Stigmatized by Concussions, My NFL Career Has Inspired Renewed Dreams

Austin CollieContributor IMay 16, 2016

Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Austin Collie, center, lies on the field after being injured as teammate Reggie Wayne, left, and a trainer look on in the first half of an NFL football game against the Philadelphia Eagles, Sunday, Nov. 7, 2010 in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Miles Kennedy)
Miles Kennedy/Associated Press

After suffering a series of brutal concussions between 2010 and 2012, former Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Austin Collie became a poster child for the league's head trauma crisis. Now, he has walked away from football in order to take a job as a care coordinator and director of business development for a concussion clinic in Utah.

The following is a first-person story from Collie documenting his experience with concussions, his education in the field of traumatic brain injuries and his quest to help fellow former and current athletes better deal with the recovery process, as told to Bleacher Report's Brad Gagnon.

I don't remember being knocked out in Philadelphia in 2010, but I later realized I had been unconscious for several minutes. Someone told me it was the longest they'd ever seen a player out cold. I remember coming to on the stretcher and being confused, as though I was in a dream. I called my wife from the locker room and remember telling her I was fine and that everything was OK. I thought I was making sense, but when I got home, she told me she didn't even know what I was saying. I was speaking gibberish.

Unfortunately, that was just the beginning of my nightmare sophomore season in the NFL. For obvious reasons, fans seem to remember that concussion in Philadelphia the most, but after passing concussion protocol and returning two weeks later, I suffered a setback when I slammed my head on the turf in New England. And I was knocked out yet again a month after that in a game against Jacksonville, ending my season and forever altering the course of my NFL career.

My concussions were visually devastating—they didn't look good. Combine that with the public's perception of concussions, and it was no surprise that no matter where I went after that stretch, I was constantly being reminded of my head injuries, whether it was people asking me how my head was or asking what I'd do about it. I had people texting me, tweeting me, emailing me about my head.

I returned in 2011, playing in all 16 games, but after I suffered another concussion in the 2012 preseason, a lot of people pushed for me to retire. All I ever heard from the public and the media was, "Collie will have dementia by the time he's 40," and, "He should be taking his family into mind."

Headlines feature Austin Collie in 2012

Part of me was very grateful that everyone was concerned for my health. But at the same time, the other part of me was extremely annoyed. Because ultimately, the decision was my family's and mine to make, and it's hard to let football go.

At that time, I was reaching my dreams. I had gone to the Super Bowl in 2009, and now I was proving that I could hang with some of the best from a statistical standpoint. I was looking at what could have possibly been a Pro Bowl season. And what people don't get is when you've pictured those accomplishments in your mind since you were eight years old, lying in bed, and it's finally happening, and everything's happening the way you'd imagined it, it's extremely hard to say, "Oh, I've got a head injury, and there's no definitive evidence it'll affect me, but I should stop playing."

The reality of reaching the NFL is that while it's important to have things—family or church, for example—that are higher on the priority list, football becomes who you are. When you've been at it for so long, it becomes your life. So I was never going to give all that up because of public pressure, especially considering I had doctors and neuropsychologists telling me I was fine.

See, while I was dealing with that unfortunate spate of concussions, I took a very proactive approach. Knowing that a standard MRI only showed structural damage, I wanted tangible evidence that everything was OK with my brain from a functional standpoint.

That's why I was checked out by Dr. Alina Fong—a neuropsychologist with a background in neuroradiology—and Dr. Mark Allen—an expert in cognitive neuroscience—at the CognitiveFX concussion clinic here in Provo, Utah, and they told me I could rehab and get back to having a healthy brain again, a brain that would function within normal limits and allow me to return to the football field, if I chose to.

That's all I really needed to hear, and from there on out, I really didn't listen to what the public had to say. I was very grateful that a lot of fans and people cared about my well-being, but the lack of basis also made it frustrating.

In fact, it was something that affected me for the remainder of my career, right up until my retirement.

Austin Collie: Injury Timeline
InjuryDateTime missed
AnkleSept. 2007 at BYU1 game
RibsOct. 2007 at BYULeft game
HandNov. 2010 in Indy1 game
ConcussionNov. 2010 in Indy4 games
ConcussionDec. 2010 in Indy3 games
KneeAug. 2011 in Indy1 preseason
FootAug. 2011 in Indy2 preseason
ConcussionAug. 2012 in Indy2 games
KneeSept. 2012 in Indy14 games
Rotoworld/various sources

I made that retirement official earlier this year by informing my 2015 team, the BC Lions of the Canadian Football League, that I was moving on to the next chapter in my life. It wasn't easy, but it was time.

I don't think a day will go by that I won't wish I'm playing football. It's the game I grew up playing, and I'm always going to want to be out there competing. I realized at a young age that I was good at this game, and I really enjoyed improving. Part of the fun was challenging myself in order to see how good I could get, and I'm going to miss that part of it.

I'll miss game days, I'll miss preparing for game days, and I'll miss that feeling you get the night before a game. Those butterflies are hard to replicate in everyday life.

And other than starting a family and serving my church mission, nothing has been more gratifying and rewarding as my four years as a member of the Colts. It was the time of my life and everything I pictured as a little kid.

So why retire now at the age of 30? The truth is that from the time I ruptured my patellar tendon against the Jaguars in September 2012, my pro football career had been in a downward spiral as I fought an uphill battle trying to prove teams and doubters wrong.

