Former BYU and New York Jets fullback Dustin Johnson was one of the guys I thought of upon hearing about the legal battle on concussions culminating in that master complaint filed against the NFL by retired players in federal court on Thursday. The complaint consolidated more than 80 cases, involving more than 2,000 former players, accusing the NFL of a deliberate attempt to deny and cover up links between concussions suffered on the field and permanent brain injuries.
It’s a legal move that potentially could cost the NFL a whole lot of money, and, beyond that, alter the public’s view of a game and professional product that heretofore has been wildly popular. A growing number of former pros, like Kurt Warner, have come out and said they wouldn’t want their children to play football because of the threat of head trauma. Would you?
Others, such as Marshall Faulk, say football is football, deal with it. The Hall of Fame running back told a St. Louis columnist the other day: "It’s pretty simple for me. Player safety is, ‘Go play golf. Go play basketball, where they call fouls for slapping you on the hand.’ … But it’s football. I hope guys get to play longer and there aren’t as many injuries as there were in the past. But I’m sorry. It is a contact sport. And I will feel cheated to a certain extent [if too many changes are made] because I want to watch the contact sport I grew up loving and watching. But I know that’s no longer possible."
Almost all football fans are caught somewhere in that mix. They love the game. They love the physicality of the game. But they don’t want players stumbling off, permanently damaged, into whatever remains of their lives after their playing days are over.
Certainly, the players don’t want that.
Their complaint said: "Despite its knowledge and controlling role in governing player conduct on and off the field, the NFL turned a blind eye to the risk and failed to warn and/or impose safety regulations governing this well-recognized health and safety problem."
The NFL’s reaction: "Any allegation that the NFL sought to mislead players has no merit. It stands in contrast to the league’s many actions to better protect players and advance the science and medical understanding of the management and treatment of concussions."
The players’ suit also accuses the NFL of lying about and falsifying the results of studies it conducted on concussions and trauma to the brain, starting back in 1994.
That was three years before Johnson was drafted out of BYU in the sixth round by the Jets. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound running back already had undergone six surgeries for various injuries in college. He had another while in New York. Before the 1999 season, Johnson was signed by Seattle.
Playing special teams in a subsequent preseason game, he took a knee to the nose and was knocked unconscious. In another, he was cold-cocked a second time. Johnson told me in an interview after he was forced to retire that he was knocked out in three straight games, that doctors ran their tests, but never revealed the results.
In the regular-season opener that year against Detroit, Johnson played on, despite the fact that his head, as he said it, "felt like it was going to explode." He had told doctors about the pain and they performed CT scans, but allowed him to keep playing. Near the end of that opening game, covering on a kickoff, Johnson absorbed another brutal hit to the head, and was knocked unconscious, again.
When he walked in on a film session the next day at the Seahawks headquarters, teammates were repeatedly reviewing film of the vicious hit, letting out ooohs and aaahs, and yelling, "Rewind! Rewind!"
Johnson watched for a second, then vomited. He was immediately taken to a Seattle hospital, where more tests were performed. An MRI showed that Johnson had a cyst on his brain and that it had ruptured. His brain was hemorrhaging.
"It was like a balloon being filled with too much water," he said. "Sooner or later, it was going to pop."
Surgeons drilled six holes in his skull to relieve the pressure by draining out excess fluid. He was hospitalized for three weeks. Later, he underwent other surgeries to help relieve the swelling.
At the time I interviewed Johnson, he was receiving disability payments from the NFL, but struggling to hold down a job because of short-term memory loss. He suffered through bouts of forgetfulness, once slamming the back of his car into the front end of another car parked in his driveway, just minutes after he had admired the second car as he walked by. He once brushed his teeth with hand soap, put a box of cereal in the refrigerator, entirely forgot books he just read and movies he just saw, and struggled to follow directions.
"I get overwhelmed," he said. "My mind gets flustered. I get confused. I also get migraines where I can’t eat or sleep. Eighty percent of the time, I’m OK. But the other 20 percent, the pain in my head really zaps me."
That was nine years ago.
Now there are a couple of thousand other former players who — to varying degrees — have suffered a range of symptoms, from dementia to Alzheimer’s to depression to Lou Gehrig’s disease. The suicides of several players, brought on, relatives claim, in part by football-related brain trauma, have drawn a hotter spotlight.
The NFL, which has changed some rules to make the game safer and medical procedures in the cases of concussions, will need to appropriately deal with the problem — and solve it, if possible — moving forward.
Good luck with that.Next Page >
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