “You can play tough, but you can’t protect yourself?”
“I suppose,” Taz said.
“But here’s the thing,” she said, setting up a sudden twist. “We love this game so much. We built our life on this sport. The harder the hit, the more we like it. We have a grandson who plays. He’s 7. After seeing this movie, I should probably go call his parents and say he shouldn’t play anymore. But I can't do that. Isn’t that awful? I’d rather roll the dice.”