Michael Conroy/Associated Press

I was slotted to be the No. 2 receiver behind Reggie Wayne that year, and I felt Andrew Luck and I were on the same page entering the season. I thought I was going to have an awesome contract year and put all this concussion stuff behind me. So while that knee injury didn't necessarily launch me into that downward spiral, it was the cherry on top for teams that began to conclude—understandably so—that I simply couldn't stay healthy.

As time passed, I had to continue to fight an uphill battle in order to prove I could still play without suffering another head injury, which just took all the fun out of the game.

After a one-year stint with the Patriots and a year away from the game, I gave the CFL a shot in 2015. A lot of people probably figured I went to BC to get another chance, to take another shot at redemption. But that's not at all what it was.

I went up there because I wanted to see if I had it in me to compete, to see if that desire was still there. And I slowly started to realize it wasn't. I was having to try to talk myself into getting excited for games and practices. While it was good to go up there and get some closure on my career, I no longer had that desire to play.

The silver lining, however, is that I've found something that has reignited that same passion. The next chapter has already begun.

Photo courtesy of Austin Collie

In case football didn't pan out for me, my backup plan was always to go into medicine. I have a natural interest in that field, and when I dealt with those concussions, I wanted to know more about head injuries just to verify what people were saying. My interest grew from there, and I continued to research the brain and the ways it can heal and rehabilitate. That's why it feels natural for me to transition from the field to the clinic at CognitiveFX, where I can relate to patients who are experiencing the same types of things I was.

Each day at the clinic, I get to work with patientsnot just athletes, but a lot of regular folks who are recovering from accidents or falls—on a variety of therapeutic exercises aimed at boosting their cognitive performance, and it can get pretty cool.

For example, I'm able to take them through their paces on a large board with flashing lights, which forces them to use different parts of their brain simultaneously. That particular exercise allows you to work on hand-eye coordination while also working on cognitive features, which brings some fun, spirited competition into play. We keep records of how patients fare, enabling them to set personal goals while competing with fellow patients, staff and themselves. People love it, and it's right up my alley as an athlete.

And when I'm not working on the technical or promotional side of the business, I really enjoy spending time with patients in the waiting room, picking their brains and responding to any questions they might have.

The reality is there are more answers than a lot of people might think.

Right now, the common mindset regarding concussions is, "Just go out and rest, and when you become asymptomatic and have passed standard concussion protocol, you're ready to play again." That's what's been preached, and that was my approach following that infamous concussion in Philly before I learned there was more I could do.

Michael Conroy/Associated Press

Again, when I returned after my concussions, the predominant stance from the media was that all I cared about was football and that I didn't think about my health or my family. But the reality behind the scenes was that I was seeing all of the doctors I could possibly see, and they were all telling me, "Everything looks good, and I don't see any problem with you playing." So I wasn't going to buy into media speculation and hype. Instead, I was going to listen to these neurologists who have degrees from prestigious universities.

All I needed to hear was what Dr. Fong and Dr. Allen explained to me. I could finally make sense of it all, and I could see I had the ability to rehabilitate from my concussions.

Unfortunately, I think some of these guys who are retiring early due to concussion concerns aren't getting that comprehensive information. They're told that if you get a concussion, you just have to rest and wait for those symptoms to go away, and we don't know what will happen.

There is a way to rehabilitate your brain after a mild traumatic brain injury (mTBI) to get it back to a normal functioning state. It's not like Mortal Kombat, where your health bar can never go back up after getting hit. You can get that thing back up. We're finally able to show people the cognitive problems they have and address those weaknesses. We provide the means, through the technology, to diagnose and rehabilitate injuries that could not be successfully treated by standard methods and practices. We're finally able to show people the cognitive problems they have and address those weaknesses.)

That's what Dr. Fong and Dr. Allen are putting into practice with a functional NeuroCognitive Image (fNCI). An analogy illustrates that standard MRIs can show the structure or frame of the car, but fNCIs allow us to open up the hood and see how the engine is working. Going along with this analogy, this car may be able to putter from point A to point B, but without doing diagnostics on the engine, transmission, etc., we can’t really tell what’s wrong. 

For anybody who has suffered a traumatic or mild traumatic brain injury, we are able to interpret a functional MRI—which measures brain activity by detecting blood flow patterns—to generate a physical report regarding brain function, and we can use that report in order to target specific areas of the brain that are not working properly or efficiently.

Athletes want to find and identify weaknesses and would rather know more about our weaknesses than our strengths so that we can home in on those weaknesses and turn them into strengths. That's how athletes work, and that's why this made sense. Here, we identify weaknesses or complications in the brain and then attack those weaknesses and make them stronger.

Mike Groll/Associated Press

I'm seeing it in action, and I'm excited to be a part of it. There's nothing better than seeing people come through here and improve, having a newfound hope for what the future might hold. To be able to witness that and play a small part is pretty rewarding.

Will thoughts of what could have been occasionally cross my mind? Of course, but I tend to believe that things happen for a reason, and I know I got to do a lot of things that not a lot of people get to do. I went to a Super Bowl, and I was surrounded by legends. I remember my first time in a huddle with Peyton Manning and the rest of that Colts offense, looking around at all of the players in that huddle, and my mind was blown.

To be able to say that I was in that huddle makes it worth it to me. Now, it's time for me to realize new dreams and possibly help others do the same.