Brian Westbrook Should Have Retired Before Joining San Francisco 49ers

Bryan Toporek@@btoporekFeatured ColumnistAugust 19, 2010

PHILADELPHIA - DECEMBER 27:  Brian Westbrook #36 of the Philadelphia Eagles runs the ball against the Denver Broncos on December 27, 2009 at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Eagles defeated the Broncos 30-27.  (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Two concussions in four weeks.

Need I say more?

For all the recent focus on head injuries in the NFL, Brian Westbrook should be at the forefront of this discussion.  Front and center.

On Monday the San Francisco 49ers signed Westbrook to a one-year deal after their former backup running back Glen Coffee suddenly announced his retirement. 

Niners' head coach Mike Singletary made it explicitly clear to Westbrook that Frank Gore would remain the No. 1 back in San Fran, but Westbrook would have opportunities to make it on the field and contribute.

With that said, if you suffer two concussions in four weeks, and your profession is predicated upon being mauled by guys who weigh upwards of 300 pounds, isn't it time to hang those cleats up for good?

One of the better sports articles you'll read this year comes from Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point and Outliers, who wrote nearly 8,000 words about head injuries in the NFL for The New Yorker last October.

Gladwell wrote:

Much of the attention in the football world, in the past few years, has been on concussions—on diagnosing, managing, and preventing them—and on figuring out how many concussions a player can have before he should call it quits. But a football player’s real issue isn’t simply with repetitive concussive trauma. It is, as the concussion specialist Robert Cantu argues, with repetitive subconcussive trauma. It’s not just the handful of big hits that matter. It’s lots of little hits, too.

The NFL, to its credit, has been taking concussions and head injuries more seriously than ever before.  As teams returned for training camp this summer, they were greeted in their locker rooms with new concussion posters that emphasized the importance of reporting head trauma to their coaches.

When news broke in late June that the recently deceased wide receiver Chris Henry suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE)—"a form of degenerative brain damage caused by multiple hits to the head"—the implications for the NFL became even clearer.

If the 27-year-old Henry, who played one of the least contact-heavy positions in the league, already was suffering from degenerative brain damage, what must be going on in the brains of defensive linemen?  As ESPN's Tim Keown asked, what shape must Ray Lewis' brain be in?

Now, if subconcussive trauma can exacerbate already existing brain damage, wouldn't you think a guy who suffered two concussions in four weeks might be in a higher risk group?

I'm not necessarily saying that Westbrook's guaranteed to get KO'ed two or three more times this season.  In fact, there's a very real possibility that Westbrook makes it through the full season without suffering another concussion.

That's the most dangerous possibility of all.

The concussions brought Westbrook face-to-face with his football mortality…or, at least they should have.  But clearly it wasn't enough to detract him from returning to the game.

What happens if he makes it through this next season without suffering another concussion?  He won't have any sense of the long-term damage he's doing internally.

Just one glance at his comments about joining the Niners speaks volumes about Westbrook's mindset:

"I am fully healthy. In my mind, last year was a tough season for me," he said. "I spent the whole offseason rehabbing, I didn't have time to prepare for the season so I kind of went into the season blind without any preparation at all. So it was a tough year. I was playing catch up the entire season and obviously wasn't able to do that. This year, I've been able to spend my whole offseason preparing for a football season. Now that my body is completely healthy, I'm ready to go out there and perform."

Westbrook's body may be healthy, but two concussions in four weeks suggests that there's already some long-term damage done in his brain.  Will four months of practices and 16 more NFL games help?

Again, I'm not doubting Westbrook's ability to get his body through another full NFL season.  I'm questioning the wisdom in putting his brain in that high-risk situation.  Does he really want to risk becoming a shell of himself to play for a team that'll scrape to be .500 the whole year?

"My No. 1 concern throughout the process was going to a winning team, a football team that was coached by a man I respect and a team that had a winning tradition and players that would be able to achieve that," Westbrook said on Monday night. "I think I found all of those things here in San Francisco. It was a long process but in the end I think it turned out well for me."

No offense to you, Brian, but your No. 1 concern right now should not be football.

It should be your mental health.

And football isn't going to help your brain's longevity.

Here's the only question that Westbrook needs to ask himself: Is it worth risking his long-term future—his ability to grow old, watch his kids grow up, and most importantly, to remember it all—to prove that he's not washed up as a football player?

My money's on "no."  If only his was too.


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