With all the talk about concussions in the NFL, I decided to offer a bit of personal insight into how it feels to have a concussion while playing football, as well as the choices one makes in the wake of a clouded mind. In most cases, the priorities of a professional football player are not likely to begin with the preservation of long-term health.
Perhaps this detailed look into the experience of a concussion will shed some light on how this controversial injury is perceived and processed through the lens of professional athletes fighting for their jobs.
I was never really sure if I had a concussion during the first 10 years of my football career, going all the way back to high school. During that time, I wondered whether or not all those occasions where I got my “bell rung” were actually considered concussions or just a normal result of heads clashing together at high speeds.
Perhaps it’s fortuitous that the first time I ever experienced clear signs of a concussion was during the last game of my NFL career. To describe in greater detail what that moment was like for me, allow me to set up the scenario and provide a little background to the moment that influenced my decision-making.
It was the fourth game of a preseason matchup that few people, outside of the loyal fanbase, cared about. For me, and for hundreds of others playing that day, this game was a fight for our livelihoods. Preseason games are the time when lifelong dreams are made or crushed. It can be the start or the finish of a man’s professional playing days.
Some may think a preseason game is a meaningless waste of time with lackluster competition, but it all depends on how you look at it and who’s taking the look. One thing is for sure: Each man on that field in the second half of this game between the Baltimore Ravens and the Atlanta Falcons was playing like there was no tomorrow.
For me, this game took on a personal meaning. Earlier that year, throughout the offseason, I was actually a member of the Atlanta Falcons. I had elected to sign a two-year deal to rush the quarterback rather than continue the transition toward middle linebacker like the New York Jets had planned for me.
Unfortunately, just months after signing with the Falcons, I was released when the defense made a transition to a 4-3 defense under new head coach Bobby Petrino. Being too small for a traditional down lineman and too slow for a 4-3 linebacker, I was suddenly a man without a home and left completely despondent.
When Baltimore picked me up just after the start of training camp, I was very much aware of its opponent for the last preseason game on the schedule. For me, this game was more than just a chance to make a team; it was a chance to go back to Atlanta to play the team that screwed me over with misleading promises and lies.
The opening kickoff began like any other I’d ever been a part of. We were kicking off to Atlanta to start the game, with me lined up to the left of the kicker. Kickoffs are always a bit nerve-racking given the fact that the collision occurs with so much momentum behind it. For this reason, I began to relish the rush I felt before a kickoff.
While running down the field on this particular kickoff, I was trying to hit my top speed—nothing unusual here. However, when I tried to put a move on the guy assigned to block me, I somehow lost my footing and slipped just as I was approaching the blocker.
From this point, I’m not exactly sure what happened, and I never saw it on film, but I believe the side of my helmet went right into the blocker’s knee as he was driving it upward. The odd thing about the hit is that I’d been hit like this several times before and often much harder. I suppose when you catch a guy unaware directly on his sweet spot (the temple area for me), it doesn't take much force to literally rattle the brain inside the skull—which is essentially what a concussion is.
Suddenly, everything went blank for no more than a second. I could feel the blocker lying on me, trying to keep me from being a factor in the play. Like a chicken with his head cut off, I somehow managed to stumble to my feet with absolutely nothing going on upstairs. To be honest, I don’t remember how I found my way back to the sideline, but once I got there, I remember getting a bit nervous that the effects of the hit were not wearing off.
There had been several times throughout my career where a hard hit left me a bit dizzy for a moment or two, but those cobwebs would always diminish rapidly, and I’d presumably return to normal within a matter of seconds.
Unlike the hits I’ve experienced in the past, this one was a completely different experience.
From a visual standpoint, the entire game seemed to have a cloudy, glossy look to it. I tried walking up and down the sideline to see if I could clear my head. Even my cognitive ability was significantly compromised. Trying to develop a rational thought was nearly impossible.
This feeling was not like being drunk, but more like being woken from a deep sleep while trying to understand what the person who just woke you up is trying to say.
A deep, all-encompassing confusion was officially settling in. I desperately needed to get it together before somebody realized what was going on. Given the importance of this game, considering everything at stake, I simply couldn't bring myself to tell anyone I had just had a concussion, especially someone on the training staff.
