Quarterbacks worry about health
Players happy to see safety measures, want care for vets
Rather than sign big contracts, Joe Theismann said, maybe NFL players should start their pro careers by signing something else.
“I think one of the things to consider,” Theismann said, “is if you decide that you want to play professional football, you should sign a letter of acknowledgment that says that you understand the risks and what could possibly happen.”
Theismann and other quarterbacks are learning about those risks in unsettling fashion.
Last week, it was revealed quarterbacks Kenny “The Snake” Stabler and Earl Morrall were found to have had chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). The brain disease stems from repeated blows to the head and appeared to erode the quality of life of Stabler, who died at 69 in July, and Morrall, who died at 79 in 2014.
On Thursday, Hall of Famer Joe Montana told USA TODAY Sports about the extensive physical problems he suffers from, including nerve damage in one of his eyes as a result of head trauma incurred during his career.
“It acts like a lazy eye to some degree, because every time you’re tired, it kind of goes wherever it feels like a little bit,” said Montana, who led the San Francisco 49ers to four Super Bowl titles. “Not dramatic but just enough where you can’t read or you have to refocus.”
With new examples of how quarterbacks are vulnerable to the long-term effects of head trauma and concussions, USA TODAY Sports assembled a virtual roundtable of quarterbacks to address the issue. Even for the panelists who suffer from memory loss, none forget what they endured on the football field.
THEISMANN, started his pro
career with the Toronto Argo- nauts of the Canadian Football League from 1971 to 1974, then played for the Washington Redskins from 1974 to 1985 and led the Redskins to the Super Bowl title in 1984: “Once I had a linebacker break his right arm on my helmet on the left side of my forehead. Cracked the helmet, knocked me out early in the first quarter. I went to the sidelines, I sort of gained consciousness with about a minute to go in the half, a little smell salts. Went in at halftime, came out and probably played one of the best halfs of my life.”
RANDALL CUNNINGHAM, a four-time Pro Bowler who played from 1985 to 2001 with the Philadelphia Eagles, Minnesota Vikings, Dallas Cowboys and Baltimore Ravens: “I’d get hit, and my head would hit the ground and I would have like double vision. So like for half an hour, it was like someone put their hand sideways in the middle of my face, where if I went to throw I would see two people. But I played with that. I would play with it for a half an hour. I don’t know what it was that (the medical staff ) gave me, but half an hour later, it would go away.”
ROMAN GABRIEL, a fourtime Pro Bowler who played for the Los Angeles Rams from 1962 to 1972 and the Eagles from 1973 to 1977: “We used to have a team doctor, and he was everything. If you got hit in the head, he’d ask you your name, who you were playing and what the day was. You used to memorize what the doctor would ask you so you could answer those three questions and get back in the game.”
JAKE PLUMMER, played for Arizona Cardinals from 1997 to 2002 and the Denver Broncos from 2003 to 2006: “I think more than just the hits, it’s just the lifestyle of football. Training and supplementing and forcing your body to recuperate real fast, and they’re real quick to get you some opioids to help you with the pain. I think a lot of that, too, can play a part in brain functioning.”
THEISMANN: “I have post-concussion syndrome. I’ve had (brain) scans done. I’ve noticed memory issues. At times I’ve noticed balance issues. I get up out of a chair sometimes, I take that first step, and I’ve got to catch myself on the leg of the chair or on the underneath of the table so that I don’t fall.”
CUNNINGHAM: “I don’t know if it’s old age, because I’m only 52. But sometimes I’ll try to think of somebody’s name, and it’s not on the tip of my tongue. It’s pretty weird. Because it’s like I pray for people everyday, and I’ll sit here and I’ll be talking to them and I just won’t know their name.”
PLUMMER: “My head hit the turf plenty of times. So who knows what damage was done. I won’t say my brain is hazy or foggy, but I have a tough time recalling names sometimes. Or at times I find myself going into a room and forget why I went in there.”
BROCK HUARD, played for the Seattle Seahawks from 1999 to 2001, the Indianapolis Colts from 2002 to 2003 and the Seahawks in 2004: “I was noticing even for me by the end of preseason games where a little lesser hit was starting to ding me even more and more. If I had been a starter with substantial games and reps and taking lots of dings, I probably would feel differently. But in my case, no, I don’t have any longterm concerns. Certainly do for some of my teammates and peers, but individually, no.”
JIM PLUNKETT, MVP in Super Bowl XV for the Oakland Raiders who also played for the New England Patriots and 49ers during a career that spanned 197186: “I think (CTE is) something we all have to be concerned about. You look at a guy like Kenny Stabler. This guy was a folk hero and a guy you thought could handle anything. It was just devastating to hear he had (CTE).” ON NFL’S CONCUSSION PROTOCOL
CUNNINGHAM: “I think that it’s important to take care of people who’ve gone through that. I have friends who struggled, like Andre Waters (who played with the Eagles and was found to have CTE after committing suicide in 2006) and (Junior) Seau (who was found to have CTE after committing suicide in 2012).
PLUMMER: “In the (Super Bowl), you’ll see, they’re not going to flag somebody for coming in with the crown of their helmet down on defense. This is the Super Bowl. The violence and the physicality of the game aren’t going away. Therefore, I don’t think brain trauma or concussions or this issue will ever go away.”
BOB GRIESE, Hall of Famer played for the Miami Dolphins from 1967 to 1980: “I wish they had these concussion protocols back in the day. ... They sit them out, whether you’re the top player or 43rd guy on the team. ... The helmets are better. Back in the day, when we wore helmets, they weren’t very good at all.”
HUARD, who said quarterbacks are not in the same danger as players playing linebacker or offensive and defensive line: “Not in today’s game. If you watch the ’85 Bears documentary, yes. They would be handcuffing those defensive players today. Just different game, different era.”
DREW BREES, MVP for Super Bowl XLIV who played for the San Diego Chargers from 2001 to 2005 and since 2006 has played for the New Orleans Saints: “I feel that we’ve come so far in the last three to five years when it comes to recognizing a brain/neck injury. ... That’s why you see a guy like Luke Kuechly missing three games this year, as opposed to the eras previous to us, where he was back in. We know too much now to put a player at risk like that. I think we’ll see the benefits of that years down the road.”
THE FUTURE OF FOOTBALL
THEISMANN: “Here’s the challenge for the National Football League. At what point do you try to eliminate hits and still maintain the integrity of professional football? That is the No. 1 challenge that faces our sport. Where is the line drawn where we’ve done as much as we can do for the game to maintain what it is?”
PLUMMER: “The NFL claims they want to help, but what can they do? You can’t take away the hitting of the game or else it goes bye-bye. A lot of guys that have been playing so long, they put the helmet on when they were 8 years old. It’s just ludicrous, letting kids put helmets on like that.”
HUARD, who praised the NFL for its efforts: “They’re are doing more than I ever imagined, quite honestly, than they would when I began playing the game. … The game has never been safer. ”
BREES: “It’s unfortunate that guys 20 years ago, 30 years ago, 40 years ago had to endure that for us to understand the consequences, so that’s why it’s our job to make sure these guys are taken care of. But it’s a learning process, and we need to continue to put the systems in place to help protect the players as best we can.”
Joe Theismann played 12 seasons, all with the Redskins.