The Afternoon After: Head injuries starting to loom large

My weekly thoughts on football. As always, my disclaimer – I really don’t know a whole lot about the sport itself.

Rest in peace

I ran a few miles yesterday on my town’s track, which circles the football field, and the local high school team was practicing during my workout. We coexisted just fine, though I did draw some quizzical stares for the fact I was running barefoot. Frankly, I don’t blame them.

At one point, a high school friend of mine who’s an assistant coach for the team sent one of the kids to the trainer, with the exasperated explanation, “Joey says his head hurts.”

I stopped and asked what happened to the kid, and my friend – let’s call him Mike – said they were doing “a simple tackling drill,” and the kid came up saying his head was hurting.

Mike then shook his head and explained that kids today aren’t as tough as they were when he was playing, about a decade ago, and that video games are the culprit. Kids simply aren’t outside, he lamented, getting in scrapes and toughening themselves up. You know, suck it up, rub some dirt on it and all that.

To a degree, I could see his point. Though we had Super Nintendo growing up, my friends and I were constantly outside playing basketball and football. I spend a lot of time running around here, and I simply don’t see kids outside just playing anymore, unless it’s an organized sport. I do see plenty of kids outside texting one another.

But Mike needs to adjust his stance, and he needs to do it fast. Head injuries are turning into a major, major issue in the NFL, and I’m sure that’s going to trickle down all the way to the high school level.

Basically, people are realizing that concussions are by definition injuries to your brain. As terrible as it is to tear an ACL or an Achilles’ tendon, those can be fixed surgically and rehabbed over time. You don’t have that luxury with your brain.

And it’s becoming apparent that head injuries can resurface much later in life as serious neurological disorders. The Real Sports episode that says your chance of getting Lou Gehrig’s disease goes way up after you have a concussion was sobering, to say the least.

The concussion issue has turned into a real dark cloud for football. Denver’s Kenny McKinley is the latest player to die way before his time, as he took his own life this week. Despite no reports of head injuries, internet message boards and such still began speculating that maybe a long-forgotten concussion or something had something to do with it. For all we know, it has nothing to do with what happened to McKinley. But it’s still something to consider.

McKinley had apparently been depressed over a knee injury suffered a month ago. But his situation didn’t seem that dire. He was still making about $400,000 this year, had a chance to get his body right and try again next year, and saddest of all, he had a 1-year-old son.

It sort of reminded me of the untimely death of Chris Henry, who was actually found to have a sort of brain injury that clouded his judgment. Like McKinley, Henry had never been reported to have a concussion during his playing career.

The same sort of brain injury was found in pro wrestler Chris Benoit, and these early football deaths are starting to be reminiscent of what happens in wrestling, where every few months, someone dies very early and steroids, painkillers or concussions are – correctly – blamed.

Football’s head injuries are most often compared to those in boxing, and anyone who knows that sport knows you don’t even have to have a concussion to have damage done. The spectacular flash knockouts draw attention, but it’s more an accumulation of many smaller blows over time that does its damage. Muhammad Ali didn’t become what he is in one particular moment. It’s more over time, a steady accumulation of hits.

How many times do football players crash into each other in a game, or even in a practice?

So like I said, my friend Mike needs to adjust his attitude. Head injuries are quite real, and the old guard is going to have to recognize that for the sole reason that everyone else is.

*****

  • Anyone who watched Reggie Bush’s marvelous career at USC had to simply shake his head at seeing yet another horrible injury on Monday night. His broken leg is actually probably the best-case scenario, as it initially looked to be another knee injury that probably would have ended his season, instead of a six-week or so injury. But not a whole lot has gone right for Bush since it looked like he would take the NFL by storm, with speed, talent and movie star good looks. Since then, he’s been injured repeatedly, dated but broke up with Kim Kardashian, and had his Heisman Trophy taken away because he took hundreds of thousands of dollars in free gifts at USC. In between, he did, well, win a Super Bowl. I’m not trying to drum up sympathy for Bush, who should have known better. I’m just lamenting that someone who I thought would be a joy to watch in the NFL has simply not panned out. Remember when everyone was up in arms over the Texans deciding to take Mario Williams with the No. 1 pick over Bush? Well, right about now they have an absolute terror on their defensive line, while it’s looking like Bush will simply never hold it together long enough to be a star in the NFL.

  • As I discussed last week, I’m a multiple-league Michael Vick fantasy owner, and as such, I was ecstatic to hear that Andy Reid backed off his stance of starting Kevin Kolb against the Jaguars this week. Personal interest aside, I think it’s a great move. After watching Vick play at an extremely high level the past two weeks, it would have been difficult to force-feed Kolb to the Eagles locker room clearly because of his enormous contract. Even before he was injured, Kolb looked awful against the Packers. If Reid had played him and they got killed, and then missed the playoffs by one game, his future is decimated. Meanwhile, Vick is going to make maddening mistakes, but he looked a lot like he did with the Falcons a few years back, when it seemed like he could take over games by himself. He still has a rocket arm, he’s still fast and he’s got a lot more weapons around him than he did in Atlanta. In the interest of full disclosure, I thought he’d come back as a lessened and potentially useless player after his jail stint, but it seems like he just needed a year to get the feel of the game back before his athletic gifts took over. Do I think he’s going to be an unequivocal success the rest of the way? There’s no way to know, but I think Reid owed it to his team – and to Vick, who was brilliant in his audition the past two weeks – to find out. Judge his character however you want – and I do – but Vick is supremely talented. I’m not saying you have to love him, but respect that it’s the right move for a team hoping to make the playoffs and make some noise, and who just turned to a guy who once beat Favre at Lambeau in a playoff game.

  • An update on North Jersey’s own Brian Cushing, who I have some history with: He’s working out like a demon. Is he still on steroids? Probably! But the Texans are allowing a million yards passing per game, so they probably can’t wait to have him back. Watch the video, it’s outstanding. This gym is in Wyckoff, by the way, not too far from here. I’m considering going there to train, just for the hell of it. Look what it did for Cushing!

*****

Here’s my personal Top 10 this week:

1. Saints (2-0) (LW: 1) – Big game vs. Atlanta, no reason to think they won’t win.

2. Packers (2-0) (LW: 2) – Clay Matthews (six sacks) may have been training with Cushing.

3. Colts (1-1) (LW: 6) – Blew out the Giants. No Sanders, but they should be used to that.

4. Texans (2-0) (LW: 4) – Take the over on matchup with desperate Cowboys.

5. Steelers (2-0) (LW: 8 ) – Held CJ2K to 34 yards. He did have a long one called back.

6. Ravens (1-1) (LW: 5) – Still a believer in Flacco despite horrible four-pick game.

7. Jets (1-1) (LW: 9) – Dominated a good Pats team largely without Revis.

8. Dolphins (2-0) (LW: NR) – Not sold on offense yet, and that’s from a Dolphins fan.

9. Falcons (1-1) (LW: NR) – May not beat the Saints this week, but I love their offense.

10. Patriots (1-1) (LW: 7) – They’re going to be solid, but defense/running game are suspect.

*****

Here are 3 picks for Week 3. Last week: 2-1. (Hit on Packers, Chiefs; missed on Patriots)

1. Bengals (-3) at Panthers – Expecting growing pains for Clausen against tough defense.

2. Eagles (-3) at Jaguars – Clear hearts, Mike Vick, can’t lose.

3. Cowboys (+3) at Texans – Cowboys dying for a win against team that can’t stop pass.

Esoteric

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