Perhaps to my good fortune, I didn’t have to get back out on the field for the rest of the half while the starters and second-string players had their fun—each player essentially fighting to leave one last impression on the coaches and front office before the dreaded cutdown to the final 53-man roster.
Nearly 10 minutes following the hit, I still couldn’t focus properly. Pacing up and down the sideline may not have been clearing my head, but at least it was keeping people from talking to me. My balance didn't seem to be an issue, but my vision was still clouded by a foggy haze.
It would take almost 30 minutes before I could return to some semblance of normality.
Halftime was edging near just around the time I was getting my wits about me. Once the fog lifted, I can’t say there were any residual effects for me to contend with. By the time we came out of the tunnel after halftime, I was feeling more or less normal. In fact, I ended up leading the game with two sacks on the day—which happened to be the only two sacks by the Ravens defense all game.
Trying to salvage a dying NFL career can certainly be a powerful motivator—especially when you mix in a few teaspoons of revenge. Realistically, there was no way I was going to sit that game out unless I had no other choice.
Despite playing well and making some big plays, I was eventually released.
It seems pertinent to add that I have never officially been diagnosed with a concussion at any level of football.
If you were to ask me if I’d change my choice to conceal the concussion knowing everything I know now, I would say absolutely not. Having the opportunity to actually play in my last NFL game and dominate against a team that doubted me will forever remain an invaluable experience in my life—one that I would never trade away because of a potential health risk down the road.
I can also say with some confidence, based on conversations with numerous players throughout the years (a few of whom I interviewed personally), most ex-NFL players would do it all over again and have few to no regrets about playing such a violent sport.
Former first-round pick Fabian Washington said, "For me I always thought, hey this is football, and you’re going to take some big hits. I played on the defensive side of the ball, played with Ray Lewis and was on the bad end of friendly fire at least a few times."
Marc Lillibridge, former NFL linebacker and a contributor for Bleacher Report, shared his thoughts as well.
"I know I’ve had three or four of them (concussions), but I don’t know how many more after that because you play through them, you see stars for a little bit and maybe what’s deemed a concussion now isn’t what was deemed a concussion in those days," Lillibridge said.
I broke my neck playing football, and that’s what ended my career. I still have neck pain issues, I still have back pain issues, but yeah, I’d do it all over again.
You’re playing against the best of the best. You have a better chance getting struck down by lightning than playing a down in the NFL, so for me to get that opportunity, it was a lifelong dream and everything I ever wanted to do. As a matter of fact, I’m 41 years old, and if somebody told me I can run down on a couple more kickoffs, I’d sign up tomorrow. —Marc Lillibridge
Of the several players I spoke with leading up to this article, not a single one expressed regret for having played professional football. The opportunities it presented seemed to outweigh the potential long-term effects.
Perhaps these players would be singing a different tune if forced to suffer through the same plight as some of the more severe cases we've heard about.
Hall of Fame wide receiver James Lofton was the oldest and furthest removed from his playing days of all the people I interviewed—he's currently 57 years of age. When asked about his experience with concussions, he spoke briefly about a few casual moments of short-term memory loss but wasn't sure it differed much from his non-football friends of a similar age. He seemed to express fond memories of his playing days but was quick to point out he believes the league is moving in the right direction with the rule changes.
With the links of long-term brain damage through chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) growing ever more prominent and resolute, the NFL and its multibillion-dollar machine have come under fire across copious platforms as of late. Class-action lawsuits by former players, tragic suicides and countless stories of severely disabled ex-players who can no longer function have begun to cast an ever-growing dark cloud over the NFL’s carefully manicured image.
As the league apparently begins to answer the call of player negligence, it is making a conscious effort to prioritize player safety on numerous fronts. For example, the NFL is tightening up by not allowing players to return to games once concussion symptoms have been determined. In addition to this, rules are being altered to help protect players from egregiously violent contact—especially for those players who are deemed defenseless.
Much to the displeasure of players, violators of these rules are being fined at an unprecedented rate with the hope that in the long run it will deter players from making potentially dangerous hits while changing the mentality of players predominantly on the defensive side of the ball.
The push to make this game a safer one for all parties involved is completely understandable. However, the execution of this ideal, whether forced or unforced, is one that will continue to fuel controversy among both fans and players alike—but that is an issue for another day.
Ryan Riddle is a former NFL player and current Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.