Once asked by a reporter to comment on the perceived “softness” of NFL players in the 21st Century, future Hall of Fame Linebacker Junior Seau responded sarcastically, “When I first started playing football, a headache was called a headache. Now, it’s called a ‘concussion.’” In May 2012, Seau took his own life with a gun.
After his death, Seau’s girlfriend reported that’d he’d been dealing with memory issues, confusion, extreme fits of anger, and intense depression. All textbook symptoms of a condition that’s become more prevalent among former football players than divorce and bankruptcy combined. It’s been found in 96% of former players who’ve consented to be studied. It threatens to destroy America’s most powerful sport, and take the lives of countless current and former NFL players. And, apparently, Wes Welker isn’t concerned.
Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) was a condition few in the NFL knew existed just ten years ago. It had been documented in boxers, who were described as being “punch drunk.” But, prior to 2008, there had never been a formally diagnosed case of CTE in a National Football League player.
This can be blamed partially on the ignorance of NFL leadership during the league’s first several decades, and partially on the “tough guy” image that comes with being a football player. However, it can primarily be blamed on the most morbid factor associated with CTE: it can only be diagnosed during an autopsy.
According to Boston University, the world’s leading researcher on the subject, “CTE is a progressive degenerative disease of the brain found in people with a history of repetitive brain trauma.” It’s found most commonly in athletes with a history of concussions. Super Bowl champion Jim McMahon, widely accepted as a living CTE patient, describes his day to day life as a nearly constant struggle, “There are a lot of times when I walk into a room and forget why I’m there. My head is constantly pounding. I’m pretty much always in pain.”
McMahon’s struggles are far from unique. Former Brown’s quarterback Bernie Kosar has gone as far as to submit to experimental therapy to deal with his symptoms. Most disturbingly, in a December 2012 fit of anger and depression, Kansas City Chief’s linebacker Jovan Belcher murdered his girlfriend before driving to the team’s facility and killing himself in front of GM Scott Pioli and Head Coach Romeo Crennel. Belcher would be diagnosed with CTE during an autopsy days later.
The vast majority of CTE victims can’t be blamed for their illness. Those who’ve been diagnosed post-mortem played in an era where the risks associated with repetitive brain trauma simply weren’t fully understood. Had they been, it’s a fair assumption that many of the sport’s greatest players may never have stepped onto a gridiron.
However, those who play in the NFL in 2015 have no excuse. Mostly due to a series of lawsuits against the league, the NFL has gone to extreme lengths to educate players and coaches at all levels of competitive football about the inherent risks associated with playing such a violent sport.
They’ve launched programs like “Heads Up Football” to train coaches on proper tackling and blocking techniques to reduce chronic injuries in youth players. They’ve instituted new and rigorous rules at the professional level to help emphasize player safety. Today’s NFL player will never be able to say, “I didn’t know the risks.”
That’s why so many were surprised to hear the report from CBS4 Denver’s Vic Lombardi last week that Bronco wide receiver Wes Welker plans to play football for “two more seasons.” Welker is nearly 34 years old. He’s notoriously concussion prone. A former New England Patriots teammate of Welker’s put his concussion total during his time in New England at “dozens.”
As a Bronco, that number has only increased. Welker suffered three concussions in just ten games between the 2013 and 2014 seasons. In an interview with ESPN at the end of last season, Welker revealed he’s already dealing with symptoms of CTE. “I forget things sometimes…small things. But, it’s noticeable,” he said.
Throughout his career, Welker’s been the consummate competitor. He’s had to be. Whether it’s coming from Texas Tech as undrafted free agent, or being tossed aside by the Miami Dolphins and San Diego Chargers, Welker’s had to fight and claw for everything he’s earned in the NFL.
That competitive spirit has made him into the greatest slot receiver in the history of the game, and arguably a future Hall of Famer. No one can question his heart. But, one must question his decision making
Welker’s choice to try and play again in 2015, after the worst statistical season he’s had since 2007, isn’t the decision a smart competitor makes. A smart competitor knows when his health has become more important than his touchdown total. A smart competitor knows when it’s time to put his family first. Putting it bluntly, a smart competitor knows when to quit.
Anyone who watched the Broncos play in 2014 knows the pure terror that comes with watching Wes Welker catch a pass these days. It’s the same routine each time. Peyton Manning drops back and throws across the middle. Welker reaches up, and reels in yet another textbook Manning wobbler. Suddenly, a safety or linebacker closes in on the diminutive Welker like a predator who’s finally found sustenance.
They’re on a collision course that leaves fans wondering: could this be it? Could this be the moment Wes Welker’s competitive pride costs him his quality of life. Or, worse, are we about to witness the first on-field fatality the NFL’s had since 1971? Then, at the last possible second, Welker shrivels to the ground with the tenacity of a man who knows he’s beat.
No fan should have to fear for the lives of the players they admire. More importantly, no family member of a professional athlete deserves to lose a loved one because of that athlete’s competitive pride.
Wes Welker will be the first player at high risk for CTE to know exactly what the he’s getting into. He’s one of the first players to experience repetitive brain trauma to know what it can do his long-term health. But, Welker’s faced with a decision that’d be difficult for any of us. Should he risk long-term quality of life for short term glory?
Athletes like Welker have never trained themselves to be anything other than athletes. So, who can really blame them when they hang on just a tad too long? For as long as there have been sports, there have competitors who didn’t know when to stop. Whether it’s a 38-year old Muhammad Ali fighting Larry Holmes, Babe Ruth as a Boston Brave, or Joe Montana as a Kansas City Chief, there are countless examples of athletes who’ve played past their prime. It’s different for Welker.
With perhaps the exception of Ali, who was already showing symptoms of Parkinson’s disease when he agreed to fight Holmes in 1980, no other prominent athlete with high risk of long-term brain injury has knowingly put their health in danger to keep competing. By deciding to play in 2015, that’s exactly what Welker’s doing.
One can only speculate what’s going on inside of Welker’s head. His competitive fire is admirable. But, if he honestly intends to play again, it means he’s crossed the surprisingly thin line between being a competitive machine near the end of his career, and being simply delusional.
Welker’s contract expires next month, and the Broncos almost certainly won’t re-sign him. But, another team will. Another team will knowingly conspire with Wes Welker to put his health at serious risk. Another team will help feed Welker’s delusions.
That a franchise would be so desperate to offer a contract to a 34-year old unproductive receiver at serious risk for traumatic brain injury is far more shameful than Welker’s own personal desire to continue competing. In fact, it could be construed as downright sinister.
CTE is a condition that affects 96% of former NFL players who’ve been tested for it. It takes away quality of life, and can result in dementia, depression, anxiety, and even death. Wes Welker is at higher risk to develop CTE than almost any other player in the National Football League. He probably has it already. Yet, despite the serious risk it places on his health, Welker intends to play again in 2015. That’s not just a bad decision. It’s downright stupid.
The only person 33-year old Wes Welker should consult about whether to continue playing football is 63-year old Wes Welker. If he really does suit up again next year, it can only be interpreted as a hasty decision based on short term goals and personal pride. And, as we’ve all been told, the pride cometh before the fall.
The video below helps to give us insight into the psychology behind the decision making surrounding injury in the NFL.